As the first year of Pope Francis ends, the pace of events in the Church and world seems to be accelerating: Ukraine, Russia, reform of the Curia, marriage, divorce, the liturgy… Behind them all, the question of man.
As we end the first year of the papacy of Pope Francis, time seems to be speeding up: in Ukraine, a revolution, movement of Russian troops into Crimea, fears of a wider war; in Rome, the reform of the Curia and the choice of Cardinal George Pell from Australia to oversee all Church finances, and of Monsignor Alfred Xuereb of Malta (the Pope’s personal secretary), to assist Pell; in theology, a long essay by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, read to the assembled cardinals on February 20, on the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion (a question to be taken up by the Synod in the fall); and, in America, the February 24 decision of Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, forbidding Fisher-More College to celebrate the old Mass.
“I think the great task now,” Pope Emeritus Benedict once said, “is first of all to bring to light God’s priority… that God exists, that God matters to us and that he answers us.” Over and over in his long career, Benedict warned that the present age had lost, or was losing, belief in the Almighty. And that, of course, explains much of what is most glaringly wrong with the world today.
The ultimate question concerns man, his nature, his final end: Is “secular humanism” the true religion — man as his own “God” in a “saeculum” without divinity, in a reality without “logos” (meaning)? Is man in fact “doomed” to be God because no true, personal, eternal, holy God really exists?
Or is there actually a transcendent reality, a holy and personal being, God, who calls man to transcend himself, and so to become truly himself, amid all the vicissitudes of civil conflict (Ukraine), Church administration (Rome), love, marriage, and the failure of love (Kasper’s question), and worship to and adoration of that very being, revealed in Jesus Christ (the liturgy)?
(1) Ukraine. As I write, on March 4, John Kerry is in Kiev, meeting with the leadership of the new regime. And this morning in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a wide-ranging interview which expresses his “understanding” for Kiev’s Maidan Square protests. “I understand those people on Maidan who are calling for radical change rather than some cosmetic remodeling of power,” Putin said. “Why are they demanding this? Because they have grown used to seeing one set of thieves being replaced by another.” Putin added: “What is our biggest concern? We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces, going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev. I am sure you, members of the media, saw how one of the governors was chained and handcuffed to something and they poured water over him, in the cold of winter… Is this democracy?… He was actually only recently appointed to this position, in December, I believe. Even if we accept that they are all corrupt there, he had barely had time to steal anything.”
Putin’s admission that the corruption in Ukraine was colossal and that change was needed affords hope that more violence may not be inevitable. We also know that Sergey Stepashin, Putin’s predecessor as the Prime Minister of Russia in the late 1990s, now Chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society (which supports the presence of Christians in the Middle East), met Pope Francis in the Vatican on February 27. “We discussed the support of Christians in the Middle East, the need for equal activity of all confessions in Ukraine over the situation there, and the support of Christian family values,” Stepashin said. He said Pope Francis asked him to express his thanks to Putin for his peacekeeping activity in the Middle East. This is a clear “back channel” of communication between Putin and Francis.
(2) Curia. The Curial reform of Pope Francis, with authority now in the hands of Pell and Xuereb, gives hope. Francis is fulfilling his mandate to end even the hint of corruption in the Church’s financial dealings.
(3) Kasper. The February talk by Cardinal Kasper on divorce, remarriage and the Eucharist addresses a fundamental moral question. Christ defined marriage as permanent; once truly joined together, “the two become one flesh.” The Church is thus not free to dissolve a valid marriage. And Francis has called himself “a son of the Church,” meaning he will defend this teaching. But the Church is also a place where Christ’s forgiveness of sin is made available. So we also know Francis will seek to be a shepherd, to help people suffering from the consequences of human weakness and sin, though always maintaining “the sense of sin” because “when the Kingdom of God diminishes, one of the signs is that you lose the sense of sin” (Homily, January 31).
(4) Old Mass. The February 24 decision of the bishop of Forth Worth, Texas, to prohibit the celebration of the old Mass at Fisher-More College has sparked intense debate. All the facts are not clear, but on the precise point of old Mass, celebrated in the Church for centuries, we note that the old Mass cannot be regarded as in itself evil or harmful, though this sometimes is happening today. This goes against the explicit teaching of Pope Emeritus Benedict in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
We must hold fast to the “Good News”: that a transcendent, holy God, exists and calls men “out of darkness into His marvelous light,” and in so doing raises men out of the “dead-endedness” (meaninglessness, “logos-lessness”) of this age. The essence of the “Good News” is this: that the God-made-flesh is real, not a dream, and that His continued presence in the Church allows persons to discover in themselves the gift of reality, of life and love, which is always a gift.