I don’t think any observer of organized religion could have predicted the wild popularity of Pope Francis.
In the space of a few weeks, the new pope simply changed the public identity of the Roman Catholic Church, presenting it with the faith of a humble, cheerful and kindly disciple of Jesus Christ.
Among my own somewhat limited circle of friends, I see men and women, who had pretty much despaired of finding hope in the organized church, taking tentative, almost fearful steps toward embracing its leader.
And it’s not that Francis has done anything radical; he just exudes a welcoming embrace, saying over and over that there is room for you in the kingdom of God.
These men and women who have given up on the church are experiencing a sense of good news. Something new is happening here. That’s one definition of the Gospel.
And how are these believers learning about the new pope? They’re learning by reading of his words and actions in newspaper reports and television interviews. They see photos of him driving little cars and kissing babies. They read interviews in which he defends homosexuals and wonders if the church’s opposition to abortion is drowning out the rest of its message of salvation.
And what does the bishop of Madison, Robert Morlino, reply to all this enthusiasm? In his weekly column in the Catholic Herald, Morlino suggests local Catholics stop getting their news about the pope from the secular media.
“So, I think we all should be listening to him and considering how better to love one another and how better to draw close in truth. And, despite their glee at the pope’s message, I’m not so sure the mass media, celebrities, bloggers and pro-abortion groups are signing on to promote real and lasting unity of all people in Jesus Christ.
“So, if you want to know what the pope says, I think it’d be best if we put down the New York Times and the State Journal and look online at the Vatican website or at outlets like the Catholic News Agency -- those who are interested in his message of unity.
“And if you want to know what the pope believes, I think it’d be best if we turn off the secular television talking heads and turn on EWTN (or even pick up a catechism -- it’s all in there).”
Which is another way of saying that the hierarchy and bishops will tell you what the pope says -- you don’t have to form your own opinion. And if you follow that route, you will soon conclude that the pope is not proclaiming good news but is, in fact, championing the status quo.
Here’s a hint: he’s not championing the status quo. And my guess is that the bishops who have built their careers on championing the status quo are terrified.
All this really seems to be just a continuation of the anguish in the church formed by the Second Vatican Council, initiated by another pope who wanted to see the church open up rather than close in.
Morlino pretty much sees Vatican II as a disaster -- at least in the way the council was perceived by the world.
“At the very least, in the church, there was simple confusion. No one really knew what the church taught anymore. They would hear one thing from one priest and something very different from another. And so, in short, over the past few decades, it’s been necessary for the pope and the bishops to be increasingly clear what the church does and does not teach," said Morlino.
So, the bishop concludes, what Pope Francis is really calling for is a “unity of minds,” but he wants Catholics to truly believe what the bishops teach, through a “unity of hearts.”
No doubt, that’s true. But what’s also true, I would guess, is that the pope is calling on the bishops to look to their people and get a fuller picture of what the unity of hearts, the love of faithful people for one another and for their church, might mean.
Just let Francis be defined by official Catholic channels, and it won’t take long before the hope he has inspired is dashed on the rocks of dead religion.