Press F1 For Help: Thoughts on Francis

On a computer keyboard, the F1 key is used to get help. An F1 is also the fastest car on the race track: it holds the road tightly but corners quickly.

(Memo to pedants: I know he won’t be “Pope Francis I” until there’s a Francis II. Duly noted. Now go bother someone who says “nuclear” wrong and leave me alone.)

Does this mean anything? Of course not, except in the way we make connections through language and symbols. A pope is there to help us navigate this world unto the next! Francis hardly seems the speedy type, but maybe he’ll hold the road of dogma while turning the church in a new direction!

And with that, I have bludgeoned the meager symbolism of “F1” senseless.

Of course it’s silly, but we’re a people attuned to meaning, and we read meaning on various levels. We tend to make huge intuitive leaps based on scattered pieces of information. Sometimes we read things incorrectly. The data isn’t all there, so our mind fills in the gaps with personal experience and prejudices and wish-fulfillment.

A great deal of this is going on with Francis right now, hustled along by the most instantaneous communication infrastructure in the history of humanity. People are snapping off impressions and ideas at lightening speed, and rather than those impressions merely staying in the gut or emerging as musings at the bar, they’re gelling into Twitter and Facebook updates, memes, articles, and hysterical blog posts and combox screeds.

Michael B. Dougherty started the ball rolling with an amazingly ill-considered broadside against Cardinal Bergoglio on Slate, giving them a chance to kick the church from the right in addition to their usual leftist screeds. Called “Why Pope Francis May Be a Catholic Nightmare,” it was pushed out mere hours after the election. Dougherty faults Bergoglio for a lack of passion for traditional liturgy, ignorance of curial politics, and absence of a reforming sensibility, slowing down long enough to dust off a few shots into the legacy of Bl. John Paul II.

Dougherty took to Twitter to criticize the pietistic tendency of Catholics to praise and support the pope, as if this is a bad thing. He seemed to sneer at the people who were impressed with their first sense of the man. He reminded people that there have been bad popes in the past (thanks for that news flash) and there’s no reason to think we’re immune from having one now.

And all for what? Because people were … what? Hopeful? Impressed with the humility and demeanor of a man about whom we know very little? Trusting the wisdom of the conclave and the guidance of the holy spirit? Was Dougherty afraid Slate might not have a proper forum for 1700 comments, each more bilious and hateful than the one before? Was he afraid someone else might beat him to the punch and get their hate-on for Bergoglio before him?

If so, he needn’t have worried. The tradosphere exploded, with Latin mass aficionados on sites like Rorate Caeli coming completely unglued about Bergoglio’s lack of interest in high liturgy and papal trappings. Proving that rad-trads are a subset of Protestants, they said things about Francis that could have been trawled straight from any Chick tract or Friendly Atheist post: seriously deranged, hateful, poisonous stuff. Dougherty at least was measured in his criticisms, tried to make a case, and held out hope. The Rorate Caeli crowd was already Googling SSPX churches in their area.

I say all this, by the way, as someone who likes and occasionally attends an EF mass. I’m a Ratzingerian to the bone. I am, personally, not a fan of low liturgy. Summorum Pontificum was important. The restoration of the liturgy was important. Liturgical standards are not a small thing.

But they’re not the only thing.

If you think the Novus Ordo is an illegitimate or heretical mass, you’re really just a Protestant who likes lace and incense. Maybe it’s time you move along, because the NO isn’t go anywhere.

And when rock solid traditionalist such as Fr. Z, Taylor Marshall, and Larry D have to step in and tell you to get a grip, you’re on the wrong side of the aisle.

I have no idea what Pope Francis’s liturgical sensibility is, but I suspect it will be rather less grand than I prefer. I like my beer cold, my scotch neat, and my popes in mozettas.

So what? A pope doesn’t bring sweeping changes to doctrines or dogma into the see of Peter. What he brings is his personal approach and style. I think people forget what a sharp difference there was between JP2 and B16. John Paul II was the grand man of action striding the world stage like a colossus (And no liturgical purist. His style was alarmingly loose.) Benedict XVI was the quiet, brilliant master catechist and liturgical restorationist that reset the church back on a good and solid heading.

We are seeing another sea change in papal style. I don’t know what it will bring, and neither does anyone else, but I like the way it’s starting, and I’ll tell you why.

Not long ago, someone (on Slate!) criticized Catholics for praising Benedict for resigning, saying we had also praised John Paul for hanging on to the end. The writer saw this as some kind of contradiction. (Isn’t it odd for a liberal to believe that one can only approve of a single way of doing something in Church matters, when they’re always urging us to accept diversity in everything from sex to … more sex?) John Paul provided a powerful witness to the importance of every life and dignity in death: of continuing to the bitter end. That was an important example in a world that sees people–particularly the old–as disposable.

That approach came with a price: JP2 didn’t have a grip on the papacy in his final years, and the church was rudderless at a time when we could least afford it.

