Column: The Pope’s older son

Published on March 18, 2014.

I liked the way it was phrased: Pope Francis has “an older son problem.” That seemed to me to be exactly right: The context was both biblical and within the framework of a famous parable of mercy. Hearing eminent Vaticanista John Allen Jr. say it out loud was satisfying indeed. The definition of the problem itself hinted at the solution. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I had the chance to hear Allen deliver his lecture at the 50th anniversary rites of the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay City last Wednesday, and see him engage in conversation with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in Quezon City the following day, at a fund-raising dinner.

Allen has been a constant reference in my Newsstand blog; he is the primary English-language source for Vatican news, and his reporting on the last days of John Paul II, the remarkable papacy of Benedict XVI and Francis’ turn on history’s stage has been marked by deep understanding of both the Vatican as a beat and Catholicism as a creed, and (not a small thing) by boundless energy.

The Divine Word Seminary did well by inviting Allen over; I thought it was recognition, not only of the reporter’s global reputation, but of the Philippine Church’s increasingly high-profile role in the global Church. Perhaps for lack of time, Allen spent only several minutes talking about that role: at the start of his lecture, in answer to specific questions during the open forum and at a couple of moments during the dinner-conversation. In that sense, I came away somewhat disappointed; I expected him to speak not only about the Filipino diaspora which, in Europe as in the United States, is helping fill near-empty churches, but also about the prospects for Philippine bishops and priests in Rome (whether Jose Cardinal Sanchez’s appointment was a singular anomaly; what a Filipino as general of the SVD, the world’s largest missionary order, may have meant; where the flashpoints of the rivalry between the Indian and Filipino clergies for preeminence in Asia may be located; and so on).

But Allen was invited to speak on the Francis papacy, and that was exactly what he did. He outlined the popular, media and cultural impact of the new Pope, and then, beneath what he called the “visible register” of the papacy, pointed to “three pillars” which together explain “85-90 percent of what Francis is about.”

Leadership as service. With Francis, what you see is what you get. “These flashes of ordinariness, of humility” are “not PR, this is what he does.” But at the same time (Allen repeats the idea during the open forum), Francis is an “extraordinarily savvy Jesuit politician.” (That is to say, he is “not naïve.”) Allen refers to a June 21, 2013 speech where Francis “laid out his vision” of a Copernican revolution in people’s perspective: He called for priests distinguished, “not [by] the psychology of a prince … but leaders, pastors who carry the smell of their sheep.”

I think Allen conflates two remarkable occasions. On June 21, the Pope did speak to the “nomads” of the Church, his papal nuncios. The key passage, in the Zenit translation, reads: “In the delicate task of carrying out inquiries for episcopal appointments, be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers, that they are gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life, that they do not have the psychology of ‘Princes’.”

To be sure, this speech also uses the metaphor of smell: “For this reason Pastors must know how to be ahead of the herd to point the way, in the midst of the flock to keep it united, behind the flock to prevent someone being left behind, so that the same flock, so to speak, has the sense of smell to find its way.”

But the first source of the image of the shepherd’s smell is I think a homily on March 28, two weeks after his election, where he says: “This I ask you: Be shepherds, with the ‘odour of the sheep,’ make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.” (Official Vatican translation)

The Social Gospel. Allen uses the American term to refer to Catholic social teaching, and identifies “blockbuster” speeches, homilies or interviews where Francis emphasizes solidarity with migrants, solidarity with the poor and an antiwar position. The first one, in Lampedusa, called attention to “the globalization of indifference to the fate of migrants.” It was here, Allen notes, that Francis “first rolled out” one of his signature ideas, the “culture of encounter” as the antidote to “a throwaway culture.”

Mercy as core Christian message of this time. One of Allen’s best-read analyses of Francis’ first year ran a compare-and-contrast with his predecessors’ defining words. For John Paul II: “Be not afraid.” For Benedict: “Reason and faith.” And for Francis? Allen quotes the Pope: “In my opinion, the strongest message of the Lord is mercy.” And again: “The Lord never tires of forgiving; it is we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.”

To be sure, “some criticism, some backlash,” has come the new Pope’s way. The most important, and the most vexing, is what Allen calls the Pope’s “older son problem.” In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the older brother who does not stray, who obeys the father in all things. And yet when the younger brother returns, the father welcomes the prodigal with open arms. The resentment the older brother feels is as much a part of the famous parable as the father’s limitless generosity.

And who are the Pope’s older sons? “Doctrinal purists, liturgical [traditionalists], political pro-life activists, Church personnel.” But the Pope is well aware of the problem, Allen says. “The man is not naïve.”

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion

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