The Church is doing well in South America, but so is Protestantism. It does well in Africa and parts of Asia. But the Roman Catholic Church was ever a product of the Christian West and everywhere else was for missionaries. St. Peters’ and the Vatican sit in Rome for a reason, reinforced with two thousand years of human history. And the Church, together with its Orthodox and Protestant offshoots, is largely abandoned by its no longer faithful in the West. Sufficient that, for desperation.
But visibly ahead, progress toward a decent existence in the fruitful vineyards of Africa and South America and Asia, seems likely to bring the same repudiation for the same reasons as has occurred in the West. That lies far ahead, but the Church is ever long-sighted, with its view fixed upon eternity. And that reinforces desperation, for it is a prophecy of an ultimately irrelevant Church.
Election of an unknown Barack Obama to the American presidency was an act of a desperate, riven society. Election of Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, was even more desperate. And the new Pope is throwing the dice on a winner-take-all basis since he knows that he has already lost if he does not win.
His predecessor John XXIII was shot; Francis recently fired his Swiss Guard security chief for being “too strict.” His Holiness likes to press the flesh on the streets, as did Pope John. He symbolizes Franciscan simplicity in his modest living quarters and Papal car but the anything but simple Jesuit is visible in his politics, taking on the cloak of political socialism and climate threat. In much of the world, these positions line him up with the masses in opposition to the powerful. He knows that these are species, but the message he intends rides upon them; he seems ultimately Jesuit in his political priorities.
It seems that he supports rather than opposes the mighty of the West, who will be happy to depose him an they can, and his church with him. He admonishes them as is his duty, but he does not denounce like an Old Testament prophet nor expose the follies of the powerful to public scorn. So far, he is symbolic rather than overt.
He has scandalized his conservative bishops over homosexuality and marriage, two bedrocks of his church. He is presently taking the church’s formal, creaking, ossified and arrogant bureaucracy, the Curia to task for its attitude and lifestyle. That, for a Pope, is like deliberately antagonizing your bodyguards. Of course, he has done that already.
We suppose that he wants, where he can’t make his church relevant in today’s minds, to make it appear as relevant as he can manage. He is no doctrinal revolutionary. Nor does he want western governments joining those that fear and fight and try to destroy his church. Threatening he may seem to his own hierarchy; that is the last appearance he wishes to show powerful governments. He walks a very high wire in a stiff, unpredictable breeze.
The fact of a Jesuit Pope is a revelation of not only institutional desperation, but also of a consummate politician. When he is done, it will likely be another two thousand years before another Jesuit is elected to the Papal Throne. He has already shown that he will do whatever needs to be done; that upsets a lot of important apple carts.
Popes do not measure success or failure in human lifetimes; neither Francis nor we will know his ultimate results. He relies on the words of his Master, that He would be with his church for all days, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. But Pope Francis will not be with us for all days; he has to do his work now as best he can.
In a world where governments are become gods in themselves, Francis and his church are needed, lest we forget what is really important in human welfare. We wish him unbroken rest at night and success in his endeavors. We hope no one shoots him. His Master was controversial, too and we crucified Him as we now repudiate His Church.
All that is now the burden of one elderly Roman Catholic Pope. All of us need his success.