Was the resignation of Benedict XVI a year ago last Friday a free and valid one? Last week the Pope Emeritus issued a rare public statement from seclusion in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae Monastery rebutting speculation about the first abdication from the pontificate since the Middle Ages.
“There isn’t the slightest doubt about the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry,” Benedict replied in writing to questions from the Italian newspaper La Stampa, as translated in London’s The Telegraph daily. “The only condition for the validity is the full freedom of the decision. Speculation about its invalidity is simply absurd.”
What’s up with the Catholic Church? Is there restiveness about Benedict’s departure from the Chair of Saint Peter and Francis’s accession to it? Looks like it.
Respected Vatican watcher John Allen Jr. writes in the Boston Globe paper about opposition brewing against Francis, and with Benedict’s recent statement, “It almost seems as if the former pontiff is trying to express, both visually and verbally, that he has no intention of becoming the chaplain of conservative backlash against his successor.”
Defend papal authority and Church unity
Besides his La Stampa missive, Benedict graced the February 22 opening of the 2014 Consistory of Cardinals. Popes past and present embraced, and the former sat beaming at the front row.
The emeritus pontiff’s closest aide and confidante German Archbishop Georg Gänswein also lent support to his current charge as Prefect of the Papal Household. Allaying fears of doctrinal revisions, Gänswein told Bavarian TV: “Pope Francis does not want to reform the faith but the
faithful.” This after admitting just last December to Die Zeit magazine some unease in serving two Holy Fathers (“I live in two worlds”).
Dubbed by celebrity media as the George Clooney of the Vatican for his looks, Gänswein also remarked to The Washington Post that despite not knowing each other well at first, the two popes are getting closer. Notably, in the 2005 Conclave that elected Benedict XVI, Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, reportedly came in second in the voting.
The wish to defend Francis is shared by many across the Church worldwide. On the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter celebrated on the very day of the Consistory, fellow Republic Service columnist Jesuit Fr. Timoteo Ofrasio felt an inner call to set side his prepared homily for the 8.30 a.m.
Saturday Latin mass at Christ the King Church in Greenmeadows, Quezon City, and instead speak for the Pope and Church unity.
“Francis is a loyal son of Ignatius,” Ofrasio declared, citing the 16th Century Spaniard who founded the Society of Jesus, to which he and Francis belong. Archbishop Gänswein also told Die Zeit, citing the Holy Father’s usual themes of mercy, poverty, and the devil: “Pope Francis is a
Jesuit in everything. He acts as faithful son of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.”
Both the German prelate and the Filipino priest, like many Catholics, admitted being disturbed by Francis’s departure from papal tradition and attire. Gänswein felt the decision not to live in the papal apartments was an affront to Benedict. Ofrasio also wished the Holy Father wore traditional
pontifical attire in public events.
Such unease, however, is “a test of loyalty to the Chair of St. Peter and the unity of the Church,” the Jesuit stressed. Discontinuing past ways does not make a heretic, he added. “What’s important is preserving Church teachings and loyalty to Jesus Christ.”
The ‘Anti-Christ Pope’ and other fears
So what’s stirring up pockets of resistance against the Pope among the faithful? Part of the unease comes from centuries-old so-called prophesies, including one mentioned by Fr. Ofrasio as predicting the end of the world when a Jesuit takes the Chair of St. Peter.
Interpretations of a prophesy attributed to the 12th century St. Malachy portray Francis, who is of Italian descent, as the 113th pope Petrus Romanus (Peter the Roman), after whom Jesus Christ will return. There are also readings of Apocalypse pointing to Francis as the Anti-Christ or the
False Prophet mentioned in the last book of the Bible.
Conservative believers unperturbed by prophetic speculation are disturbed by liberal-sounding papal pronouncements warning against excessive focus on contraception, condemning the free market system, and reaching out to non-Catholics, non-Christians, atheists, and homosexuals.
There are also opponents aplenty among those in the Catholic hierarchy whose positions, privileges and purses are threatened by Francis’s reforms. Last week he opened the scandal-tainted Vatican Bank to external audit a new Secretariat for the Economy reporting directly to him. Also unhappy are a good number of prelates forced to resign or removed outright, including five ousted in Congo, Australia, Germany, Italy and Slovakia—the most in any modern pontiff’s first year.
No wonder some leading Catholic figures are voicing opposition, as Allen reports. Conservative Italian writer Roberto de Mattei warned that Francis is charting “a road that leads to schism and heresy”, while American traditionalist John Vennari called the Pope a “theological train wreck.”
Reform means conflict
Understandably, many Catholics are unsettled over the apparent shifts in papal perspectives, as well as the conflict that any change inevitably stirs. So it was in the reformist pontificate of John XXIII from 1958 to 1963, notes visiting Jesuit academic Pierre de Charentenay, who compares the soon-to-be-canonized pope with Francis.
In his short reign, John XXIII also provoked opposition, but spawned the most sweeping reforms in the modern Church through the Second Vatican Council. He shocked conservatives by inviting women to the deliberations. And in the following decades, Vatican II allowed masses in local languages along with Latin, with the priest facing the congregation. Religious activities for the laity and women were expanded, national chapters of religious orders were turned over to local superiors.
Having witnessed and participated in the vast Vatican II reforms, leading Filipino theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo said Vatican II virtually brought forth a new Catholic Church. Predictably, many Catholics, both religious and laity, could not accept the changes, and some groups broke away from their orders or from the Church itself.
Catholicism looks set for another round of big changes under Francis. “There is the beautiful expression Ecclesia semper reformanda est, which means that the Church must always be reforming,” said Archbishop Gänswein. And we pray for the grace and guidance of God to lead the Mystical Body of Christ through reform to greater holiness, faith, hope and charity. Amen.