I was amused during the summer to read that some in the Vatican, and elsewhere in the Roman Catholic Church, even in our own church, think that the new pope is too ‘low church.’ There is his simpler liturgical style – no more lace and red shoes, – washing the feet of young offenders, including women and Muslims, rather than priests only on Maundy Thursday. Then there is his decision to give up the papal apartments for the Casa Santa Marta. The protocol of the papal court has had to give way to more immediate and relaxed ways of relating to people. He even speaks to journalists. He refuses to condemn gays and this is symptomatic of a less judgemental approach to the world. A pope who makes his own phone calls and drives an ancient Renault 4 is just not living as an absolute monarch should. In the blogosphere some websites, more papal than the pope, are going ballistic over all this. The Holy Father seems to be letting the side down. He’s not sticking to the rubrics. What has happened to the certainty and security the papacy is supposed to supply? Some even suggest he is a heretic and the See of Rome is vacant. ‘Is the Pope a
Catholic?’ ‘Clearly not!’
Such overheated nonsense has been around since Pope John called the 2nd Vatican Council. The internet simply allows it be disseminated more quickly. As we know in our own communion, speed often generates heat rather than light. It’s worth remembering that Pope John, who is about to be canonised, also used to wash the feet of prisoners on Maundy Thursday, and he smiled at people a lot too.
It is too early to tell what the long-term impact of Pope Francis will be. Will he be able to overcome the institutional inertia of Vatican bureaucracy and recover the springtime of the Council? We must hope and pray that he can. In his recent interview with Jesuit publications he was asked if he was an optimist. He said he was not because optimism is a psychological attitude. He is a man of hope, which is a theological virtue.
What does this all say to Catholic Anglicans? Well, I have a hunch that a ‘low church’ pope is actually a good thing for high church Anglicans: what the presbyterians who taught me divinity in Edinburgh called an ‘uncovenanted mercy,’ a surprise gift from God. What do I mean? Well, high church popes – and Pope Benedict was very ‘high church’ – seem to encourage the worst in us: that fussy obsession with what we do and wear in church coupled with a doctrinal defensiveness. Church life centres around the sacristy. Liturgy which is more high camp than high mass. There is a
longing for certainty and clarity in doctrine and morality, and the security they are supposed to bring. The church, as Pope Francis says, ‘has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.’ Rather than hope and vision, there is a fear of the different and the new; whether in the church or the world. The world is hostile and must be kept at bay. A baroque or gothic fantasy world insulates us from too much reality.
The document which most clearly expressed the Vatican Council’s positive engagement with the world was called ‘Gaudium et Spes’ – but hope and joy have been in short supply in both our communions of late. In Rome the rolling back of Vatican II has left many who were committed to its implementation dispirited. In our own church, the long struggle over the ordination of women has divided us and absorbed so much energy as to leave many exhausted. The conflict over homosexuality – the elephant in the Anglo-catholic sanctuary – which dogged Archbishop Rowan’s time at Canterbury has had a similar effect. The rise of charismatic evangelicalism, much of it with little feel for liturgy, sacraments and tradition we value, and sometimes a deep-seated ideological hostility to them, leaves many wondering what future there is for Catholic Anglicanism.
Pope Francis encourages us to see that it is possible to be a good Catholic without being absorbed by the narrowly churchy. This is not to abandon liturgy and sacrament, but rather to see them as imbued with the warm humanity of Jesus rather than a cold legalism. Then perhaps all those parishes which no longer have daily mass will have to restore it by popular demand. People will want to be there. They will come not from some grim sense of duty but because it gives them hope and joy.
Years ago I preached a sermon suggesting that churches needed to be a bit like MASH, so I was pleased to see the pope say, ‘… the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.’ Anglo-Catholic churches used to have a good reputation for dealing with life’s casualties; even some who were the casualties of religion.
We are not talking here about some easy-going relativism which pretends sin does not matter, but about meeting people where they are, in order that they might be helped to a better place. When the pope speaks of confession, he says, ‘the confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.’ The confessional needs the Gospel. At the beginning of the interview he gave to the Jesuit periodicals, he was asked, ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ He replied at first, ‘I am a sinner.’ He then expanded this to say, ‘I am a sinner
whom the Lord has looked upon.’
We are all sinners whom the Lord has looked upon. Perhaps we need a collective examination of conscience in the Catholic movement, to question our stewardship of the treasures which have been entrusted to us.
Pope Francis, does want us to get out more.
‘Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.’
‘We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.’
Our churches are often good at welcome, keeping the doors open. What we are not so good at is going out into the highways and byways of life. There is a problem here: street evangelism as we are used to it is usually of the hellfire variety. I had to endure a dose of this while queuing in the rain at the entrance of Oxford Circus station recently. It did not sound like good news to weary workers homeward bound. . Can we do it better? Are we up to learning new tricks or re-learning old ones?
The pope has spoken more than once about the kind of bishops and priests he wants: pastors and not ecclesiastical managers; ‘And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all … in pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds … the ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting
like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.’
He is challenging that clericalism which separates priests from people, and makes of them a caste apart, and the need for the church to recover its first love. And it is a challenge to our own church as well, as we seek to renew our vision for mission and service. Archbishop Justin has begun to set some priorities for the church, including a renewal of religious community as the essential basis for a renewed mission of the church in our country. How will we as Catholic Anglicans respond to that challenge and to those posed by Pope Francis?
© Alan Moses, Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street