More on the Meaning of Pope "Francis"

Why the Name Francis?

Published in the Huffington Post on March 14, 2013

The new Pope is already famous for two funny jabs.

Pope FrancisHis first was in introducing himself to the world for the first time (my paraphrase of the Italian). "The cardinals meet in Rome to choose a new pope. This time they went to the end of the world to find me. So here I am."

The next was at his final dinner with his colleagues at the conclave. It won him a huge outburst of laughter: "May God forgive you."

But why did he choose the name Francis? No pope ever has, despite the fact that Francis of Assisi (1180-1225) has been for eight centuries, all around the world, the most beloved saint of all. People say Francis is the most Christlike of all the saints in his simplicity, humility, and poverty - and visible joy in the world around him. He is famous for his "Canticle of the Sun," his joy in the singing of birds and the green of the trees, and the poor.

We know for sure that the new Pope will be, more than any in recent centuries, at least, identified with the poor. He certainly was as archbishop of Buenos Aires. There he took the bus to his office. He had a modest apartment to live in and cook for himself.

He refused to don all the traditional garments - the ermine vest, for instance - of a new pope, to come out to the world instead in a simple white cassock, with what appeared to be something like a wooden cross on a plain cord around his neck. On his first full day, the pope slipped out of the Vatican in a car to pray at a Roman church, a basilica (whose staff received a ten-minute warning of his arrival). No fuss, no fanfare. Then the car drove by the residence building for priests where he had been staying in Rome, to pick up his modest suitcases.

One almost expects him to wear Franciscan sandals as Pope. Well, not quite.

An American Cardinal who worked with him on an international commission of bishops said the world is about to be amazed at how brilliant this guy is. He has taught literature, psychology, and philosophy at the university level. We'll test that soon enough

The point of being a bishop isn't, of course, to be a bright academic - it is to preach Christ, and Christ crucified, that is, God's choice of the poor, the suffering, the needy (and even the neediness of rich persons, like St. Francis as a young man), as his friends, those He wanted to have around him.

For myself, I am not sure what Pope Francis will take to be the best road for helping the poor out of poverty. Just more government subsidies? The socialist model? The Chavez model in Venezuela? Cuba? Or the path taken by China and India, moving more than a half-billion of their poor out of poverty in the last thirty years, and heading toward one billion? It is reassuring that he was a steady and firm resister to "liberation theology," the theological argument for following the statist way. He aroused powerful enmity many of the most passionate Jesuit "public policy priests," who preferred organizing "people's churches" to achieve political-economic reforms of the statist sort.

It seems providential that just as Hugo Chavez died of cancer (poor man), the rhetorical and militarist leader of the leftist parties in eight or nine nations around him, a new champion of the poor has been raised up in Latin America, of a very different stripe.

It is also great to see, at last, a pope being chosen from "America" (as the church sees it, a whole hemisphere as one, not divided into North and South, and different from "the Old World"). For the first time in history, two North American cardinals (Dolan of New York, and O'Malley, the sandaled Franciscan of Boston) were being highly touted by the Italian press, and even promoted with much passion. America is moving front and center into the Church's vision.

-- Not everything American, of course; many around the world regard the television and entertainment culture of the United States as uncommonly ugly and disfiguring.

The point of the Catholic church around the world and in every age, as it was in pagan Rome in the beginning, is to be countercultural. You will not find the new pope thinking that because some American passions are new and "progressive" and "inevitable" in the minds of secular America, therefore, they represent the future. It is certain that any Catholic pope will see much in the air that belongs to a culture that is dying, as the Roman Empire died; indeed, as a "culture of death."

It is especially satisfying to see Latin cultures moved front and center in the church. Catholics in Latin America now number forty percent of all the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth. Add in the Latinos of North America, and the proportion nudges close to fifty percent. A Latino pope seems very fitting.

The major growth of the Catholic church is now in Asia and Africa. The "evangelizing" (missionary) part of the church is now where the action is. This new Pope, this Francis, is certain to continue doing what he did in Argentina: call upon Catholics to think again. Do they really want to be Catholics? If they do, they better study what is demanded of them. The most vital part of that is to live the good news that God loves this human race and invites it into his friendship.

The God of the gospels does not want friendship through coercion. He offers it to free choice. And if so, serious choice, requiring a serious change of life as it did of Francis of Assisi. We may not each be called to the form of life that St. Francis chose. But the Lord does have something serious for each of us to do, and it is to be found by each of us hidden in our own hearts.

Expect Pope Francis to call for this. If so, watch out world!

Read full article at The Huffington Post.

