Some Catholics disagree with much of what Pope Francis says and does — this is undeniable. Believe it or not, I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with criticizing a pope on prudential matters, at least when done thoughtfully and when consideration is given to the context and circumstances around the pope’s decision or action. In recent months, however, I have noticed that some papal critics appear to respond immediately to anything he says or does with exasperation and dismissal. Where once there might have been charity and an effort to understand all sides of the story, there now seems to be great contempt for the Holy Father. This is unhealthy and it’s dividing the Church.
My fear (and this is nothing new to regular readers) is that certain groups within the Church have developed such cynical and dismissive feelings towards the Holy Father that they no longer have any respect for him, they refuse to ever give him benefit of the doubt, and they become angry at the mere thought of him. This type of reaction has become commonplace on social media. Some Catholics (and non-Catholics) seem to be so dead-set against his vision and teachings that they will use anything, even out-of-context quotes or misinterpretations of his words to try and tear him down. They seem determined to convince every other Catholic that Pope Francis is terrible, and will exploit any opportunity to do so.
The reactions to three recent incidents involving Pope Francis show how ingrained and reflexive the antipathy towards him has become these days:
The first example is the response to this quote that was pulled from a recent homily given by Pope Francis at a daily Mass in the chapel in the Casa Santa Marta:
“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”
Papal critics lined up to excoriate him – instantly associating these words with the sex abuse scandal – and argued that Francis had claimed that the devil was the one behind unmasking cover-ups and bringing the truth to light.
For example, “American Papist” blogger Thomas Peters tweeted:
“Uncovering sins is NOT the biggest scandal we face as a Church. It’s the scandal of the COVERUP, of being lied to by our shepherds.
SO revealing that Francis thinks his job is to “cover” the sins of bishops so they don’t “scandalize” the laity.
All this said *in a homily*!
Oh, and probably should add: most of these accusers are lay people. So, the logic is, the laity is Satan for accusing bishops and the pope is Jesus for covering up their sinfulness so our weak faith isn’t shaken.
Talk about clericalism on steroids.
A second example of this type of response was in response to a quip Francis made during his pilgrimage to Sicily. There, Francis met with the local bishops, priests, and seminarians. During his address to them, he said,
“How many times have I heard, ‘Oh, father, I pray, but I don’t go to Mass’ … ‘Why not?’ ‘Because the homily is boring; it lasts 40 minutes.’
No, the whole Mass should last 40 minutes … But the homily must not go more than eight minutes.”
Many reacted on Twitter to this anecdote with scorn or mockery; others protested, suggesting that the pope had essentially advocated for less reverent and rushed liturgies. Some took his words literally, insisting that an 8-minute homily or a 40-minute Sunday Mass was too short, or that Francis didn’t know what he was talking about, as they had never seen a homily last for a full 40 minutes.
Others suggested that it was a lack of orthodoxy that prompted these remarks. For example, noted apologist and author Patrick Madrid wrote on Twitter, “For some priests (and popes), the shorter the homily the better. But for those whose theology is orthodox and who can preach well, more is better.”
Finally, much was said over the impromptu blessing that Pope Francis gave at the conclusion of a meeting with journalists in Palermo, aghast at his “refusal” to give a formal apostolic blessing out of deference to the large number of non-Catholics and non-Christians in attendance.
A Twitter user under the handle @CatholicSat posted the following on Saturday, and it was shared by over 1,000 users:
At the end of his meeting with the Youth of Sicily today, Pope Francis refused to give the Pontifical Blessing, as not to offend the “many non-Catholic christians, those of other religions, and the agnostics” present pic.twitter.com/mnNEXp6scN
— Catholic Sat (@CatholicSat) September 15, 2018
You can read the comments for yourself to see how angry and self-righteous many were about this incident.
Each of these examples I highlight comes with a reasonable explanation that unfortunately has been drowned out by the criticism.
First, regarding the recent homily, context is important. The Gospel for the day (September 11) was from Luke 6, the calling of the twelve apostles, and Francis’s homily that day was specifically addressed to their successors, the bishops. At the daily Mass in the Casa Santa Marta, there are always a number of bishops in attendance. If one looks at his daily schedule, he met with a great number of bishops that day (the bishops of Venezuela were in town for their ad limina visits), and he had just concluded his meetings with the Council of Cardinals the day before. It seems natural that in this context, the pope should address his message to the bishops.
The central points were: bishops should be men of prayer, that they should remember and be conscious of their calling, and that they be close to their people. Francis’ detractors are missing the point. They are presenting the homily as if the main point was to blame those accusing them of covering up sexual assault. He said nothing of the sort. The point of the homily was to encourage bishops to be holy and humble in their service.
