Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pope Francis and Pope Pius XII


Francis and Pius

Pope Francis has been Bishop of Rome for the better part of two years.  Since his election in March 2013 he has taken the Catholic world by storm – by changing absolutely nothing, but doing just about everything differently.  His famous “Who am I to judge?” quote on the plane from Rio to Rome is probably the best way to see this extraordinary man who is returning the papacy to something more in line with the vision of Vatican II and more attuned to the needs of the modern world.

Francis instinctively “gets it”.  He is not a theologian or philosopher by trade although he is well versed and fluent in both disciplines.  He is not consumed by the “culture wars” that dominated much of western and first world Catholic discussion, debate and diatribe over the last twenty years although he is very familiar with the context and content of these movements.  He is not remotely interested in the liturgical angst generated among neo-conservatives and those determined to “reform the reform” of the Council, although he is clearly concerned that the liturgical life of the Church be executed with reverence, respect and, to use a common phrase, “noble simplicity”.

This pope made his agenda clear from his first appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica when he bowed in acknowledgement and reverence towards the thousands gathered in the piazza.  Francis takes very seriously the pontifical title – servus servorum Dei – servant of the servants of God.  People come first, everything else takes its turn after that.  Does this mean he is not interested in theology?  Of course not; but this pope has indicated in his words and actions that theology has to be linked to the lived experience of people and not the other way around.  His gestures, too many to even include a few examples, show a shepherd who loves being in the midst of his sheep, and everyone else’s too.

Papa Francesco the first Jesuit pope is also a shrewd operator.  He has shown in his gradual series of appointments a keen awareness of the need to reform the Roman curia and make it more transparent and accountable.  To those outside the Catholic Church and unfamiliar with Catholic “church speak” Francis’ actions in the area of reform may appear strange.  However, to those of us who grew up “on the inside” and “speak the language”, this pope has been gently rattling gilded cages, stirring a few pots and letting it be known that although he smiles and laughs more than any of his predecessors, he is pope.  The irony is that one of Francis’ major reforms is de-centralisation of papal power and the empowerment of local bishops’ conferences.

A good few neo-conservative groups around the English-speaking world are unhappy.  However they are in a bind.  Having proclaimed from the roof tops since the election of John Paul II in 1978 that devotion to the Holy Father, acceptance, often unquestionably, of papal statements, regardless of their provenance or intent, is one of the litmus tests of orthodoxy, they either have to accept that Francis is THE pope and so do as they have done, or move on.  Some have gone so far to say the church is heading towards schism.  This is the talk of fantasy and delusion.

One of the neo-conservative gripes is Francis’ perceived attitude towards the cause of Pope Pius XII.

Pope Francis has said little on Pius XII.  I believe there are five main reasons for this.

1. Francis is the first pope in modern times to have no direct connection with Europe during the fascist and Nazi eras or World War II.  He was too young (born 17.12.1936) to be anyway involved.  Unlike his immediate predecessors Francis has had no experience of totalitarian regimes other than the military juntas in Argentina, which while unquestionably brutal, were not murderous in the same way the Nazis and Communists were in the 1930s through to the 1950s.  Francis is an “outsider” to the events that John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI lived through.  I suggest that this gives him an objectivity that is needed in any discussion about Pius.  Francis is sympathetic to Pius, but he is not driven by a need to defend him or the institution of the papacy.

2. Francis has his priorities as bishop of Rome.  The canonization of Pius XII is not one of them.  He has canonized a number of women and men, but these cases were in the last stages of the process by the time he was elected.  This pope does not appear to see a need for a great number of canonisations – we have enough saints for the time being!  Indeed during his visit to Albania in September the pope’s embrace of Fr Ernst Simoni and Sr Marije Kaleta who had spent many years persecuted by the regime of Enver Hoxha summed up Francis’ priorities – he is here to be a shepherd; nothing else will stand in the way of his pastoral ministry.

3. Francis is content to allow historians and archivists to do their jobs.  There have been media reports suggesting that Francis is keen to get the archives opened up and the documents made available to historians.  It would be very odd if he had the opposite opinion.  Nonetheless, Francis respects conventions and protocols when they do not impinge on more important area.  The Secret Archives of the Vatican for Pius XII will be opened - eventually.  Pope Francis will not, I think, loose any sleep over the timing.

4. Francis does not fear or seem terribly worried about church history, good or bad.  He has said on many occasions that the church has to be open and honest about its past, seek forgiveness for past wrongs and make amends.  And while this is often seen within the context of the ongoing scandals related to sex-abuse by members of the clergy, I have no doubt that the pope believes it applies to all aspects of the church’s history.  That said, there is another dimension that comes from this Latin American pope, namely his non-European frames of reference.  John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were modern men within the contexts of their times, but they were European men.  Their world-views were shaped through European lenses.  This in no way detracts from their significant contributions to the life of the church, especially that of John XXIII, but Francis brings a world-view shaped by life outside of Europe, where the majority of the world’s Catholics now live.

5. Francis values the adult relationship between Catholics and Jews and will certainly do nothing to damage it.  I believe he considers questions about Pius XII and the Holocaust are important and valid, but are not what the dialogue and friendship in 2014 is built on.  Catholics and Jews are now at a point where the trust between both sides on many levels is so strong that argument and disagreement is, and indeed, should be a part of the relationship.  I believe Francis is saying, as his predecessors also said in their own ways, “there is no going back, we will walk forward together side by side.”


These thoughts are things that have been floating around in my head for some time.  Internet traffic on Pius XII has virtually ground to a halt since Francis’ election – and there is some good in that.  Many of the neo-conservative sites have gone very quiet as well – there is simply nothing new to say; and if loyalty to the Holy Father is one of your group’s self-identifying traits, then you can’t say what he hasn’t said!  For those of us who have been waiting for the archives to open will just have to be patient.  What gives me a cheerful optimism is Francis’ cheerful optimism – all in good time!


I took this photo when I was in Rome last year.  
I confess that I am an unabashed Francis fan!

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