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Pope Francis – Asthmatic, Charismatic Or Schismatic?

Pope Francis – Asthmatic, Charismatic Or Schismatic?

Pope Francis reportedly has only one functional lung. So is he asthmatic? With his energy levels at 82, that puts younger people to shame, I daresay that he is not. His loss of a lung has not diminished his lung power for speaking up boldly. That’s because he has a big heart, and more importantly, he has deep spiritual stamina. 

Charismatic doesn’t necessarily mean loud clapping or shouting. I would define a charismatic personality as one whose charisma reaches out to others and impacts their lives. Such a person creates waves. By that definition Francis is surely charismatic.

What of schismatic? In an interview to journalists on board his aircraft while returning from a recent trip to Africa, Francis was asked if he was causing a schism in the Church; with specific reference to cash cow conservatives in the USA. He responded that he didn’t want a schism, but was not afraid of it either. In a way he was accepting the conservatives’ challenge. As stated in my previous pieces, Francis has been labelled a heretic, modernist, ultra-liberal and even a communist. So are the capitalists joining forces with the conservatives? One never knows, for truth is stranger than fiction, even Dan Brown’s fiction or friction.

What is schism all about? The Collins English Dictionary defines it as a division in a Church, not necessarily involving differences in doctrine. “The Christian Faith”, is a text book for seminarians in India, compiled by two renowned Jesuits – J. Neuner and J. Dupuis. I quote them:

“The first great and lasting division between Christians was between the Churches of the East and the Church of the West … It took a decisive turning point in 1054 … Two attempts were made to heal the wounds, at the Council of Lyons (1274) and Council of Florence (1439-45). But finally ended in 1453” (Pgs 245/6). Rev P.C. Chacko in his book “General Councils of the Church” has an insight into what caused the Great Schism of the East, as Catholics refer to it.

Chacko (Pgs 62-63) says that this was not a crisis of doctrine, but of personalities. It was a power struggle between Abp Ignatius of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Photius, a layman who was made an archbishop almost overnight. To resolve the issue Pope Nicholas I sent two legates to Constantinople to investigate and report back to him. The legates accepted heavy bribes and ruled in favour of Photius. On coming to know of this, the pope ex-communicated the legates. To resolve the issue the Fourth Council of Constantinople was held in 869. It too failed to resolve it. To avoid a schism Pope John VIII reinstated Photius in 878; but he in turn reneged and ex-communicated the pope in 879! He ruled as the Pope of the East till 886, when the new Emperor Leo VI banished him to a monastery, where he died on 6th November 897. The Eastern Churches consider him a saint and commemorate that day as his feast.

What does this sordid episode teach us? That money, vested interests and political interference have a major impact on the life of the church. Also, just as one man’s bread is another man’s poison, so too, one church’s villain is another one’s saint! This example applies equally to Francis. For some he is a loving, caring pastor with the smell of the sheep. For others he is a threat to the so-called orthodoxy and traditions of the Catholic Church. Let history be the judge.

Nevertheless, why are the conservatives and capitalists against Francis? The reason is not far to find. Other than clericalism referred to in my previous two articles, he has been exercising a preferential option for the poor. The Guardian, a respected British journal, reported this 9th September that he “remains determined to reorient the church… on the side of the poor”. Further, “In Mauritius he denounced the use of the islands as a tax haven, calling it an idolatrous economic model, and appealed to the Govt to promote an economic policy focussed on people, equitable distribution of income, and argued against unrestrained capitalism and environmental destruction”.

He was also not fighting shy of his critics, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke. Reporting for Religious News Service the following day Claire Giangrave quoted him as saying that “criticism is always helpful, but arsenic criticism sometimes makes you angry”. He lamented, “I don’t like it when criticism comes from under the table … They smile at you and show their teeth, and then they stab you in the back. This is not fair. It is not humane”.

Referring to the threats of schism he said, “Schismatics often detach themselves from the faith of the people of God. A schism is always an elitist detachment caused by an ideology that is separate from doctrine”. He further “disapproved of the rigidity that exists within the church, which he called pseudo-schismatic, and includes many Christians, bishops and priests”.

Some of his earlier statements, soon after he was elected pope in 2013, will throw more light on why the rigid conservatives find him a threat. On 19/9/2013, the American Wall Street Journal reported as follows:

“Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church’s focus on abortion, contraception and gay marriage risked overshadowing its pastoral mission and threatened to bring down the church like a pack of cards … It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time … Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed … The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small minded rules … Carrying his own luggage he said ‘I am a sinner. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner’ … He criticised the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized … He said ‘I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of blood sugar. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else’”.

