Three years later, it has become abundantly clear that the man who assumed the vacant Chair left by Benedict XVI was and remains, an unswerving ideological opponent of the Pope Emeritus.
For those who think that such a description of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio - who became who we now know as Pope Francis - to be unfair or unjust, or misleading, a relatively brief assessment of these three years which have quickly passed may be helpful.
Whatever history says of the still controversial resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, history itself is not the ultimate judge of a man. The judge of every man is Our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose Vicar on Earth, Benedict XVI was. I say 'was' because, like the vast majority of Catholics, I assume that this title now belongs to his Successor, Pope Francis.
The Church: Macro and Micro-Scale Impacts of the Francis Revolution
On a macro-scale, the Catholic Church has been thrown into a crisis of perhaps hitherto unprecedented proportions. So much has changed, most notably, in the public image of the Pope and the Church. The man who Austen Ivereigh dubs, 'The Great Reformer', Pope Francis, has expended huge amounts of energy in cultivating an image of the Catholic Church which is astonishingly human, so human that it is not an exaggeration to argue that under the reforming Pope of our current times, the Catholic Church is experiencing, on a general scale, a cultural revolution of secularisation effected through an engineered collapse of the Church's fundamental tenets of belief. Quite simply, Pope Francis is, in terms of the message going out to the city and the world, for the Catholic Church, our 9/11. Whatever is knocked down can, however, be rebuilt.
And while ity cannot be exaggerated just how very damaging this cultural revolution - effected from above, mostly, though not exclusively, through public relations - is, precisely because it comes from the summit of the Church, what Bishop Athanasius Schneider and Cardinal Raymond Burke have called a 'crisis' is, in my opinion, like Lent and Passiontide, only a prelude to, a preparation for, the birth-pangs of, something else entirely. For what we look forward to in Lent is not simply an ecclesiastical event but the Resurrection of Christ our Lord and ultimately, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Resurrection of the Church, the Bride of Christ.
Yet there are real signs of hope. This is because on a micro-scale, the Catholic Church is organised into living cells of those who believe in the Teachings of and the Person of Jesus Christ. If they don't, they usually don't come to Mass. All will never be lost. In the papacy of Pope Francis and whatever changes it effects within the Church, it must be said that there are parish priests, religious communities, some bishops, bodies of laity, Catholic institutions, collections of Catholics who work within the media and new media, who are far more attracted to the vision of Pope Benedict XVI - a vision which included and promoted continuity with the Sacred Tradition of the Church, than the far less easy to define, more popularist, secular and incoherent vision of Pope Francis and his fellow reformers.
On a micro-scale, we might see that there remains a vocations crisis and that Catholic parishes are being merged in the West. We might discern that the 'Francis Effect', however lasting that may or may not be, has done little to ease this crisis, but there are serious and credible reasons for hope for both the present and the future of the Church's mission. This is because on that micro-scale, for quite a number of Catholics, while the person at the top of the Church has changed, they themselves remain themselves. They still love Jesus Christ and His Church - love Her as She is in Her essence, rather than as progressive reformers wish to see Her. They love Her teachings, her doctrines, they love her very walls. Parish life continues. If you are in a parish with a priest who has a traditionally Catholic outlook, you may very well still see in 2016 what you saw in 2012: the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass in your region. Younger clergy are, I believe, and anecdotally there is evidence for this - far more impressed by the traditional liturgy that communicates the Cross and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His Eucharistic Presence, the Church's timeless Teachings, and by Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself than they are by His Vicar on Earth and whatever program of reform he may or may not wish to enact.
Where Benedict XVI successfully detoxified the 'traditionalist community' to the horror of the modern impulse for all things new, Pope Francis has found success in detoxifying the Church's image - even on child abuse - by maintaining a stubborn insistence that 'all things new' are to be embraced. This is a new flavour the World can consume happily, but it will not convince everyone. For the traditional Catholic, the 'newness' is embarrassing because, for once, the Church and the World do not seem to be completed opposed when, in reality, they are implacably so. Unfortunately, the deficit in this position is that more and more people are discovering, with their own unhappy, unfulfilling experiences (for which I can attest) that all things 'new' that the world offers are not all life-giving. Quite simply, in the marketplace of spirituality, religion and morality, everybody is offering something 'new', up-to-date and modern and now this Pope is offering...more of the same.
