Sunday, 1 September 2013

Our “Apostolic Nuisance” of a Pope

Wow! Although the media moguls use many of the same sources for their news stories and feature different versions of the one event, it is not often that national newspapers choose to highlight comments that a pope has made about global finance. Recently, however, the Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, the Daily Mail Online and The Times literally sang from the same hymn sheet, quoting Pope Francis as he castigated those who follow the “‘cult of money” and the “tyranny of the markets”.

It was too much of a coincidence that, on the very day that Pope Francis addressed a group of new Ambassadors to the Holy See, he also happened to speak in his homily about the nuisance value of St Paul. That in itself was unexpected. Surely a Supreme Pontiff should speak with reverence about all that St Paul achieved, highlighting his amazing journeys, mostly on foot, his sufferings, shipwrecks, conversions and eventual martyrdom? Well, yes, he could have done. The Pope is the last person to downgrade St Paul. However he was also realistic, pointing out that, in the early Church: "Paul is a nuisance: he is a man who, with his preaching, his work, his attitude, irritates others... He was always in trouble, not in trouble for trouble’s sake, but for Jesus, proclaiming Jesus, [trouble] is the consequence."

So it was that Francis made an ‘Apostolic Nuisance’ of himself when he spoke to the new Ambassadors of Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg and Botswana. He knew his words would travel further than the audience hall. He knew that some people in this world do not like to be reminded that what, for most of us, is a necessity for daily survival, is, for them, a number beyond our imagining. “Money has to serve, not to rule... Fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way... In the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols.”

His criticism of those who make idols of money ‘just happened’ on the same day that Christie’s auctioned a fabulous 101 carat colourless diamond, which they described as “perfect”. The exquisite gem took 21 months to polish and was sold for £17.6 million, a mere fraction of the £67 million which changed hands in one day. The following day the same firm sold a single painting, made by dripping paint over a small canvas, for no less than £325.7 million. Was the Pope exaggerating when he spoke of “new idols”? Is there not an imbalance when so much money is available for things which will be considered an investment at a time when even hard working farmers are resorting to food handouts?

A Jesuit friend of mine recently remarked that Pope Francis has come along at the right time, at a moment when the world is desperately looking for leadership in the problems which face, not only the big multinationals and financial markets, but, more importantly, create pain and suffering for each and every one of us. So many of us are ‘the little ones at the bottom of the pile’, helpless to change some of the biggest challenges on our planet. We daily hear about global warming, exploitation of the poor and marginalised, unemployment, hunger, and bankruptcy and have little more that we can do beyond making an X on a ballot paper in the hopes that elected politicians will make a difference.

Perhaps it is a tangible sign of that search for moral leadership when national newspapers increasingly take notice of what the Pope is saying and do not dismiss his words as irrelevant. That says something about the impact that he has made in the two months of his pontificate. Of course the media loves someone who can publicly criticise the various financial institutions which have made life such a misery for so many people during the past few years. Yet even the Washington Post apparently recently published an article telling would-be visitors to the Vatican how they might also see Pope Francis.

Pope Francis thus re-echoed the sentiments of his patron, St Francis of Assisi who would have been the first to agree with his papal protégé, "Man is not what he consumes." Admittedly the Saint of Assisi approached money from a different angle and could be radical in his reforming zeal, likening it to dung and forbidding his followers to have anything to do with it. Today we need money, cannot depend on barter, but have new challenges to use money appropriately.

When, in the spring of 1209, St Francis met Pope Innocent III, responsible for the vast wealth of the Papal States, the ragged beggar offered a dramatic contrast to the sumptuous surroundings of the successor of an itinerant carpenter and a group of fishermen preaching along the shores of Lake Galilee. Yet Pope Francis is looking at the same motley crowd and offering the same challenge. Just as the ‘little poor man of Assisi’ was called to rebuild the Church through poverty, simplicity and joy, Francis I, who delights in the title of ‘Bishop of Rome’ and speaks tirelessly of being a shepherd, is repeatedly confronting the world and daring it to take the risk of loving proclamation and service.

His efforts are having results. During the past few weeks, according to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, the attendance at some of the Wednesday General Audiences in St Peter’s Square has recently topped 100,00 in contrast to the former average of 50,000 to 70,000. The Archbishop said he does not care for the term “Francis effect,” since Pope Francis has not changed Church teaching, but he has repeatedly heard reports that “a lot of people have been going to confession and many have said that while they hadn’t gone in a long time, they felt touched by the words of Pope Francis... People want to be present, listen to his voice and see him, touch him, because he makes a connection (with people) that is very moving.”

The interesting thing is that nobody is suggesting that the impact which Francis makes is planned. People used to point to the acting talents of Pope John Paul II and his ability to ‘play the crowds’.  Benedict was always gracious. A shy person, he tried better than his best to reach out to others, even in the face of tremendous global concerns such as the abuse scandals which rocked the Church. Francis does what he does because he is who he is. There is no showmanship in his ability to touch hearts. His words are gentle and simple so that they do not antagonise their hearers even when, if they listen and think, they are hearing challenges of supernatural proportions.

Pope Francis described St Paul as a nuisance because his persistence in proclaiming the Gospel. It seems he could also be an “Apostolic nuisance”. Thank God! “And if we annoy people, blessed be the Lord. Onwards, as the Lord says to Paul, ‘take courage!' "