His response to the Great Accuser?
“A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”
Second, with regard to Mass and homily length, the common wisdom is to use the time wisely. If a priest can make 2-3 points that resonate with the congregation, that brings them closer to Christ and inspires them on their journey, he is doing the Lord’s work. Obviously there are cultural and circumstantial factors in play, and priests and bishops must be responsive to the needs and expectations of the communities they serve.
Some are treating Francis’s 8-minute homily/40 minute Mass statement as if he’s laid down a strict edict on liturgical discipline. Let’s try a more charitable interpretation of the Pope’s comments. In context, he was criticizing 40-minute homilies. His point was, basically: a homily shouldn’t be forty minutes, the entire Mass should be (closer to) 40 minutes. And if we’re using 50-60 minutes as a baseline, he’s right.
He has spoken and written on this before. Anyone who is interested in the truth about what Pope Francis thinks about the homily and preaching would be well-served by reading his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, paragraphs 135-159.
135. Let us now look at preaching within the liturgy, which calls for serious consideration by pastors. I will dwell in particular, and even somewhat meticulously, on the homily and its preparation, since so many concerns have been expressed about this important ministry, and we cannot simply ignore them. The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people. We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.
137. It is worthy remembering that “the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated”. The homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion.The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people.The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren.
It’s worth reading the two entire sections, totaling 25 paragraphs, that he devotes to the importance of the homily in the Mass. Those who attack him for this brief, off-the-cuff anecdote really have very little about what Pope Francis really thinks about the value of preparing and preaching a great homily. Those who attacked him because they believe eight minutes is too short should know that they are also criticizing the Vatican under Benedict XVI as well.
Some reports indicate that Pope Francis declined to give his usual Pontifical Blessing when he was in Palermo Saturday. Some have expressed outrage over this.
Here’s what happened, from rough transcripts available at the Vatican website.
The pope evidently had three non-liturgical public events in Palermo.
1) After meeting with clergy, religious and seminarians, he concluded his talk with these words:
“I thank you and I bless you, and excuse me if I was a bit ‘strong, but I like to talk like that! I wish you the joy of celebrating, accompanying and witnessing the great gift that God has placed in your hearts. Thank you, and pray for me!”
2) Meeting with large numbers of the faithful in the Piazza, he concluded:
“Now I will give you the blessing, but let’s prepare the heart to receive it. Everyone thinks about his loved ones, because this blessing falls on loved ones. Think of his friends. And you also think about the enemies, the people I do not love, and who do not love me. Open everyone’s heart, for this blessing descends on everyone.”
3) Finally, he met with the young people and finished his remarks with these words:
“Now I would like to give you the blessing. I know that among you there are young Catholics, Christians, other religious traditions, and even some agnostics. For this I will bless everyone, and I will ask God to bless that seed of restlessness that is in your heart.
Lord, Lord God, look at these young people. You know each of them, You know what they think, You know that they want to move on, to make a better world. Lord, make them seekers of good and of happiness; make them active in their journey and in their encounter with others; make them bold in serving; make them humble in seeking the roots and carrying them forward to bear fruit, to have identity, to have belonging. May the Lord, the Lord God, accompany all these young people on the journey and bless everyone. Amen.”
He appears to have given at least one Pontifical Blessing, at the large public gathering, and two others that were less formal. We can presume he also offered the Pontifical Blessing at the conclusion of what was probably the largest assembly of all, the Mass on the memorial of Blessed Pino.
In context, each of these incidents seems much less scandalous and much more reasonable than they have been presented by the talking heads on Twitter. As I said above, it’s not wrong to criticize the Pope when in prudential matters he takes the wrong course of action, provided it is informed, charitable, and respectful. But these attacks betray a lack of charity and respect toward the Pope. Taking these incidents and Twisting them amounts to nothing more than “Fake News.” It’s unhelpful and, ultimately, reflects poorly on any Catholic who utters these calumnies against him.
I can only conclude that those who spread these stories are motivated by a poisonous hatred and seething contempt for Pope Francis. They would rather see a scorched and demolished Church than one that is built up by the Joy of the Gospel. Rather than looking for good in Francis, they are hell-bent on convincing the world that he is evil. The Great Accuser must be loving this.
In response to all this, remember to pray for our Holy Father, as he is bombarded with these sorts of attacks ever more frequently. And always try to show charity toward him.
Image: Screen grab from video of Pope’s blessing on young people in Sicily.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.