I have a confession to make. After the sex scandals in the Catholic Church became evening news, I grew very disillusioned with the church. I have read many accounts of the sexual abuses by parish priests all over the world and every one of them made my blood boil. The hypocrisy of the church as a whole was as glaring as staring into the mid-afternoon sun. If you have the stomach for it, here’s what I mean. “One victim told the press he had been abused since the age of 10 by a priest who woke me with a kiss often with his tongue in my mouth and then masturbated me and then conducted an early morning mass giving the boy the Host with the hand that had just fondled him.”
This just reminds me of Pope John XII who succeeded his father, Agpetus, as temporal ruler of Rome in December 955. Pope John XII would prove to be one of the worst papal leaders in history, and mind you, there were many little fathers who were of dubious credentials and credibility in the enduring history of the Catholic Church. Pope John’s reign marked the start of what one author calls “the nadir of the papal pornocracy.” Here’s how Gibbon puts it, “…(he) lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran Palace was turned into a school of prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.” Over time, Pope John XII managed to turn “the palace of the Lateran which had once sheltered saints…(into)…a harlot’s brothel.”
It is no wonder that an Augustinian monk by the name of Arnold of Brescia once made numerous calls for the laws of Rome to take precedence over the canon. He protested that the Pope should immediately divest himself of temporal powers in favor of poverty and simplicity of the early Fathers. This is what John of Salisbury wrote about this august monk and his passionate quest to eradicate the scourge of papal duplicity: “He (Arnold) had already publicly denounced the Cardinals, maintaining that their College, beset as it was with pride, avarice, hypocrisy and shame, was not the Church of God but a house of commerce and a den of thieves…Even the Pope himself was other than what he professed: rather than an apostolic sherpherd of souls, he was a man of blood who maintained his authority by fire and sword, a tormentor of churches and oppressor of the innocent whose only actions were for the gratification of his lust and for the emptying of other men’s coffers in order that his own might be filled.”
Well, my gripe against the Church does not stop there. The history of the papacy is in fact a history of the sins of the Fathers being passed down from one generation to another. I guess St Peter might have turned on his grave when papal powers culminated to the First Vatican Council in 1870 where Pope Pius IX “seized absolute power” by dogmatizing papal infallibility. Below is the English text of the Infallibility CE for your appalling digest.
“The Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra – that is, in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole church – is by reason of the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine redeemer wished his church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals and, consequently, that such definitions by the Roman Pontiff are irreformable to their own nature (ex sese) and not by reason of the church consent.”
Wow, talk about the real mortal risk of absolute power corrupting absolutely!
In my view, the poison chalice of any ex cathedra pronouncement by a fallible man cloaked in self-declared infallibility is the same poison contained in the fruit plucked from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, when the serpent promised Adam and Eve in the garden that “you shall be like God”, it was the same symbolical fruit, if not diabolical, that was offered to the Archbishop of Rome at the Vatican Council that effectively endorsed him as the guarantor of the truth of the gospel and the final arbiter of God’s laws and his divine will. Imagine the delusion!
One author, Eric W. Gritsch, wrote this passage in his book Toxic Spirituality that best captures the serpent’s timeless agenda, “When the church, represented in the apostolic succession of bishops, claims to have been guided by the Holy Spirit to grant inerrant and infallible power to one of its own members, whether the church approves or disapproves, then all theological bets are off. The penultimate has become the ultimate, time has become eternal, and one no longer sees “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The end-time, the “eschaton,” is realized in the papacy.”
But after writing all that, here is my turning point. Or at least a point of inflection.
You see, the sex scandals, the papal pornocracy and the self-glorifying magisterium of papal infallibility all left a very bad taste in the mouth – to put it mildly. What’s more, the 8-year papacy of Benedict XVI left much to be desired. He was not exactly the trailbrazing Pope like his precedessor, John Paul II. His first faux pas was a public lecture at Regensburg in September 2006 which offended the Muslims when he said, “Show me just what Mohammed introduced that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Of course there was a context to that speech and the Pope was merely quoting rather than endorsing. But often, for a delicate and sensitive subject like interreligious harmony, one would have expected more clarity and diplomacy from the leader of more than a billion followers who also happened to be a highly intelligent theologian in his own rights.
The papal’s le miserabilis list did not stop there. He went on to piss off the Protestants by this papal declaraction issued on 11 July 2007, “It is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of “Church” could possibly be attributed to (Protestant communities), given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack the elements considered as essential to the Catholic Church.” From there, it was all the way downhill. The Pope continued his pontificated gaffe with the Jews when he insisted on canonising pope Pius XII and readmitting to the Church a Holocaust-denying bishop (Bishop Richard Williamson). And I guess the last straw that broke the Holy Father’s old spine was the infamous Vatileaks in May 2012.
