The tongues are certainly waging worldwide over the Christmas message of Pope Francis to staff at the Vatican – the priests, monsignors, bishops and cardinals gathered for an end of year assessment by the pope of the year that has passed.
A few perfunctory words to round out a very busy year or a general expression for thanks for various contributions? Not at all! A full on, Gospel based account of the traps of bureaucracy, the hypocrisy that can beset professional Catholic administrators and an implied warning that more is to come when the anticipated plans to restructure the Vatican Curia are announced in the next couple of months.
“Where did this one come from and why at Christmas?” is the understandable question on many minds, not least those whose tenure in their jobs depends on the one making the damning assessment.
But there’s nothing new in what the pope said, observers of the Vatican and those who have worked closely with bishops and cardinals in Rome have told me.
“You could find any number of cardinals and bishops saying the same thing to my certain knowledge up to five decades ago,” one previously highly placed and now retired lay Church official in Rome told me.
So how and why did the Argentinian Pope come to say it now to the clergy among the Vatican’s staff, especially as he subsequently met with the Vatican’s lay staff to thank them for all the sacrifices they make in their service of the Vatican every day?
What drove the first Pope in history to “dump” so completely, publically and unceremoniously on his Curia and go to the heart of the Gospel to find a basis for his commentary?
Jesuits in Argentina I spoke to were not surprised at all by what the Pope had to say in Rome. This way of behaving was vary familiar in Fr. Bergoglio’s modus operandi with the Jesuits as Provincial and as Cardinal in Buenos Aires.
I asked one Jesuit who knows the pope well how he interpreted this declaration in Rome. He told me that such rhetorical flourishes from Bergoglio always come down to being directed against people, sometimes even just a single, though significant individual and what they represent or what he finds loathsome and intolerable. My Jesuit informant told me the pope understands power and uses it to devastating effect when there is someone or a group he believes to be guilty of behavior at complete odds with the Gospel.
To understand why the pope is such a no-nonsense individual on these matters, some appreciation of the context he comes from is needed. He began life, like many Argentinians of his age and generation, as a Peronist.
Peronism is a chaotic, at times self-contradictory, collection of populist, authoritarian and dysfunctional beliefs and political practices some of which have their foundation in the Catholic social teaching of the 1930s, particularly the corporatism of the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931.
In Argentina, Peronism created all manner of socially progressive laws but also left a legacy of corruption, political confusion, violence and the missing of economic opportunities. Politically and economically, the country has “underachieved”.
Economically, the ravages of international capitalism that exploited its resources and left little for the locals have not helped Argentina. And politically, the country has led a fractured life for over fifty years with the ghost of Juan Peron authorizing no end of varieties of mutually exclusive and contradictory political movements and parties.
In that political mess, violence has been the constant companion of public life, with the most outstanding moment being the “dirty war” from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. It was something in which the Catholic Church was deeply involved – a significant part though not all of its leadership turned a blind eye to the killings, murders and torture carried out by the military dictatorship that operated in the name of restoring the Church and Catholic values to the center of Argentinian life.
The ultimately unproductive Peronism of his youth, the political chaos of the country that led to a military dictatorship, fighting a war with Argentinians, a Church where the Nuncio was the tennis partner of the military dictator and the President of the bishops’ conference was chaplain general to the armed forces and completely supportive of its “saving” role: this is the turbulence that provided the shaping influences on a priest with a deep faith but also a keen sense of the Church’s public role. That was the world that forged Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
He developed a deep antagonism to ideologically driven solutions to anything and his recurrent return to “the people”, what they think/feel/believe. His remaining piece of Peronism is its populism, guided by rational reflection.
Bergoglio prized himself away from tribal allegiances and predictable beliefs and alliances that had been the Peronist way of operating. Then the Gospel kicked in and the parameters of his life became the Gospel and the poor. As well, a deep dose of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as reinterpreted from the 1960s on, provided him with a Christ focused, institutionally unadorned approach to faith that could not be dismayed by evidence that the church and its leadership were not all they were expected to be.
These simple resources are the foundation of his radicalism. If you put yourself in his shoes in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it may well be that these simple elements are the basis for his survival in the tumultuous events of those many years.
What those elements now provide to the church and the world is a distinctive personality who displays many features of a genuinely post-modern personality. He has no respect for statuses and structures unless the people holding them are delivering what they’ve been put in place to provide. He never invokes tradition to justify his claims or assertions. He seeks to engage and persuade rather than declare and direct. He is a vividly autonomous actor operating from his own subjectivity rather a received set of institutionally generated maxims and boundaries.
Maybe that is why he has captured the imagination of a postmodern world.