Musings from Michael: The Meaning of Pope "Francis"

Published in The Huffington Post on March 14, 2013, The new pope has chosen the name "Francis."  Francis (1180-1225) was a rich young man who lived out a quite dissolute youth, before God finally caught up to him and seized his heart.  Francis chose a life of poverty and prayer.  He is one of the two most loved saints in the Catholic world today. For his simplicity, his poverty, and his love and joy in God's world.

The following is a prayer -- his prayer, the tradition says -- that helps to explain what the choice of the name Francis means: 


Lord, make me a channel of thy peace, that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that where there is error, I may bring truth; that where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that where there is despair, I may bring hope; that where there are shadows, I may bring light; that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

 Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand, than to be understood; to love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

Read at The Huffington Post.

Get Ready for Catholicism 2.0

 Published in "The Huffington Post" on March 12, 2013 George Weigel is one of the pre-eminent commentators on Catholicism today, and author of, among others, a bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II. Weigel recently published Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century (and excerpted exclusively in the Huffington Post here).

 Weigel discusses the future of the church and the challenges facing a new pope with author, journalist, commentator and Catholic scholar Michael Novak, author of more than 25 books, including The Open Church.


Michael Novak: George, your new book could not have come at a better time -- these days it is being quoted daily in television interviews with cardinals who are streaming into Rome. I like its implicit image that the church through its long history seems to live in a cocoon for a century or so, and then break forth like a newly resplendent butterfly, reborn and fresh for new challenges. You show how long this new rebirth has been generating in the church, some 150 years. Pope John Paul II invited you into his friendship as you interviewed him for his biography over many months -- and you know now much he cherished the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) and wanted to rescue its main lessons from systematic distortion. Now you have found new words to get to the heart of this long-gestating rebirth.

And one other thing I notice: From so many quarters today we hear a super-aggressive hatred for the Catholic church, not least for its Pope. Yet here many of the major media so often contemptuous of the Pope are utterly fascinated by yet another conclave, summoned in an orderly way to choose a new Pope. What do you think your book is saying to the bitter critics of the church, first of all?

George Weigel: I hope it's saying that the church is alive, that the liveliest parts of the church are those parts that have embraced the symphony of Catholic truth in full -- and I even cherish the hope that some who are caught in the postmodern sandbox of self-absorption faintly recognize in Catholicism the possibility of a nobler, more humanly fulfilling path than living according to the mantra of "me, myself, and I."

Evangelical Catholicism is aborning for two reasons: the internal dynamics you described, which touch the church's understanding that she must always be purified so that the Gospel she preaches is mirrored in her own life, and the external environment, which is now so hostile to biblical religion throughout the Western world that only an affirmative orthodoxy, lived in mission, can meet its challenge -- and perhaps invite secularists to think again about the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ.

Here in Rome, the basic division is between those who get this -- who understand with Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI that the Church is a communion of disciples in mission and that everything and everyone in the Church must be measured by mission-effectiveness -- and those who want to retreat into institutional-maintenance Catholicism (in either its starboard or portside variants). If my books helps put all of this in a broader historical context, so that we aren't going through one more tedious round in the Vatican II Wars, then I'll be gratified.

Michael: On your side is that Catholics now number 1.2 billion human beings on earth -- one out of six -- and are growing rapidly, faster than Muslims.The atheist part of the earth is shrinking, as more and more persons lose meaning, purpose, and even the heart to defend themselves -- and fewer couples have children. But your central point is how Evangelical Catholicism will change the people in the pews, say, in America.

Do you expect that, quietly and one by one, more and more Catholics will seek opportunities to speak openly about the love and might of the Son of God within them? And during their lifetimes bring into our growing communion, say, three or four converts? In a generation that might mean 100 million new U.S. Catholics.

George: Evangelical Catholic pastors, like my friend Father Scott Newman in Greenville, South Carolina (to whom, with Russ Hittinger, Evangelical Catholicism is dedicated), give their people a new conviction about their baptismal dignity, a conviction that leads them into a richer experience of the sacraments and a more intense, daily encounter with the Bible. And the results are remarkable: at every Easter Vigil, 30, 40, or 50 new Catholics are either baptized as adults or received into the full communion of the church. They've often been invited to consider Catholicism by their neighbors, the parishioners of St. Mary's; they've been well-instructed by the parishes permanent deacons and Father Newman; and when they come into the community of St. Mary's, Greenville, they know that they, too, are taking on an evangelical, or missionary obligation. It's take years to build up this sort of momentum, but once it reaches what you might call ecclesial critical mass, it snowballs. And it has staying power, because the conversions involved are not merely emotional, but have real content.

