Two Popes, One Message

I want to begin this post by stating that I love Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Not that I don’t love other Popes—In fact, I love every Pope—but there is something about Benedict that draws me towards him even more than Pope John Paul II or Pope Francis. I find it, therefore, extremely irritating that the narrative being portrayed pretty much everywhere (not just in the press), is that Pope Francis is somehow reversing everything Pope Benedict ever did, that he is, as I mentioned in my last post, a sort of anti-Benedict. This is just plain ridiculous. What I find even more irritating is that many practicing, faithful and orthodox Catholics are wary of Pope Francis because they have bought into this notion that he is changing some fundamental things about the Church. The recent interviews that Pope Francis has granted in the past few weeks are a case in point. The number of Catholics that I know who have been distraught by them is simply absurd.

The truth is that both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict (and all Popes before them) have been saying exactly the same things. They have, however, said them in such a way that appeals to different audiences. Hence, Pope Francis says in a sound bite the exact same things that Pope Benedict would say in a lecture. The fact that our society listens only to the sound bites (and gets even those wrong) and not the lectures, says much about the intellectual level of our society; it says nothing about Pope Benedict’s abilities as a communicator.

So, for example,  a big deal was made over Pope Francis saying that the Church should not be “obsessed” with “small-minded rules.” But nobody mentioned that Pope Benedict said exactly the same thing in 2006. Let me put both statements side-by-side:

First, the words of Pope Francis:

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.” And, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” (Source)

Next, the words of Pope Benedict to the Swiss bishops in a speech on November, 2006:

“I remember, when I used to go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems.

If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith—a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.

In this perspective I would now like to continue by completing last Tuesday’s reflections and to stress once again: what matters above all is to tend one’s personal relationship with God, with that God who revealed himself to us in Christ.” (Source)

The message is the same, though Pope Francis puts in a few catchy sentences what Pope Benedict said in several paragraphs. There is a difference in style, but not in substance. One lent itself to sensationalist headlines, the other one didn’t.

I must admit that my first instinct was to judge the media (and most people who were misled by it) as ignorant and incapable of handling Benedict’s intellectual stature. I admit my mistake and my lack of charity and I apologize for it. Now that some time has passed and my head has cooled down a bit, I believe I’ve begun to see the bigger picture. The fact is that the Holy Spirit does not bind Himself to the 24-hour news cycle (and I doubt He cares much about it) and even though Pope Benedict’s message might have gone largely unnoticed to vast amounts of people in the world, it has stuck where it was supposed to stick. I was surprised by how, soon after his resignation, many intellectuals sang his praises (even when they didn’t agree with his views or with his papacy) and professed admiration for his writings. One example was Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, who is known for being critical of the Catholic Church but who defended and praised Pope Benedict in several articles published in Spanish newspapers. Benedict was appreciated in both the academic and the intellectual worlds, at least by those academics and intellectuals that can rightfully be called so. Again, this doesn’t mean they agreed with him or were convinced by his arguments, but they admitted that his arguments were strong and challenging and worth looking at. That is, Benedict showed the way in which Catholics can engage the culture at its highest levels, or, as a friend of mine put it, he set the tone for Catholic thought for the next hundred years.

Pope Francis is addressing a different crowd. I am not saying that he isn’t smart or attractive to the intellectual elites. He is quite intriguing to them, but also to everybody else. His appeal is a mass appeal. Where Pope Benedict set the foundation, which remains hidden, as it were, from most people’s sight, Pope Francis has begun the construction, which is visible to all. Pope Francis is translating Benedict’s message to the common tongue, in such a way that he is adding breadth to the depth of Benedict’s thought. He is, therefore, showing the way in which Catholics can engage the culture  at large.

The truth is that lasting and substantial change does not result only from a good advertising campaign or from being big in the media. The media exalts people for a short time and then discards them as quickly as it enthroned them. It seeks a quick profit and is, therefore, obsessed with novelty and the ephemeral. Real change comes from ideas and profound thought that sink into the very roots of culture, that lie there for some time (on occasion for a very long time), are then absorbed and interiorized and, only then, begin to blossom in visible, tangible ways. Benedict’s papacy planted the seeds of his thought into the soil of modern culture. Francis’ papacy is watering them, watching them grow and will (maybe?) begin to harvest them. The speed with which the Holy Spirit decided to bring them to fruition only shows how desperately needed they were.

These two papacies are a beautiful symphony that is being directed by the Holy Spirit. One melody moves slowly and subtly, unperceived perhaps, but constantly in the background. The other springs from that underlying one and captures our attention with dramatic notes and gestures. Yet, they do not contradict each other but, rather, harmonize to perfection. Anyone familiar with Pope Benedict’s thought can hear echoes of it throughout Pope Francis’ speeches and interviews. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than in Pope Francis’ first encyclical, which was written mostly by Pope Benedict! Francis is building on his predecessors’ legacy and he is not shy to admit it. His deference and admiration for Pope Benedict is the best proof of this. They are both keenly aware that they are simply servants in the Lord’s vineyard, that the Holy Spirit is really the one in charge and that they are instruments in His hands. It is about time that we, the faithful, trust in this, and place the future (and the present) of the Church into our shepherd’s hands.

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