FROM ST PETER TO POPE FRANCIS
BY BETH DOHERTY
Popes throughout the ages have been imperfect human beings. They have been broken sinners in need of healing like each of us. Some have been evil characters.
From St Peter through to Pope Francis, history has shown where they have fallen short, sometimes considerably.
Without the lens of history, and through the eyes of faith alone, it is perhaps understandable that people have high hopes and expectations for this new Pope.
However, it seems that Pope Francis is being held to a standard which is more than simply human; people seem to expect him to be Jesus.
And not only is he expected to be Holy, but there seems to be an expectation that his entire life history to this moment should have been clear steps to holiness in anticipation of his election as the Vicar of Christ.
But how realistic is this?
I must admit to a sinking feeling each time I read a negative story about Pope Francis’ alleged complicity with the military during Argentina’s dirty war; a sense of disappointment when I hear that not all see him as humble, holy.
Some commentaries speak of him as having been an authoritarian and conservative Archbishop. At different times in his life, some of these accusations might have had some truth – it is difficult to know – and media reports can be unhelpful at best, defamatory and untruthful at worst.
But this is a limited view of faith and theology if we dwell on this past of Cardinal Bergoglio, and don’t look more deeply at his actions and choices now. It is also a misguided view of our faith if we don’t look at our human frailty and need of forgiveness and conversion at every stage of our lives.
As we enter Holy Week, we listen to the Gospels which focus very specifically on the weaknesses of the Disciples, all of whom ran away in Jesus’ hour of need.
While listening to the readings on Palm Sunday, I was struck by the story of the very first Pope, Peter, the rock on who our Church was built. ‘I will always be with you, Lord. I will never deny you Lord’. And yet before the cock crowed in the morning, Peter had denied Jesus three times.
It did not take long for the trial by media of Pope Francis to begin, and the most shocking stories abound of his action or inaction during Argentina’s darkest years while he was Provincial of the Jesuits.
During 1973-1979 at the height of the Dirty War, an estimated 75,000 people ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the military junta. As some stories say, Pope Francis pleaded for the lives two Jesuits to the military; other stories say he denounced them; others again talk of him giving his own ID card to a man to allow him to escape Argentina.
Since these reports emerged, one of the Jesuit survivors of the dictatorship has come out in defence of Pope Francis. Fr Jalics, who now lives in a monastery in Germany, issued a statement to clear up any misinterpretation around the role played by Bergoglio while he was being held by the navy in Argentina.
‘I myself was once inclined to believe that we were the victims of a denunciation,’ Jalics said. ‘[But] at the end of the 90s, after numerous conversations, it became clear to me that this suspicion was unfounded. It is therefore wrong to assert that our capture took place at the initiative of Father Bergoglio,’ said Jalics in his statement.
Whatever Pope Francis’ actions during this time, and I have come to believe that they were more honourable than some reports suggest, conversion is one of the most important precepts of the Christian faith.
How often does fear play a part in our decision or indecision? In the Ignatian tradition, we talk of good and bad spirits. All of us have had some experience of making decisions influenced by the “bad spirit”.
Padre José Luis Caravias SJ, of Paraguay, is another priest who has come out in defence ofPope Francis, saying that he would not be alive if it hadn’t been for Fr Bergoglio’s protection of him in Buenos Aires in the 1970s. Fr Caravias was exiled in Argentina after being persecuted and expelled as a result of standing up for Agrarian reform for campesinos during the Strössner regime.
‘I ask myself – how many people had sufficient courage, here in Paraguay and in Argentina to denounce the dictators? Very few,’ said Fr Caravias when interviewed.
Another image accompanied by words which is doing the social media rounds is one of Archbishop Oscar Romero and John Paul II.
Needless to say, their relationship was also complicated. Some reports suggest that John Paul II refused an audience with Romero 10 months before he was assassinated while saying mass in San Salvador. John Paul II later prayed at the tomb of Romero after his assassination. Perhaps this is not enough, but it is here that God’s merciful embrace is needed.
So, in the light of this information, and indeed, the very hopeful signs of humility and change already manifest in this Pontificate, my feeling is that we need to go back to the basics.
The very first Pope of the Catholic Church denied Jesus three times and then went on to become the rock on which our Church was built.
Conversion, faith, and the grace of God is the only way this faith, which follows a crucified and resurrected Lord makes sense, and our fragile leaders are, in this way, One with el pueblo de Dios (The people of God).
Beth Doherty is media director for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
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