Benedict witnessed that end, grasped the lesson, saw the problems, and acted accordingly. I believe he wanted to set a precedent so popes didn’t feel they had to hold on to the last. They could choose another option. The church in the modern world, perhaps, cannot afford another lesson like JP2’s. The abuse scandal changed things. A pope needs always to be clear and able to react.

There’s no contradiction there. Just an understanding that all popes are different, and the church needs different approaches for different times.

Which brings us to Francis. He offers another sharp turn, more like the stripped down, on-the-street simplicity suggested by his regnal name. He’s a mostly unknown quantity. Cardinal Ratzinger had a vast body of writing, most of it already in English, to give us a clue as to his approach and theology. We knew him. There was no question of what to expect, and those who pronounced themselves “surprised” at his lack of rottweiler qualities were people who really hadn’t been paying attention.

Mark Shea has already commented on pseudoknowledge and written several other worthwhile posts about Francis. While others are spinning wild theories about the Holy Father’s antipathy to the EF and his participation in military dictatorships, I’m just going by what I’ve observed, which is this:

*A conclave of his peers elected him rapidly. The Holy Spirit doesn’t pick the pope, but we do believe He guides the process in some way. The process itself may have certain “political” (for lack of a better term) elements, such as alliances and negotiations But if we don’t feel that the the heir to Peter is chosen in a process that operates under some form of divine guidance, do we have much business being Catholics? Yes, the process can be (and has been) hijacked and resulted in unworthy popes, but that was when powerful forces ignored the promptings of the Spirit to suit their own selfish ends. Does that seem likely in this case? Is someone seriously arguing that we’re looking the second coming of John XII?

*In choosing his name he conveys a wealth of information deeply embedded in the life of Church and its reverence for St. Francis. St. Francis focused on the least and the lowest, but he was not a bunny-hugging, clown-mass-attending hippie. We’re talking about a man who walked into hostile enemy territory to try to convert al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, in a three-week dialog, and lived to tell about it. We can presume based on his comments that he was someone who embraced the liturgical greatness of his age. St. Francis was a kind of second Christ, resetting the Church at a vital time. We could do worse that return to Franciscan priorities.

*Pope Francis cut a humble and gracious figure in his first few moments on the world stage, with the striking dual gestures of asking the crowd to bless him and praying for Benedict. Since then, we’ve heard much about the pope who rides the bus, cooks his own meals, has a small apartment, mingles with the crowd, and eschews some of the grander trappings of the office. I think that’s great, and it’s not any kind of criticism against the style of Benedict. There are times to focus on the glory of the faith, and times to get down with the people and kiss the feet of AIDS patients.

We should be capable of embracing both those styles. The Church, like Walt Whitman, is large: She contains multitudes. A shift in focus is nothing more than that. It’s not a repudiation, but a simple matter of approach and emphasis.

And, perhaps, with Benedict setting the church on a course to straighten out her liturgy, we can now safely turn to the focus of the papacy more directly and dramatically on the preferential option for poor. It’s not that Benedict ignored those issues or that he was not humble (he was), but every pontificate will strike a tone. We hope that tone remains in true continuity with what came before. Benedict was quiet and shy: less inclined to the big gesture. In some ways, riding a bus when you’re pope is a big gesture. It calls attention to itself, which I cannot imagine Benedict doing. Although even humility can be ostentatious, there is something useful in both approaches.

No pope can be all things to all people and all aspects of the life of the Church in equal portions. Administrator, politician, teacher, liturgist, servant, reformer, theologian, philosopher, evangelist: that’s a lot of hats to wear. Something is bound to be emphasized more than something else. Francis seems, in these early days, to emphasize radical simplicity and solidarity with the lowly. Is someone going to argue that this a bad thing? And if so, how long have they been under the delusion that they’re Catholics?

“Brick by brick,” Fr. Z likes to say. I agree. And I think Benedict has laid out those bricks to build a large, solid, and firm liturgical and catechetical foundation. The silliness of the post-Vatican II era is passing into history. Thanks to Benedict, the ship has been set back on the proper course.

Now Francis can take that helm, and, while maintaining course, make some important ports of call. Return us to the trenches. Evangelize. Serve. Humble ourselves. We are greatest when we do that. Our liturgical heritage doesn’t vanish in a puff of smoke just because the pope’s Latin is rusty. To everything there is a season. There’s a time for camauros, and a time for Franciscan brown.

Maybe, in this wounded and struggling world, in these horrible times of upheaval and economic distress, we need a Church that can be mighty in power and grandeur, but also humble in service. Christ the King is also the servant. Christ the High Priest is is also the man who washed the feet of a doubter, a traitor, a coward, and 9 other sinners.

That is what Francis seems to offer. I’m not worried about him at all. In fact, I have great hope. The Church gives us the popes we need when we need them.

Now is the time of Francis. Rejoice and be glad.

Update: Also: this.

Here’s an excellent example of how a traditionalist expresses reservations with charity.