The world’s attention was fixated when the butler who became a turncoat whisper blower, a sort of Bradley-Manning freedom fighter, was reported to have done the misdeed not so much out of a craving for personal fame or gain but one of “violated loyalty”. Paolo Gabriele saw within the holy of holies, the Vatican City, that is, an “unholy alliance” between the various papal staffs and administrators who were rumored to have outmanerved the Pope. One author wrote, “The leaked documents revealed scandalous intrigue and in-fighting, ambition and arrogance, greed and glory-seeking, clerical careerism and corruption, secrecy and sexual lapses in the Vatican civil service. And they showed the Pope to be an intellectual who, ill at ease with the day-to-day running of the Church, let himself become isolated in the Vatican.”
So, I guess for the inner circle, it did not come as a surprise for them to hear these words by the outgoing Pope, “To run the Church, it is said, “Both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.” And with the end of the reign of one Pope comes the next, which was for me, at least thus far, an undoubtedly inspiring breath of fresh aromatic air. To borrow a rastafarian proverb, if the “old broom knows every corner”, this new broom effectively vacuums!
I know nobody is perfect, especially the Pope. But this new one is as perfectly imperfect as they come by and that’s what truly floated the Catholic boat for me. And I am not even talking about the many Firsts that the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis had produced. Being the first pontiff from the developing world, the first from Latin America, the first non-European in almost 1,300 years, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name Francis, the first to pay his own hotel bill, the first to show humility of such magnitutde when he declined a jewel-studded gold pectoral cross, papal cufflinks, the red shoes, and the Apostolic Palace, the first to wash a young Muslim woman prisoner’s feet on Maundy Thursday, and probably the first to plan to drive a 1984 Renault instead of being chauffeured around in the prestigious Vatican car, were all amazing show of public humility for me.
But what did it for me, truly, and without doubt, was the definitive Mysterium Lunae speech he gave before he was elected. It was one of the shortest speech ever given but the most electifying I guess. One Cardinal remarked that “Bergoglio was the first man not to be introspective about the problems of the Church but to be outgoing…and he spoke from the heart.” Another close friend of the Pope said, “Back then, in 2005, wasn’t his moment (when he was passed for Ratzinger)…Things needed to get a lot worse for the Church before they would be brave enough to choose Bergoglio. God knows what he’s doing.” I will conclude with a full extract of the three-and-a-half minutes speech below. But first, let me tell you about how privately unassuming this man was.
You see, all the public show of humility after he was elected was not a one-time, isolated event for the media and the world to woo-ahh over. Pope Francis had in fact lived a humble life, tirelessly sharing with the people in the streets and tending to their needs. He was not called the Bishop of the Slums for nothing. He had on many occasions washed the feet of children who were addicted to Paco, which was a concoction of cocaine residue, kerosence and rat poison and was the bane of the slums. He had little in his spartan home in Buenos Aires to call his own. He once said, “I want to leave as little as possible behind me when I take my leave from this world.”
In the book Pope Francis: Untying the knots by Paul Vallely, the author wrote this about the simple and humble routine of Bergoglio when he was elected the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, “The main residence of the Archbishop of Beunos Aires was an elegant house in one of the capital’s most exclusive neighborhood, Olivos, close to the presidential estate. But instead of moving there, Bergoglio chose to remain in the four spartan rooms – an office, bedroom, library and chapel – he had occupied in the archdiocesan office next to the cathedral in downtown Bueno Aires…(he) also knew the symbolic significance of rejecting the palace and chauffeur…Bergoglio used public transport – the subway and then the bus – for his visits to parishes around the city. In his apartment he cooked his own meals and he wore a normal dark clerical suit and dog collar in preference to an archbishop’s purple. His personal belongings were so few that when someone gave him a gift of some CDs he asked a friend to record them to cassettes, as he did not have a CD player.”
After Pope Francis was elected, he called his cobbler of 40 years and told him that he needed him to mend his battered old black shoes. The cobbler, one Carlos Samaria, replied that he would try. Carlos further said that he would be sending him new ones. With some reluctance, Pope Francis said, “But not red ones. Make them black, like usual.”
