At calibrated intervals, Benedict XVI's interpretation of the role of the Church in salvation history could come as an unending series of syllables: a solemn pronouncement delivered over millennia in inarticulate snatches. Much like the ambiguous cadence of a sentence under ongoing construction, little tallied as intelligible until sufficient words had been spoken over time to raise some mountable scaffolding of meaning. A deliberate conceit of speech, we will note, albeit one from which no conclusive logic is ever likely to surface until generations have passed. This may serve to hint why the former pope's words seemed always to commence at their own pace and would brook no prompting. Yet interminable or no, our pontifical sentence rang constant, ever in motion. It bespoke a strident timbre, ringing out its deference to some centuries-old claim to authority, and it exhibited an historical trajectory for which -like it or lump it- an illimitable distance from the vox pops was rather unsubtly encrypted. Consistent with that tradition, Ratzinger's character as a man never emerged.
Many of today's old timers, still nostalgic for those bygone theatrics, entertain some misgivings about the subsequent 'no frills' papacy of Benedict's successor. I was recently reminded how mistaken it can be to assume that such a club can only be frequented by grey-haired, anal retentive seniors. My own (indefensibly ageist) supposition that they must all be geriatric traditionalists abruptly ended when an undergraduate from Rome's Sapienza proclaimed to me her imperviousness to whether people choose to go about naked in public just as long as they do so in the apposite places. I was initially unsure where her argument was leading - a fastidious assertion on the face of it, thought I, though one which signalled some general tolerance within her cognitive ecosystem to forms of social 'transgression' which are compliant with agreed protocols. Underlying all was an expectation that 'alternative' social behaviour can reasonably be accommodated - provided that it corresponds to some shared consensus.
I confess at that instance to have upheld my typical indifference to how poorly God's plenty can sometimes represent our much extolled, twenty-first century virtue of 'thinking out of the box'. Despite this, I had to fleetingly acknowledge that her reasoning may not so easily be attributed, wholesale, to some previous generation at impulsive loggerheads with non-conformity merely for its own sake. Again I was confused as to where the argument was going, though I could appreciate that her insistence upon maintaining certain accepted parameters held a coherence of its own which was not devoid of logic. It all became clearer after she proceeded to advance the view that when Francis was elected to fill the shoes of the fisherman (assuming modest cowhide derbys to be of as scant import as the rich, velvet slippers of his forerunner), the man completely ceased to be Bergoglio - becoming from then on, and to all effects, Peter. That, mused she with her distinctive Roman dash, is 'essentially who he is'. Perhaps in consequence, I willingly forgave her for then declaring herself wholly disinterested in how often His Holiness gets to sneak out of the Vatican for a furtive pizza, whether he imbibes the occasional shot of tequila, or if an insult to his mamma might risk having us peremptorily clobbered over the head by an exacting Argentine wrath. Her prevailing attitude, in sum, was that such trivia remains altogether irrelevant to his job description. For one who professed herself 'fully agnostic', she convinced me not a bit. Folk here who roundly condemn the Curia whilst having curiously cultivated opinions on everything from the upcoming papal trip abroad to who's next in line 'to cop a red hat' are among Italy's crowning contradictions. Whether this all springs from some resigned sense of common anthropological identity or from a species of reluctant allegiance to Holy Mother Church I cannot say, but I have lived too long among this country's irresolute detractors to not recognize a homegrown love-to-hate-her relationship when I see it.
For all that, I deemed our student unduly dismissive of a spiritual leader whose endearing, unpretentious appeal has made him, only three years since the conclave, such an influential symbol of unity for the world - especially in light of our progressively more fractious geopolitical landscape. Yet her observation soon had me mulling over why, indeed, a pontiff's role in that ecclesial organigram should bar him perforce from making his own boisterous splash to energize a despondent faithful, intermittently fatigued in its uphill climb towards cheerier beatific summits. The idea recalled to my mind that 'royal we' once adopted by so many popes, apparently in a manner similar to that of monarchs when speaking of themselves. A Carmelite friar once righted this inexcusable imprecision on my part, at once blaming that outrageous error for initially being the cause of an unceremonious shedding of the second person plural when talking to the Bishop of Rome. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of Latin, he challenged, would quickly deduce that at no time did one ever address the pontiff as 'you' (i.e. in the second person singular) simply because one was never actually speaking to 'Your Holiness' alone as sole interlocutor but rather to 'all of you who are of the Petrine succession', viz. while the man himself is implied in the address, by using the Latin vestra Sanctitas he is only referenced here as one among many, including all his predecessors. At no point, therefore, did it betoken any aggrandizement of the personal status of the incumbent. Quite to the contrary, it reflected a filial deference to a pastoral office which he (and others before him) had been elected to hold until death - not by merit but by grace. In this respect one was never in fact speaking to a person but was addressing an institution. Correspondingly, the personality of the Pontifex Maximus hardly mattered.
