Some of our priest-cynics are disappointed and shattered idealists, writes Breda O’Brien
I can’t keep up with Pope Francis. Every day, there is a new story, a new inspiration. Let me just pick a few of my favourites from the whirlwind of the last few months.
The Pope has been strongly criticised in some quarters, and particularly by conservatives who fear that he will throw the baby out with the bathwater (I find this worry bewildering – Francis is the kind of man who will recycle the bathwater to nurture plants, while simultaneously rocking and soothing the baby.)
Anyway, one of his conservative critics, the legal philosopher, Mario Palmaro, who is seriously ill, received a very unexpected phone call recently. It was Pope Francis, wishing him well and assuring him of his prayers.
Mr Palmaro, to his credit, stated that he stood by his criticisms, but scarcely were the words out of his mouth when Pope Francis brushed them aside, saying that it was important to receive criticism, and that he knew that it stemmed from a position of love of the Church.
Mr Palmaro was profoundly moved and touched. It was a private phone call, but it leaked on to the internet, and Mr Palmaro felt obliged to make a public statement.
“Pope Francis told me that he was very close to me, having learned of my health condition, of my grave illness, and I clearly noticed his deep empathy, the attention for a person as such, beyond ideas and opinions, while I live through a time of trial and suffering.” This tender action by the Pope won over many, many critics, unsurprisingly.
The Pope’s attitude reminds me of the parable of the Prodigal Son, which should be titled the Prodigal Father, because it is the father who is generous, forgiving and loving.
Mr Palmaro is a man who stands by his conscience. He is facing death, and all the loneliness and loss that entails. The Pope contacted him as one human being to another, with a message of hope and concern, not condemnation or finger-wagging. It was powerful beyond belief.
It could be a model for all of us on how to deal with critics. The Pope believes in personal contact. He has revolutionised the role of the Vatican almoner, a centuries-old role that in recent times had been often held by men on the verge of retirement. By appointing Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, a Pole who is in his early fifties, it signalled that he wanted someone to actively seek out the poor.
Indeed, he told the archbishop to sell his desk, because he would not be needing it, as the Pope wanted him out and about. Archbishop Krajewski has a clear understanding of his role.
He believes that it has to cost: he contrasts giving €2 to a man who is begging with taking that man to your apartment so that he can have a shower, and while he is in the shower, preparing him a cup of coffee, and perhaps donating him one of your own jumpers.
(The archbishop added the telling detail that the bathroom will stink for three days afterwards, which suggests that it might not just be a flight of the imagination.)
He has become the Pope’s messenger, going places where the Pope cannot. Or can he? Intriguingly, the archbishop gave the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘no comment’ when asked if the Pope ever accompanied him on his late night trips, which led to frenzied speculation that the Pope was sneaking out at night to visit the poor of Rome.
The Pope also has an intriguing and colourful turn of phrase. For example, in his recent pastoral letter, Evangelii Gaudium, he refers to ‘sourpusses’.
“One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’…The evil spirit of defeatism is…the fruit of an anxious and self-centred lack of trust.” (85)
There are a lot of ‘querulous and disillusioned pessimists’ in the Church today, but I suspect that if Pope Francis met them face to face, he would be as tender to them as he was to the man with the severely disfiguring disease, neurofibromatosis.
He would understand that a cynic is a disappointed and shattered idealist.
These bitter individuals are found both among so-called liberals, and so-called conservatives. They can be a trial. Yet Francis teaches us that we all need to bear each other’s burdens, not condemn those who have lost the joy of the gospel.
I hope that for the people who see no signs of hope in the Church as it currently exists, the warmth of Pope Francis will begin for them a long thaw, pre-figuring a return to hope and life.