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Far From the Madding Crowd?

The bells have rung in the New Year and Catholics have throughout the world attended the Mass in honour of Mary The Mother of God. It is a momentous opportunity for all within the Church to once more acknowledge Our Blessed Mother as the paragon of virtue, recall her submission to Divine Will and look to her as comforter of the afflicted. Over the centuries Our Blessed Mother has time and again affirmed that, like her beloved Son, she thirsts for souls and will do all within her power to extend the reach of His salvific mission. Clement, loving, gentle; so the Salve Regina goes and so she is. It would be contrary to her nature to be otherwise.

By contrast, any one unfortunate enough to have accessed the online media in the past 12 hours will have been presented with a markedly less clement pontiff repeatedly slapping the hand of a pilgrim who, having taken hold of his arm to emphasise her entreaty, displayed a reticence in releasing him from her grip. Initially greeted with scepticism, the video footage is in fact authentic; corroborated by the provision of an apology from Pope Francis:

"We lose patience many times. It happens to me too. I apologise for the bad example given yesterday." (BBC News online).

Any who have experienced the congested retail store, commuter train, or, jostling crowd will readily acknowledge that these are encounters which can challenge even the most patient of souls. But is this incident indicative of a more general pontifical reaction or response?

The challenges of congestion may be inherent to the particular environment or journey in question. However, it may equally be thought that the predictability of the challenges themselves ought to inform one's choices (e.g. whether to participate in such activities and if so, how one might prepare or guard against becoming irascible when doing so). By way of example, a supporter attending an international sports event, may regard the journey, congestion and noise as the inevitable price to be paid for physical attendance in the arena; the means by which the event may be felt to its fullest. Similarly, for all celebrities and politicians, the wish to 'get down with the people', 'meet and greet', or, 'squeeze the flesh', is often fuelled by the photo opportunity, or, the wish to be seen. Rare though they may be, participation in such activities, are not free from risk; personal and reputational. One need only reflect momentarily upon the life of St John Paul II to realise that accessibility demands courage. When considered in the context of the papal office, however, these concepts acquire a very different dimension.

The Code of Canon Law reminds us (c332) that the Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power; against whom there is no appeal or recourse (c333 §2). The words of scripture confirm that this is no mere temporal power (Matt. 18:18). As successor to the Apostles, the Holy Father is entrusted with the power to bind and loose. His authority is not dominion, but the exercise of service directed to the salvific mission of the Church founded by Christ himself. It may be thought that the means by which the Bishop of Rome is to fulfil his office rests upon one principle and one principle alone, namely: the authentic communication of the Truth of the faith. True and effective papal communication and accessibility demand nothing less. When viewed in this way, one might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that entering into the crowd is an exercise, not in popularity, or celebrity, but a missionary activity. The purpose is not to present oneself, but to bestow His Blessing, to convey His Word. It is not to appease the crowd, but to direct their attention to Him. It is to make disciples of the nations; not to found a personal cult. There are, of course, many means by which one may engage with the crowd and/or access them. Each comes with its own danger of miscommunication and loss of patience.

Given this position, one may posit the question: does this televised incident(more redolent of Francis Xavier than Francis of Assisi) reveal anything more of the papacy beyond a momentary aberration or loss of pontifical composure?

Prior to 25 December 2019, the question might itself have been treated as nothing more than rhetorical. However, as indicated in a previous article, on that auspicious occasion, three hermits from Westray, Orkney were excommunicated. Whilst initially uncorroborated, a recent tweet from Deacon Nick Donnelly incorporates the trio's response to the Decree received. The full text can be located here:

Even embryonic canonists will be aware that the imposition of a canonical penalty is a response to an external violation of the law (c1321). The text of the Hermits' response raises some interesting issues as to whether this precondition has been satisfied. Indeed, the very nature of the offence remains unclear. Given the writings of the Hermits, it is possible to speculate that they have - like the pilgrim in St Peter's Square- sought to restrain Pope Francis against his will. Seemingly, the Hermits' restraint takes the form of written declarations of Church doctrine and Christian principle. If reports are to be believed, however, the papal response appears to have been no less a demonstration of personal displeasure and summary justice. If this is this is indeed the case, the Hermits may harbour some hope for a reprieve. Perhaps an apology will find its way to the Isles of Orkney. Retaining some connection with reality, this is more in hope than expectation.

Whether or not papal composure is sufficiently restored to grant the Hermits relief, canonists will follow the case closely. There are perhaps two basic reasons for this: a) the fact that there are many who have prominently declared matters contrary to the faith who have not been so treated; and b) the character of excommunication. Contrary to popular understanding, excommunication fractures but does not terminate the relationship of membership in the Church. Its reparation not infrequently requires the excommunicated to re-affirm the teachings previously denied or submit to the legitimate authority, previously rejected. Spectators may take the view that it will require a Xaverian intellect to identify either component in this case.

Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom and comforter of the afflicted, pray for us

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