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PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary

(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, JUNE 28, 2013) — These past few months, THE PLANET has watched with great interest and approval the new style of Pope Francis, a man we can call “militantly humble.” While cutting the regal papacy down several notches, he has elevated a new respect if not for Catholicism itself then for the great principles for which it stands.

Francis has been repulsed by what he has seen of the inner workings of the Curia, the governing council of prelates that presides over the bureaucratic administration of Vatican City, including the scandal ridden Vatican Bank. It remains to be seen what one man, even if he is a pope, can do against an encrusted, deeply embedded power structure that wants to keeps things as is, because many of its members are making out like thieves. How much can Francis rock the boat before he draws too much heat? It’s a chilling question.

Francis has been much more engaging than his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. He has the charismatic appeal of John Paul II without the latter’s “showmanship.” Remember, JPII was an actor, loved the spotlight, and never gave up the trappings of a “Papal Gentleman.” Francis has turned all that on its head. More power to him.

THE PLANET thanks our good friends and colleagues at Reuters press agency, for the following. In this guest column, we present a view of the new pope’s early tenure. We thank John Lloyd for this engaging piece. We hope you enjoy it.

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By John Lloyd

Special to PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary

(Reuters) – The most potent symbol to date of Pope Francis’ five-month papacy is an empty chair. The chair — a large white throne — was to seat His Holiness in the Vatican this past Saturday.

The pope was scheduled to hear a performance of Beethoven‘s ninth symphony, a long-planned event. But minutes before the performance Archbishop Rino Fisichella told the audience that “the Holy Father cannot be present because of an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed.”

Later, it was reported that Francis had privately dismissed the event with a brusque, “I’m not aRenaissance Prince who listens to music instead of working.” Regardless of whether the quote is apocryphal, the comment expresses well the man’s style.

He has declared an end to the Papal Gentlemen, an office which, reformed under Pope Paul VI (1963-78), became an institution whose often aristocratic members officiated at public ceremonies, with their main duty being to meet and greet distinguished visitors. Reports quote the pope’s belief that they were “archaic, useless, even damaging.”

That last may refer to a sex scandal allegedly involving Angelo Balducci, a “Gentleman” who is claimed to have been soliciting male lovers through connections in the Vatican. This, in turn, may be part of the reason why Francis — again, in private — lamented the presence of a “gay mafia” in high places.

He recently prevailed on the French ambassador to Rome, Alain LeRoy, to greatly simplify a dinner for the Italian members of the Legion d’Honneur. Each guest had a papal note by his plate warning that “food wasted is food stolen from the poor.” He has told his bishops not to act like princes; lives in the Vatican hotel, not in the magnificent papal suite; and has repeatedly spoken of living life “as a gift, not as a treasure to be kept to ourselves.”

There’s substance as well as style here — substance based on a calculation. In the early years of last century, Europe’s Catholics — living in a relatively wealthy part of the world, even if many were poor — accounted for 65 percent of the world’s 300 million. Today, Europe has 24 percent of the 1.1 billion worldwide Catholics — with Latin America, the Asia Pacific region and especially sub-Saharan Africa showing rapid growth. Poverty is an often tangible part of everyday Catholic life; a fact that Francis believes contradicts the luxury of cardinals’ and archbishops’ palaces and the concentrated magnificence of the Vatican.

He has been a harsher critic than his immediate predecessors of the sins of capitalism. Commenting on the collapse of the Bangladeshi sweatshop in May, where some 400 workers died, he said that “not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!” Receiving new ambassadors to the Holy See in May, he warned against “a return to the golden calf” and “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

It’s a world away from the scholarly, introverted style of Benedict XVI for whom the scandals and pressures of the Vatican finally became too much to bear. It’s closer to the expressive, even crowd-pleasing style of Pope John Paul II, but it’s much more militantly humble.

There is some risk in Francis’ strategy. There’s an argument that a display of power and wealth are needed especially for poor men and women, who wish to belong to a powerful institution led by great men wearing gorgeous garments.

But the pope’s efforts are also shrewd. His warnings against the “dictatorship of an economy… lacking any truly humane goal” align with the feeling of many across the world.

In Italy, Francis has found a stroke of luck. A humbled Silvio Berlusconi. His predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had a hedonistic Italian prime minister to deal with. In Benedict’s papacy (2005-2012), Berlusconi was beset with sex and other scandals, about which the papacy largely stayed silent because Berlusconi was a lesser evil than a pro-secular left.

But that silence came at the cost of distress on the part of many Catholics. Berlusconi isn’t gone, but earlier this week he was convicted of paying for sex with a minor, and abusing his office and given a seven-year sentence. Lengthy appeals make it all but certain he won’t go to jail. But, already appealing other convictions, he won’t be back as prime minister either. The Vatican’s moral/immoral dance of the past years will no longer need to be danced by Francis, who seems to be further from Berlusconi’s personality than any man in Italy.

Yet, if kicking out the Papal Gentlemen and ducking the concert are large gestures, delivering on the substance of his humility agenda will be much harder for Francis. The papacy is not a government of any more than the few hundred souls within the Holy See. While Catholic social teaching is long on ideas, it has no better idea of how to cope with present crises than political parties of the left or right.

Francis has to inspire his priests with the zeal to re-convert their often semi-detached flocks into activists for radical social change. He must avoid the excesses of leftism, yet not collapse into mere populism. He must identify the Church with programs of poverty alleviation. He must develop practical answers to the unemployment of the young (maybe as pastoral assistants, aids to aged parishioners or menders of crumbling churches). He must be present at policy discussions on the economy and he must give social teaching some realist underpinning. The Catholic Church has a great many men (it’s chosen to marginalize women, for the most part) of high intelligence, of whom Francis, a Jesuit, is one. Let them bend their minds to address poverty’s constant companion — unemployment.

The choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth, the symphony Francis missed, proclaims that “All men will be brothers!” Easier sung than done. Perhaps it was better for the pope to stay at his desk than be discouraged by the height of the hill he has decided to climb.

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)


“Not count me all to blame if I / Conjecture of a stiller guest, / Perchance, perchance, among the rest, / And though in silence, wishing joy.”Alfred Tennyson, from “In Memoriam.”



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Bill Sturgeon
Bill Sturgeon
10 years ago

Great article, Dan! Francis is what the Church needs.

10 years ago

Agree with Bill S. Great piece on a refreshing new pope. Be well DV.

Mike S
Mike S
10 years ago

I am troubled by reports that Archbishop/Cardinal Bergoglio did nothing to aid efforts to oust Liberation Theologists from Church ranks or even to blunt their message. Most Church officials in South America work hard to stop these Marxist phonies from injecting atheist dogma into the catechism. What caused Bergoglio to be so hands off on the matter?

Mike S
Mike S
Reply to  danvalenti
10 years ago

JPII also came down hard on immoral capitalists. He stated that unbridled capitalism was as dangerous to human liberty as totalitarian communism. The notion that he was a right-winger is something the left likes to push to further their agenda.

JPII wisely knew that a political theory derived from class warfare, dreamed up and advanced by atheists has no place in the church.