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Mater et Magister?

With the demands of Christmas preparations, the "Netflix" film: "Two Popes" may have eluded some. Declaring itself to be "based on true events", it depicts Cardinal Bergoglio as a Gandhi -like figure; prevailed upon, against his better judgment, to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

Two themes dominate the ensuing narrative: Pope Benedict XVI presented as a socially inept, fearful man, debilitated by his own sense of lack of connection with people in general; and Bergoglio as one at ease with all peoples, the man who liberates, makes faith accessible, the Church inclusive and transparent. Bergoglio the Liberator, somewhat confusingly, presented as Pope Benedict's choice; the candidate to correct the failings of Benedict's own papacy.

For those who having read thus far, not reaching for a suitable receptacle, or forming a new found interest in reading almost anything else, take heart. The film has as much connection with reality as the “Da Vinci Code” or “Angels & Demons”. Particular highpoints include Bergoglio, pre-election, entering a sacristy whistling a melody. The whistling prompts Pope Benedict to enquire the name of the hymn. It is in fact an Abba song. This vignette is clearly intended to portray just how far removed Pope Benedict was from popular culture; something akin to the English High Court Judge, who, mid trial, enquired: "who are the Beatles?”

Despite these flaws, the film demonstrates the limitless character of poetic (or in this case less than poetic) licence. However, this feature is of itself informative. It shows how those in certain media quarters wish to portray Pope Francis: Francis the Reformer; Francis the Pastor; Francis, the benign figure in a Church otherwise beset with centuries’ old prejudices. So runs myth and copy. Implicit to this message is the characterisation of Pope Francis as the candidate who reaffirms the essence of the true Faith.

Objective observers may be forgiven for forming the view that this media narrative is some considerable distance away from their experience of certain aspects of the present papacy. It is, of course, likley that Pope Francis might yet prove the most loquacious Pope in modern history. However, this facet of his pontificate cannot be detached from the deafening silence following the Vigano Testament. Nor is that an isolated episode. There have been other prolonged silences too; such that there has emerged a perception by some that this silence per se represents a vehicle for ambivalence, or worse, serves as a form of acquiescence. This same silence has been maintained even on those occasions when affirmation of matters of faith, doctrine or indeed ecclesiology, was much needed. Witness the statements of Archbishop Paglia in which he considered it permissible for priests to be present at assisted suicides. The irony of this statement did not go unnoticed; given its author is the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Consider also the papal silence in the face of pronouncements from the German bishops.

In the interests of balance, it might be considered that these are but examples of papal tolerance; allowing each to cultivate their own authentic response to the universal call to holiness. Perhaps this too is symptomatic of a papal ambition to accommodate autonomy and self expression.

If one was in fact analysing the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church plc or Vatican City Inc, such a perspective might be all well and good; provided, of course, that such freedom was recognised as being enjoyed by all members and participants of the organisation in question and not merely those who expressed views which might be regarded as popular. But the Church is not a commercial enterprise. It is instead entrusted with the mission of salvation. It is the recipient of the irreplaceable and unambiguous obligation to communicate and teach the faith. In the words of Cardinal Muller ("The Power of Truth", Ignatius, at p131):

“There is no help for us in either a unilateral horizontal dialogue or dull dialogical processes that only compose in ecclesiastical catalogues of feasible, desirable, and, for the majority, acceptable matters…Dialogue, dispute, and discussion, as well as silence and prayer, belong to the "dialogical culture" of the Church, because she is not an eloquent majority that hits on what is the right thing, because the church trusts that the truth opens up to the hearing ones. Unanimity of a lot of people has always been regarded as something out of the question for humans, and the experience of the Church teaches this truth with shameful clarity. And yet there is a kind of conversation, which paradoxically consists of hearing, of being overwhelmed by the truth... The church must accept this incomprehensible freedom of the word."

This understanding betokens a true "communio"; that is a solidarity of purpose which has as its single actuating motive, the transmission and communication of the salvation of Christ himself as The way, The truth and The life. This reality, is incapable of contradiction. It requires communication in and out of season. All within the Church should be vigilant to ensure that this Truth is affirmed. One might be forgiven for thinking such affirmation must be most clearly expressed by the Holy Father himself. At the very least, it requires acceptance to those who adhere to the teachings of the Church and tolerance to them when they communicate what may be described as 'home truths' consistent with them.

In this respect, however, the tolerance of the hierarchy may not extend to the Isles of Orkney. There, three hermits declared and affirmed the teachings of the Church as mother and teacher. They have done so in an unambiguous manner. This, it appears, has been based upon the Church’s doctrinal teaching and self-understanding; communicated by means of social media "blog". In so doing they have exhorted all within the Church to affirm and reaffirm its core doctrines. It has been reported that in response to one such blog, they have now been formally excommunicated; with a confirmatory Decree issued to them on Christmas Day. The precise basis of the excommunication is unclear; whether imposed latae sententiae or otherwise. Time will no doubt reveal the details of this sad and disturbing incident. No matter how the Church or indeed the papacy is currently presented in social media, we do well to keep in mind the observations of Cardinal Kasper:

"The church, especially today is judged by its own practice. Its prophetic defence of human rights can only be credible if it is perceived by others to be just and merciful itself. …[T]his pledges the Church to a constant examination of conscience and a continuous purification and renewal of its life, laws, institutions and conduct."

Renewal and reform are not synonymous. They are sequential. Renewal in the Church requires a clear and unequivocal re-engagement with (an affirmation of) its doctrines and self-understanding; communicated in a manner which is free from ambiguity. In this respect, it is vital that the culture of celebrity is not permitted to develop into a form of vanity which displaces the Church's Christocentric mission and purpose. Certain matters are and remain non-negotiable; no matter how unwelcome they may be to the modern ear or inconvenient to interreligious dialogue. Confirmation of these truths might be the cause for hope of a Netflix sequel. Maintaining a numerical theme we me might find our attention transported from the personalities of “Two Popes” to the person of “One Christ”. At least with such a sequel, we could be confident that the product would indeed be based on true events. In the words of the Divine Office today, the Church has prayed "Lord, Remember Your Church". We would do well not to forget it ourselves.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

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