The Pope, Beyoncé and Me
There was a Christmas Eve a little more than a decade ago when I did something that was, for me, rare, at least on a holiday typically spent in full-party mode, with booze, food, family and friends. I went to church.
No one had died. No one was getting married or baptized. This visit was entirely volitional — and, I told myself, ornamental, which was true to a point.
The church, you see, was St. Peter’s Basilica. I was The Times’s correspondent in Rome. And because I covered the Vatican, I had dibs on prime seats relatively close to the altar. Forgive the following mixture of profane and sacred, but you don’t have to be a Beyoncé devotee to say a quick yes to free tickets in the front rows. You go for the pageant and the privilege.
Pope John Paul II presided over the Mass, as best he could. He struggled to form coherent words, a man disintegrating before the world’s eyes, month by painful month. Many of us in the press corps who kept tabs on him and trailed him — to Guatemala, to Croatia, to Poland — were essentially on a deathwatch.
And some of us occasionally wondered if that vigil extended beyond him, to the Roman Catholic Church itself, and if he were both man and metaphor. Especially in Western Europe and the United States, the church was slidinginto a sort of obsolescence.
It often resisted engagement with modernity. It denounced sin in the world while indulging it in the priesthood. And it spoke with a censoriousness that seemed antithetical to Christianity.
After John Paul came Benedict; little changed. More and more of the Catholics I knew located their faith as far outside of the Vatican as they could.
Now there’s Francis. And things are different. Not different enough, not by a long shot. The church remains wrong on women and wrong on gays, and I’venoted repeatedly the shameful discrepancy between Francis’ kind words and the unkind firings of lesbian and gay employees by Catholic institutions in the United States.
But almost two years into his papacy, it’s impossible to deny the revolutionary freshness of his posture: humble, receptive, even casual. Thepomp is gone and, with it, the air of thundering judgment. If the rules haven’t been rewritten, they seem less like bludgeons than in the past.
Francis doesn’t hold himself high, an autocrat with all the answers. Hecrouches to a level where questions can be asked, conversations broached, disagreements articulated.
He insists that other church leaders lower themselves as well, and used atraditional Christmas address on Monday not to chide the flock for its transgressions but to remind the shepherds of theirs.
He accused some of the cardinals, bishops and priests in the upper echelons of the church bureaucracy of straying so forgetfully from their true mission and ministry that they were afflicted with a kind of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
He said that they had fallen prey to the “pathology of power” and needed to beware the “terrorism of gossip.” All in all, the Vatican as described by Francis sounded like an Aaron Spelling drama, although with looser-fitting clothes, odder hats and lower Nielsen ratings.
By taking the church out of the clouds, he’s putting it into the fray. Allaccounts of the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba cast Francis as a key player, and that’s more than a diplomatic victory. It’s an assertion of the church’s sustained relevance.
He’s also putting the church within reach of those who would rather find a place for it in their lives than have to figure out a life without it. They are many.
I’ve never been able to believe in one dogma, one institution, as a possible repository for all truth and as a compass trumping any other. And I’ve been troubled by the frequency with which individual religions divide rather than unite. The Catholic Church has certainly been guilty of this.
But it has also done, and continues to do, enormous good. Its soldiers are present at almost every humanitarian crisis, their courage and caring inextricable from the best strands of the faith.
That faith provides many pilgrims with a harbor they can’t find elsewhere. They look to it not necessarily for a precise code of conduct but for a crucial inspiration to be less selfish, more charitable. It gives them a sorely needed peace, so long as they don’t feel shoved away.
By not shoving, Francis is serving them well. By not shouting, he’s being heard.
In St. Peter’s this Christmas Eve, he’ll be at center stage. Except he won’t, in another sense, because he’s redefined his role. If I were in the pews once again, it wouldn’t be to savor the spectacle. It would be to see the man.