Resistance to the Good

Posted: April 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

The response of people to Pope Francis remaking the papal office has by and large been very positive. Even the non-religious weigh in with sympathetic commentary. But the response of traditionalists has not been so favorable. Why?

Francis started breaking the mold by his choice of simple vestments and the place where he was to live, which was not in the apostolic palace but rather the simple Vatican apartments. Soon after he was washing the feet of youth in detention on Maundy Thursday, youth including women and a Muslim. This was instead of the traditional washing of the feet of twelve priests in St. Peters.

Most of the world embraced this expression of faith that more closely reflected that of St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake, or, yes, Jesus himself. That has not, however, been the universal response.

Traditionalists have been much more at home with the ways of his predecessor, Benedict, who returned to much of the tradition and pomp of earlier days. Too much attention to the poor translated into a shift away from bases of centralized power. Too much recognition of people of other faiths, like Muslims, looked like creeping relativism. Those who longed for a return to the good old pre-Vatican II trappings of the papacy became disappointed. But Francis, it would seem, doesn’t much care about that.

The fact is that the person the Cardinals chose in the conclave has conducted his life and ministry this way all along. As an archbishop in Argentina he did the same. Francis has simply brought this simpler and less grandiose view to his new office. By a stroke of grace it is exactly what the church needs. But that is resisted.

Are we surprised? Actually not. History is littered with parallels. We find many examples of pious and faithful souls who were elevated to positions of ecclesial leadership only to frustrate those they serve. The people were often inspired and led to a new-found commitment to the Christian way. But the keepers of the institution most usually found such a model of ministry a difficulty, an encumbrance. It usually stood in the way of perpetuating their own agenda of power. When the top leader did not collude with them then he or she became the problem.

I have, in a much more limited way, experienced that in my years of being a pastor. Institutions have a funny way of projecting their expectations upon an individual they hope will not only represent them but mirror their values. Doing what Jesus would do is seen as beside the point. The most driving question becomes, “Does he look like us, reflect our values?” A few times in my ministry I have had people call into question such things as concern for the poor, living simply, and avoiding unnecessary luxury and social niceties for just this reason. When they felt that the prevailing values of their group were not sufficiently lauded then they engaged in a kind of moral inversion: doing good was defined as bad. And that response was, ultimately, to protect their treasured but fragile way of life, Jesus being quite beside the point.

I think all this is at play with Francis and his detractors. Their numbers are relatively small, but noisy. My prayer for him, and any other leader who strives to do the right thing in the face of opposition by those who are less concerned for virtue and more concerned for a continued way of life is this:

Eternal God, who knows the falling of each sparrow, who led our Lord who had nowhere to lay his head:

Give to those who serve you in spirit and truth the courage to follow the voice of conviction, to not be led into temptation by the crowd or the trappings of prestige or power. Fill them with a humble spirit that transforms those around them. When they feel alone, provide them with companions who reassure them of their best intuitions. And lead the hard-hearted into repentance so that with the hearts of children they might turn toward your reign with gladness and joy. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

  1. NMiller says:

    Good one, Pastor! A model of servanthood from high places is much needed in this world!

  2. J says:

    What a beautiful prayer, and what truth spoken of the new Pope….I pray his church lets him continue to do what the cardinals saw as worthy of leadership and direction for the whole.

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