There are the contradictions in the man himself: Pope Francis presides over an institution of enormous wealth, power, and privilege, while in his very being embodying—effortlessly, compellingly—the poverty, humility, and simplicity of the way of Jesus.
This was evident at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday night: wealthy donors sitting in prime seats while the Pope gave a beautiful shout-out to women religious—in the cheap seats—who have been much-beleaguered by the Vatican in recent years.
There are the contradictions in the giving of his astonishing speech to Congress: One could describe it as power speaking truth to power, while at the same time starkly, radically calling into question America’s notions of what actually counts as power and truth.
There are the contradictions in the canonization of Junipero Serra: Pope Francis is clearly the antithesis of what the colonial project embodied—and what it wrought—yet he sanctioned the sainthood of a man whose life and legacy leave deeply troubling questions about the Church’s collusion with the worst of globalization. Supporters of Serra, the first saint canonized on American soil, summon the mildest of endorsements: at least he wasn’t as bad as the others.
(This one, I admit, mystifies me. As a Catholic friend noted: The Serra canonization was rife with missed opportunities and bridges left unbuilt. Yes and yes).
What to make of these and other such contradictions?
It’s hard to avoid striking the stance we all learn as heirs to modernity–that of the autonomous self with its view from nowhere and its reasoned, privately-held “opinions” offering or withholding approval for this or that position, this or that pope. In relation to Pope Francis (and to Catholicism and Christianity generally), such a stance generates questions like “do the Pope’s words and the Church’s actions align with my own securely-held convictions?” or “Does this or that doctrine (or political idea or economic policy) square with what I believe?” These seem like reasonable questions; we can hardly help asking them, even tacitly.
But they assume, wrongly I suggest, that the Church is an organization I belong to—like the Kiwanis Club or the Junior League—and, as such, the unencumbered “I” gets to negotiate my relationship to it on my own terms. Rather–and I know how weird this sounds to those outside of Christianity and even to many within it—the Church is the sign and sacrament of Trinitarian communion. “The individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, linking anthropology and ecclesiology in ways unintelligible to our default understandings of both self and church.
What this means, in part, is that as members of Christ’s body, the Church, our primary identity is that of those who share in the divine life of God, with all of the real-world, nitty-gritty implications of such a claim (political, social, economic; implications of race, gender, and class). The true humanity we take on in baptism summons us to the freedom to love beyond the bounds of family, tribe, and nation. This is the nature of the ekklesia itself, as it bears witness to the new creation made possible in Christ through the power of the Spirit: we are the community of the baptized whose love for the world (the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy) glimpses the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a love without partiality because its source is the Trinitarian love-in-communion that transcends every exclusivism. It is not a love that we muster by our own power, through force of will or personal resolve. Rather, it is a love imputed to us and efficacious through us. We are its vessels, not its wellspring.
What does this mean for the contradictions I feel in this historical moment? It means that I am part of a body of flawed, weak, striving, broken, yearning, conniving, beautiful, irritating, struggling human beings. (If one more student tells me they can’t go to church because of the hypocrites . . . ). Messed up though we are, who we are is not dependent on who we are, thank God.
And so in the big, messy house that is the Catholic Church we live with people we might not agree with, who can make us a little crazy. But we know that our membership in this body is not based on like-mindedness but on the One who gathers us at his table and feeds us that we might then scatter and feed a hungry world.
Who knows? The canonization of a colonizer might open the way for repentance and reconciliation. And Pope Francis, in America, and in his everyday life and living, shows us, with great tenderness and love, what might be possible.