Pope Francis, populism and self-aggrandizement

The Solemnity of the Pentecost on June 9 is liturgically followed by the celebration of the Pope’s Day on June 16. This article will scrutinize critically and existentially the symbiosis between the twin celebrations.

Pope Francis is undoubtedly, like St. Stephen of the nascent Christian Community of Jerusalem, “a man full of faith and Holy Spirit” (Acts 6, 5). Filled with the Holy Spirit, this man of God, Francis, our Pope, the great, the good, has always rejected populism and self-aggrandizement.

Is the Pope not popular, then? It is true he still remains the Person of the Year/s. He has enjoyed enormous goodwill since his Papacy began. He is more popular than any US President, German Chancellor, UK Prime Minister or French President in office, according to opinion polls. The poll by WIN/Gallup International indicates that Roman Catholics (85%) and Jews (65%) have the most favourable opinion of the Pope.

The Philippines is the most enthusiastic nation with 93% thinking favourably of the Pope. More than half of the world’s Protestants and even the majority of atheists and agnostics view him favourably. BBC religious affairs correspondent Caroline Wyatt says that, over the years into his papacy, Francis has enjoyed enormous goodwill and won the hearts and minds not just of Roman Catholics but also of people from other religions and the non-religious. Once WIN/Gallup International President Jean-Marc Leger said: “Pope Francis is a leader who transcends his own religion. Our study shows that an ample majority of citizens of the world, of different religious affiliations and across regions, have a favourable image of the Pope.”

Priest of God and Vicar of Christ

Accordingly, this Man of God, who came ‘from the end of the world’ – from the Great South where 60% of our Catholics live – has today won the entire world. Is this Pope, so popular, a populist? Does His Holiness have the moral integrity and autonomy to tell others to shun self-image boosting? Or is he like the mother crab asking the baby crab, “Why do you bend towards one side when you walk, my child?” The Roman Pontiff never sought greatness. Nor did he run after it. It was rather thrust upon him and inevitably his – cf. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” (Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare). This is a salient feature of his life, as a Priest of God and Vicar of Christ.

Examples are galore. They manifest how the Pope follows Jesus to the core and selflessly manifests Him to the world. On the afternoon of May 18, 2013, Pope Francis was, to cite one out of many vignettes, in St. Peter’s Square for a meeting with associations of the laity, in the context of the Year of Faith.

He made a very long tour in the white jeep and greeted everyone, who was shouting “Pope Francis.” But a little later, at the microphone, he made the following appeal: “And now I would like to make a mild rebuke, in a brotherly way, just between us. You have all been calling out in the Square: ‘Francis, Francis, Pope Francis.’ But where was Jesus? I would have liked you to have shouted, ‘Jesus, Jesus is the Lord and he is really in our midst.’ From now on, no more Francis, but Jesus.” A thundering applause greeted this unexpected motu proprio, this unexpected papal oral command. Thus His Holiness channelled every glory to God – like a lake which diverts water to fields – without glorying oneself in the venerable office of Pontificate.

Who has been the inspiration of the Pope, when he eschews populism and self-aggrandizement? It is none but the Lord Himself. Jesus was famed among all as a miracle worker and wise teacher of Israel. This is attested by believers like the Evangelists: “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7, 28-29) as well as non-believers like the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who wrote in 90s testifies to this authentic tradition about Jesus in The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3,3: “Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles ...”

This Jesus, whose fame preceded Him all over, rejected two different types of crowd reaction to His miracles or abilities. One was to credit Jesus’ miracles to some clever manipulation of demonic powers – e.g. Mark 3, 20-22 that records the accusations levelled against Him such as “He is out of his mind … He is possessed by Beelzebul … By the prince of demons he drives out demons.” The other was the desire to set Him up as some sort of mass leader and wonder worker: “Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone” (John 6, 15). Thus Jesus vehemently spurned populism and self-aggrandizement.

When we move from the Johannine tradition of Jesus material to the Synoptic Gospels, we find what is called in Biblical Science the ‘Messianic Secret.’ Jesus hides His Messiahship. He uses ‘son of man’ instead of ‘messiah.’ He orders both man and devil to be quiet. Why does He hide His Messiahship? The Jews of the day were expecting a popular political messiah. If He publicly claimed He was the Messiah, people might have wrong expectations of Him. He did not want to create any popular political image. For Him, He is the Messiah, who suffers and dies and then enters into glory. Therefore the way of the cross is the way to glory. There is no other way.

Religious community

Let us end our scrutiny with the life example of St. Anthony of Padua, whom we venerate on June 13. Leaving Morocco, for having fallen ill, St. Anthony joined his Franciscan brethren in Italy. He was sent to a little hospice near Forli in Emilia where he was given some menial duties like cleaning, washing and gardening. But this Scripture scholar and great theologian, the son of a wealthy knight at the court of Alfonso II king of Portugal, educated at the prestigious cathedral school in Lisbon and trained when in Canons Regular of St. Augustine at the renowned Coimbra monastery school of Biblical Studies in Portugal for eight full years, did everything to the best he could without regret, remorse or grumbling in that little, lonely and rural hermitage. He never disclosed his brilliant gifts for better acceptance in the religious community. He neither blew his own trumpet nor bragged about his past academic accolades. That was St. Anthony!

Within a year, Anthony’s brilliant gifts, however, came to be discovered. At an Ordination ceremony at Forli, the special preacher engaged for the occasion failed to appear. None of the others present would agree to fill in the gap and oblige with an extempore sermon. To get out of his predicament, the Father Provincial briefly ordered Anthony to preach.

His performance astonished and magnetized the audience, who saw at once that Anthony had all the gifts of a first-rate orator: poise, delivery, conviction, personal charm, amazing memory and mastery of sacred Theology and Sacred Scripture. Hence he was immediately appointed as the preacher to the whole of Italy. But he never, we must confess, ran after greatness. It was rather thrust upon him, as in the case of Pope Francis.

In conclusion, we may say that the Christ’s Faithful – bishops, priests and deacons – and laity ought to imitate the Roman Pontiff led by the Holy Spirit, as he imitates the Christ and His Gospel to the core. 

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