'The new' does not satisfy
There's a downfall to all of this. In offering 'newness' and prompting expectation of 'change' what Pope Francis appears to be offering to the World is something that appears to be artificial, something 'created', his creation indeed, rather than the Creator Himself. New things, after all are created, or even invented. They are not timeless. They also usually have a 'sell by' date.
This is seen most strikingly of all in his dedication to the environment in which we are asked to preserve and conserve with enthusiasm the created, natural world. Benedict XVI respected stewardship of the environment, but what Benedict XVI prioritised and offered to the world was the Creator of the natural, created world. Like all before us, our obsession with the 'new' does nothing to restore our spiritual happiness. The newest Iphone, the newest fashion, the newest film, the newest belief and innovation. These do nothing for man's Soul. To achieve peace in our souls and friendship with our Creator may involve advice from Saints from long ago and most certainly the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It is not something or somebody 'new' Who can take away man's sin and reconcile him to God. It is Somebody Else Entirely, the Lord Who ascended Calvary 2,000 years ago, Who can do that.
What the Catholic Church brings to man, so bombarded by advertisements and enticements towards something 'new' is, in one sense, always wonderfully new, but in another sense, not at all, precisely because God does not fit these kind of 'brand categories'. He is that Something Else Entirely that man truly seeks. With the wonder of the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ we can truly say, 'And now, for something completely different'.
After three years, we can measure Pope Francis's success in communicating his personal vision of the Church of the 21st century and it can be summed up in his homiletic theme of the Church embracing that which is 'new' in contrast to that which is 'old'. We have encounter, dialogue, ecumenism, ecology, but where, oh where, is Jesus Christ?
In terms of Popes, we can see that Pope Francis himself is something new, perhaps that he is even completely different to his predecessors, but the themes of the pontificate: poverty, ecology, human trafficking, perhaps with the exception of the theme of 'mercy', are not greatly different to the philanthropic and charitable endeavours of various UN agencies.
It may very well be that from 13 March 2013 to whenever this pontificate ends, history will record that the Catholic Church was turned upside down in two senses. Firstly, in the sense that from the top of the Church came radical or even revolutionary ideas that inflicted damage on the Church, but, secondly, that the bottom of the Church resisted them and faithfully clung to Jesus Christ and His Teachings.
|People are still searching for meaning...|
The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he made it so known that he would do what he could within his power to hold back 'wolves' encircling his active ministry, should such a resistance to perverse distortions of the Catholic Faith that threaten to ensnare the souls of God's children be forthcoming, will have done an immeasurable amount to aiding that defense of the One True Faith. Summorum Pontificum permitted to Priests that which was hidden from the Faithful for over 50 years. What was taken away with the use of authority in the highest place in the Church was restored. This Mass, the Mass of Ages, communicates the sheer enormity of the love that the Almighty bears for His creatures and the enormity of love and worship which is owed to Him.
The success of Summorum Pontificum shows that what satisfied and fed our ancestors, in defiance of those who would suggest satisfaction can be found in modern teachings and new principles that owe more to the secular than to the sacred, still satisfies men and women today. We have not changed and we are delighted when we see that God has not changed either because if God changed, nothing and nobody could be trusted.
So when the Church and the World seem more and more to become one, and when that union is advertised as something 'new', men and women will still seek that which is entirely Other, because men and women were not created for anything new, but for Everlasting Life and for Union with the Lord Who alone can grant it. The whole Church can be reformed in the image in the mind of any particular Pope, at any particular time, but God Himself cannot be reformed, neither can man's yearning for his Creator be reformed. It can be misled, deceived, perverted, but not entirely destroyed. Our desire for Truth, for the True God, even if we flee Him, is in our very DNA. Benedict XVI knew this and spoke of things Eternal, as well as encouraging us in facing the real challenges in the modern world.
Pope Francis, for all his positive effects in terms of detoxifying the Church's 'brand', speaks of things temporal, transient and passing but does not successfully communicate Eternal truths, the truths concerning God Who, like our souls, is Eternal. The truth is that we receive the temporal, the transient and the passing every day. We find it everywhere and we don't need to go to Church to receive it. We yearn, however, for the Eternal, the Absolute, the Lord, for Absolute Love, Absolute Truth, for holiness. God loves mankind and mankind still seeks God because man seeks his ultimate meaning and destiny. Let us all seek Him, while He is still to be found.Yes, we will return to dust, unless the Lord returns before, but even our dust will come to praise Him, when He comes again and transforms these lowly bodies into incorruptible bodies after the pattern of His own.