In view of that gallant obsequiousness, Bergoglio does at least score a few points for having taken home the tiara at just the right historical moment, even if the deciding vote probably had little to do with some sassy substitute settling for the level of mortals just as his debilitated forerunner came tumbling down from far dizzier heights. Rather it was a sign that, by then, everyone on Lateran Hill had already begun to see the unprecedented development of a collective ecclesial forma mentis - suddenly surprisingly self-critical and having grown a conscience practically overnight. No question but the cardinal electors had finally got the message. Following a grilling due diligence, they knew their man. With the passé, time-worn concepts of sin and grace gradually redimensioned to accommodate our predominant thinking around progress, any analogous mention of, say, eternity or hell was already sounding quirky within informed Catholic circles. Today such 'legacy theology' jars violently with any post Enlightenment understanding of the purported authority of religious teaching and, steadfast to common sense, generally raises a laugh. It even comes as comical to the ear, perhaps recalling to our minds the exuberant rhetoric of Moses, that duplicitous raven in Orwell's Animal Farm with his emotional promise of Sugarcandy Mountain to any hard-working beast who agrees to remain both pacifically subordinate and dutifully ignorant. Quiz some reverend gentleman these days about Purgatory and you may well have him shifting awkwardly about the subject in his skirts, much like one tiptoeing daintily upon eggs as he explains to you that, frankly, to decode the eternal mysteries we currently have more objective cerebral tools at our disposal.
I have witnessed similar reactions in parish clergy, visibly inconvenienced by the unexpected request of some elderly parishioner to 'confess' before Mass. It would appear that atonement with God or our 'obsolete idea' of forgiveness through the blessing of a priest is almost discouraged by some ministers, who prefer instead to relativize human fragility against a more presentable backdrop of, say, personality weaknesses owing to some predictable infighting amongst members of our 'big societal family'. So is that perilous medieval interplay between Paradiso and Inferno re-staged within a new theatre, relegated now to an essentially sociological universe in which no conceivable celestial or otherwordly power could possibly be battling for control of anyone's immortal soul.
For an earthy pragmatist like Bergoglio, the ongoing mediation between our peppy hope of heaven and the humdrum things of earth must assuredly be a slippery ball to juggle, especially in view of the fact that belief in a divine Incarnation and in a Resurrection will always lie at the heart of Christianity. Each is understood to be a supernatural occurrence or neither could ever hold water within that blissful mélange of clamorous illogicality. Such 'big bang' salvific events, both purveyed as mysteries, inherently imply some savour for the Transcendent which, however concerned with 'the things of earth', must nonetheless remain spiritual and so not entirely 'of this world'. Little here can be rational or we would be in the realm of certainty - not of faith. In this respect, and arguably to his credit, the Bishop of Rome did at least restore to the Christian pantheon that threat of hell and its menace of the devil, most notably in his chastisement of the Calabrian mafia. Yet disappointingly for anyone titillated by the gothic, probably to Francis' thinking Beelzebub more closely resembles some big hostile bully toting a fat wallet - all swollen with ill-gotten banknotes and no human conscience to speak of.
It is clear this pontiff needs no lessons in retaining a firm purchase along that unsteady tightrope between the hard, 'bread and butter' issues of his hungrier flock and our older archaeology of ancient lore which traverses the ages of an earlier, ostensibly pie-in-the-sky religiosity, long-abandoned in so-called 'developed' nations. That is a necessary provocation which goes with the territory and one which doubtless featured among his considerations recently when he downplayed the devotional hype around an inconsequential Bosnian town in which a small group of visionaries have allegedly been receiving apparitions of the Virgin Mary since 1988. Moreover, it demonstrates a suspicion on his part that mystic pretenders, however ardent, could potentially hatch an ensuing faith industry of dubious pilgrimages powered by some pietistic ingenuousness.
What we know for sure is that in March 2013 Francis inherited a multifaceted Catholicism of many colours. It is a world inhabited by folk of all stripes and from every culture and persuasion. Among that number we must also list our illuminated Carmelite, cited above, even if I cannot vouch for the lengths to which his Christian charity will go. He was fond of complaining about continuous internecene squabbles 'arising mostly from the gut alone and only ever around the usual obligatory arguments of same sex marriage, women's ordination and compulsory clerical celibacy.' Predictably I guess, our excitable ecclesiastic went on then to lament that 'it can sometimes look like there is nothing else to discuss, so that already many perceive such talk to be spawned by a Positivist diktat which feigns inclusive debate whilst dampening all genuine theological enquiry and altogether hijacking the traffic of ideas.'
His voice as well must continue to be heard in the Church of Jorge Bergoglio - for there too, no less, is God's plenty. It is by Francis' shrewd management of that panoply of eccentric diversity that his legacy will finally be determined.