Pope Francis is the second Supreme Pontiff to whom I have pledged my obedience since my entry into full communion with the Holy Catholic Church. I do not like him. He unsettles me.
I do not like the fact that he refuses to live in his Apostolic Palace, that he dresses down and that he braves through a torrential rain on his pope mobile just to meet the crowd in St Peter's Square during his papal audience. I do not like it at all. Because when he does such things, it shakes the equilibrium of my expectations towards people who are in authority and who are supposed to be personifications of greatness.
I do not like it when he does things that I would not have personally wanted to do had I been the pope. He is... unbecoming of a pope.
During the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI (can't help still heaving a huge sigh whenever I mention this name -- I miss him), I admired his writings even from before my Catholic days. I was utterly inspired by the vision of heavenly grandeur his writings presented before my religious senses. He never shortchanged the constant and relentless declaration of Christ as King of Heaven and all creation, the Divine Supreme in Whom all things subsist.
When he became the reluctant pope, he so willingly hid behind this Christ and began adorning himself with all the splendid garments that would accentuate the kingship of Christ to the world in the office of the supreme pontiff. It was certainly not so much of himself that the shy and unassuming pope wanted to promote (after all, what else is there left to promote when you are already pope?) He was hiding himself behind the identity of Christ for Whom he stood vicariously on earth. He was effacing himself from himself by clothing himself with Christ.
Very quickly, I began to be so inspired by the grandeur of the liturgy he celebrated, the magnificence of the faith he expounded in his catecheses and homilies and the devotion he rendered in service of Christ and the Church. Pope Benedict XVI was my pope. I loved him with deep affection because he represented a theological and ecclesial vision which squared with what I had believed the faith should be.
And then came Pope Francis. His first wave to the crowd stunned me somewhat because the gesture wasn't... quite... right. It was an unconventional gesture of greeting the crowd, a seemingly unorthodox way of bowing before the crowd and asking them to pray for him. Did he have to pretend to be so humble, even more humble than the other popes before him? My heart was exclaiming, "Come on, you're the pope!" Was this a sign of things to come, a pattern that was to be perpetuated throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis?
Now, two months down the pontificate, I have come to realise that it was.
But Pope Francis is not pretending to be humble. He is just genuinely being himself, the bishop he had always been even prior to his election as the Bishop of Rome. He loves people and cares for them and expresses his pastoral heart in a way rather different from his predecessor.
I have kept a very open heart to the teachings that he has delivered in the past several months. To be sure, these catecheses and homilies sound very different from Pope Benedict's. In all honesty, his speeches sound a bit too ordinary to be found intellectually stimulating. But then, I am also in the same instance finding his words too blatant and cutting and chastising to my spirit, which is the cause of all this disconcerting disequilibrium I experience with Pope Francis. All this rhetoric about being self-referential, stepping out of ourselves and existing for the sake of others is, to put it mildly, disturbing to my conscience.
My present experience of Pope Francis tells me that he is highlighting what many of us "fans" of Pope Benedict XVI might have missed out from the teachings of the previous pontiff. Whilst Pope Benedict XVI was very much a proponent of the beauty and magnificence of the liturgy and sophisticated theological expositions, he also taught us much about how all this aesthetics reflects the life of the One God who saves the world from its self-annihilating bankruptcy. And so, the extension of his teachings had been about living lives of charity -- but I suspect few of the "fans" were listening to this other side of the same coin. We had been spending a lot of our mental and emotional resources being fixated on the beauty of the liturgy and the pope's intellectual capacity itself. Truth be told, this obsession with liturgical beauty and theological depth became a source of intellectual self-eroticism for many, something which was never intended by Pope Benedict XVI. Many of us even rode on his intellectual depth to validate our own sense of cleverness, in that his intelligence fast constituted our sense of religious identity ("I am proud to be Catholic because I have a clever pope"). I am sure Pope Benedict XVI, in all his unassuming humility, never meant it to be that way.
Pope Francis has awakened me to this realisation. He is not saying that liturgy should not be beautiful or that theology should be shallow and found intellectually unstimulating; he is saying that if that is ALL it is, then the power of the liturgy and the call of the Gospel for the transformation of society itself ceases to grip the human spirit. I hate to admit it, but I have come to realise through the pontificate of Pope Francis that a static obsession with beauty and depth in a way that does not transform me to be broken and fed to the world is nothing more than another form of narcissism hidden behind a religious garb.
So if I am asked, this is why we now have Pope Francis. Because I needed him to wake me up to help me understand the true message of Pope Benedict's pontificate. The unbecoming actions of this new pontiff have shown me what magnificent liturgy and deep theology require of me -- to live an ordinary life, to stand in the rain for those who might require a touch of hope from me, to find God in simplicity, and to offer my life as a liturgy for the needy. How simple a message this is. But had Pope Francis not had the depth of spirituality that Pope Benedict XVI did, he would not have been able to personify this message so stunningly.
God bless our pope, the great, the good.