On 1/10/2013 the New York Times, quoting Reuters, reported: Pope Francis said that the church as an institution “was too focussed on its own interests … Too many previous popes had been narcissists, who let themselves be flattered by courtier aides in the Curia … The papal court is the leprosy of the papacy … The Curia is too inward looking”.

It also reported that at a gathering in Assisi he said to the nuns: “I am so disappointed when I meet nuns who are joyless, who may smile with the smile of a flight attendant, but not with the smile of joy that comes from within … Nuns must not be too spiritual, and must endeavour to be experts in humanity in order that convent life is not purgatory”.

Aren’t such provocative statements enough to get up the hackles of those status-quoists who feel threatened by the winds of change blowing during his papacy? Let me egg you on a bit. Who said the following:

“Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; father opposed to son, son to father, mother to daughter, daughter to mother, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law to mother-in-law” (Lk 12:51-53). Then again when speaking of the bread of life, many of his followers reacted: “This is intolerable language. How can anyone accept it? … After this many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more” (Jn 6:60,66).

“Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the face of the earth and the sky. How is it you do not know how to interpret these times?” (Lk 12:54-56). “You cannot read the signs of the times” (Mat 16:14). “A person’s enemies come from within the household itself. But I shall look to Yahweh, my hope is in the God who will save me; my God will hear me” (Mic 7:6-7).

Can we still not see how the wind is blowing, what the Spirit is saying to the churches (cf Rev 3:22)? Let us then revert to the time of the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. The Chaldean king Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, trembled when he saw human fingers writing something on a wall (cf Dan 5:5). Of Nebuchadnezzar it had been said that his “heart grew swollen with pride, and his spirit stiff with arrogance, he was deposed from his sovereign throne and stripped of his glory” (Dan 5:20).

After all the king’s courtiers had failed it was Daniel who read the words “Mene, Mene, Tequel and Parsin, meaning measured, weighed and divided” (Dan 5:25-28). That very night the king was murdered, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom. So isn’t it time that the critics of Francis read the writing on the wall, lest they too meet the same fate as Belshazzar?

From scripture let me now switch to science and the process called electrolysis. There is an electrolyte solution and two electrodes known as the cathode and anode. When an electric current is passed through the electrolyte the metal solvents in it get deposited at the anode. This process is called anodisation. It is commonly used for chrome, silver and gold plating.

Now juxtapose this process on the people of God. They, like the electrolyte, are often inert. Along comes the current in the person of Jesus. His electrifying words and actions cause a polarisation of society, the division he referred to. One cannot be neutral to the Gospel. One either accepts or rejects it. Francis, and all revolutionaries like him, have a similar impact. The same happens in politics. Right wingers like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi use different currents to polarise voters. The electorate is just like the inert electrolyte. The current they use may vary – Mexicans, Europeans, Pakistanis, Muslims, terrorists etc.

The effect is the same, as with the pride of lions hunting (cf 1 Pet 5:8). The male roars at one end and stampedes the hapless quarry into the waiting trap of the lionesses at the other end. Peter had warned of this subterfuge.

If we are still not convinced of the forces inimical to Francis let me tell you the story of “Penthouse, Limousines and Private Jets”. This headline was carried in the Washington Post as recently as 13th September. It is not about some playboy, but about the erstwhile bishop of West Virginia, Michael Bransfield! I won’t go into all the details. Suffice it to say that in between 2005-2018 this worthy’s known expenditure in US dollars was: Private Charter Jets – 997,000; airfare and hotels – 662,000; dining out – 139,281; car rentals – 75,000; limousine services – 68,000, and jewellery – 62303. In those 13 years he spent an additional 4.6 million dollars on renovation of his residence!

Francis has initiated an investigation. Bransfield’s powerful friends include deposed papal nuncio Carlo Mario Vigano, the one who wrote an 11-page accusatory letter against Francis; and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, defrocked for sexual offences. Is this not proof enough of those ganging up against Francis?

Pope Francis may not be asthmatic, but if we don’t stand with him his remaining lung could collapse, and the conspirators will move swiftly to reinstate the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who has been waiting in the wings. This is not a figment of my imagination. The history of the papacy bears me out. With Pope Francis, we also don’t want a schism and we hope and pray that our charismatic pope will ride out this gathering storm. Next Sunday, when you pray for the pope during the Prayers of the Faithful, make sure that yours is as earnest as can be.

(The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum and Advisor to Catholic Church Reform International.)

(Published on 23rd September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 39)