It is said that being too humble is actually half proud (Yiddish proverb). But for this Pope, the equation just doesn’t quite fit – at least for now. Although it is admitted that his humility is more an “intellectual stance than a personal temperament”, as an Argentinian priest Augusto Zampini once observed, “He’s worked out that to be a good Shepherd he needs to be humble…it’s calculated, That’s not to suggest it’s fake but it is thought-through,” Pope Francis seemed to have set a life-style of habitual undertones in his living environment, his values, his ministering to the poor, his rejection of materialism, and his focus on helping the marginalized of society. His consistency over the years is indeed his most reliable alibi of credibility, sincerity and authenticity. Of course, it remains to be seen how the opulence and excessives of the Vatican City would affect his habit-forming resolve in the long run. But thus far, he’s one leader who has admirably buck the trend.
In fact, when he was asked why he chose the name Francis?” Pope Francis replied, “Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis de Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of Sau Paulo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two-thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said, “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then, I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.”
Notwithstanding all the good stuff I have written about this newly minted Pope, I have also read about the mistakes of his past, especially during the dirty Argentinian war in the seventies. Although there has yet to be a conclusion on the investigation, the Pope was nevertheless implicated in the arrest, kidnap and torture of two Jesuit priests, Fr Francisco Jalics and Fr Orlando Yorio. It was said that when Pope Francis was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he betrayed the Jesuit priests and had them expelled on the flimsiest of charges. His action emboldened the military junta at that time and they wasted no time to punish the Jesuit priests on the suspicion that they were in league with the left-wing guerrillas to overthrow the military junta. The Pope has much regrets when recalling this dark period of his life.
But this is one Pope who is not afraid to confront his past and to face up to all the mistakes he has committed. He was not ashamed to admit his follies and his flaws. In one interview, he had this to say about his Jesuit leadership then, “To tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. When you’re young, you believe you can change the world, and that is good, that’s the way it should be. But later, when you seek this change, you discover the logic of patience in your life and the lives of others…A good father, like a good mother, is one who intervenes in the life of the child, just enough to demonstrate guidelines for growing up, to help him, but who later knows when to be a bystander to his own and others’ failures, and to endure them.”
With the clarity of a broken and contrite heart, he confessed, “I don’t have all the answers; I don’t even have all the questions. I always think of new questions, and there are always new questions coming forward. But the answers have to be thought out according to the different situations, and you also have to wait for them. I confess that, because of my disposition, the first answer that comes to me is usually wrong. When I’m facing a situation, the first solution I think of is what not to do. Because of this I have learned not to trust my first reaction. When I’m calmer, after passing through the crucible of solitude, I come closer to understanding what has to be done…You can do a great deal of harm with the decision you make. One can be very unfair.”
And this is the same crucible of solitude that led me to reflect more about the Catholic Church and all their historical shenanigans. I trust that no church is perfect. No one can claim to have arrived in this journey of faith. All those who had the audacity to claim full authority and knowledge in the faith have been duly struck down by the lightning bolt of their own pride. But one thing that distinguishes Pope Francis thus far from the rest, and there have been many exceptional Popes in the past to be fair, is that he is one leader that has allowed his actions, both born of charity and errors, to speak for themselves. And those actions spoke volumes in his life as a whole.
So, let me end here by presenting to you the Mysterium lunae speech that I have earlier promised.
“The only purpose of the Church is to go to tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ, the cardinal from Argentina said. It needed to surge forth to the peripheries, not just geographically but to the extistential peripheries where people grappled with sin, pain, injustice, ignorance and indifference to religion.
But the Church had got too wrapped up in itself. It was too navel-gazing. It had become “self-referential” which had made it sick. It was suffering a “kind of theological narcissism”. When Jesus said, “Behold I stand at the door and knock” people assumed he was outside, wanting to come in. But sometimes Jesus knocks from within, wanting to be let out into the wider world. A self-referential Church wants to keep Jesus to itself, instead of letting him out to others.
The Church is supposed to be the mysterium lunae – the mystery of the moon is that it has no light but simply reflects the light of the sun. The Church must not fool itself that it has light of its own; if it does that it falls in to what Henri De Lubac in The Splendour of the Church called the greatest evils – spiritual worldliness. That is what happens with a self-referential Church, which refuses to go beyond itself.
Put simply, there are two images of Church: a Church which evangelises and comes out of herself or a worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself. The next Pope should be someone who helps the Church surge forth to the peripheries like a sweet and comforting mother who offers the joy of Jesus to the world.”
It was said that the above speech captured the spirit of the time and cemented Bergoglio’s place in history to become the 266th Pope. That same speech also captured my spirit and my heart and softly prodded me to make peace with the Catholic Church. Cheerz.