This pattern replicates itself throughout the liveliest sectors of the church: among youth groups like FOCUS (which work on campuses); among the growing communities of religious women; in various renewal movements and new forms of Catholic community. There's a hunger in the West for something more substantial than the thin gruel of solipsism. That hunger can be met by Catholic clergy and laity who have been deeply formed by the Gospel, are transparent to the love of Jesus Christ at work in their own lives, and understand that inviting others into the fellowship of faith, and who, with John Paul II, know that the paradox of faith is that it increases the more it is given to others.

Michael: Our mutual friend Mary Eberstadt has written in her upcoming book, How the West Lost God, that family life is the natural language in which Christian life is first learned and comes alive. So I liked what you said about the "family church" as the living cell of faith. And I'm grateful for what you write about in "The Reform of Catholic Marriage." It's past due. The distortions that have arisen since the false readings of Vatican II have been ugly.

George: The marriage crisis throughout the western world seems to me both an impediment to the New Evangelization and a spur to it. The terrible social effects of the sexual revolution and the reduction of sexual love to just another contact sport have now become undeniable: women who can't find husbands; spouses who look on children as a lifestyle accessory; men who've been told by culture and society that sexual predation is a kind of right; internet pornography addiction wreaking havoc in young and old lives alike.

In the face of all this ugliness and unhappiness, the Catholic sexual ethic begins to look, not like some dreary laundry list of "No's," but as a very great "Yes" to human dignity, fidelity, promise-making and promise-keeping, and a badly-needed reaffirmation of the built-into-the-human-condition linkage between sexual love and procreation.

In an Evangelical Catholic context, these truths are often best conveyed by married couples who see their marriages as instruments for the evangelization of other married couples, especially those who may be struggling with the afterburn of the marriage culture breakdown. Marriage preparation programs in parishes -- again, often best conducted by married couples with assistance from priests and deacons -- are a great opportunity to invite engaged couples into a more integral and intense practice of Catholicism and the embrace of a robust faith that is an enormous help in navigating the rocks and shoals of postmodern culture, where solipsism is one of the biggest challenges to happy and fruitful marriages.

Michael: Looks like we've run out of space, George. A lot more I'd like to ask you. Can't wait to be able to talk to you in person, when you get back from Rome. Enjoy a good pasta for me at our regular haunts. Give my best to our friends.

Read at The Huffington Post


Benedict: The Quiet Pope, the Scholar (Huffington Post Column)

Benedict: The Quiet Pope, the Scholar

The Huffington Post Posted: 02/18/2013 4:52 pm

He didn't face an Italy being overrun by outside invaders as Leo the Great (440-461) and Gregory the Great (590-604) did -- or as John Paul the Great (1978-2005) did with the ugly Iron Curtain that walled him from the West during the years of his youth.

The conditions weren't ripe for another "Great." Yet Benedict XVI's scholarly writings, clear preaching, and letters addressed to the whole world made almost as profound a contribution to the life of the Church as the other three Greats did during their own papacies.

In Israel and the United States, Jewish leaders are ranking him as the best pope ever for the Jews. A broad band of disaffected Anglicans have welcomed Benedict's thoughtful efforts to think through a fruitful future for both communions, being sure that Anglican traditions and beautiful liturgy are kept intact. No pope in five centuries has affected England's culture more deeply, writers from Great Britain say. Does not his self-effacing manner seem rather English?

For decades, Benedict has preferred a highly biblical language and reflected deeply upon Holy Scripture, far more fully than Catholics characteristically do.

One friend, a well-known Baptist leader, once said to me of Pope John Paul II: "Hey! I'm as strong an anti-papist as any man living. But you guys at last have a pope who knows how to pope!" He liked John Paul very much. I suspect he likes Benedict's centering in Scripture even more.

* * *

Altogether, Benedict's renunciation of his office is a huge act of confidence in the future of the church. He has spent himself and is visibly weakened. And he knows that just two or three weeks after he leaves office, the church will calmly elect a successor in a law-like way. Before Easter a new pope will almost certainly be in place.

Looking about him, Benedict knows that the church now counts 1.2 billion communicants (one out of six of the world's inhabitants). The world is not becoming secular, as so many since Matthew Arnold have thought. The world is a huge sea of religious longing, founded in nature itself, and rooted in the infinite eros of inquiry. Alert human beings ask an endless stream of questions: Why are conscious beings such as we on this earth, under this great sky, with the wind on our faces? What ought we to do? What ought we to hope for?

Our endless drive to ask questions is the clearest sign in our own nature that we are driven by the infinite. We grow tired of anything less than the infinite, as we seek higher and deeper.

There is also the capacity in us to love infinitely. To love purely. To love un-self-centeredly. Another sign of the divine in us.

Benedict himself wrote most beautifully about such love. A certain form of love is the inner fire of God -- Deus Caritas Est.

Benedict may carry in his mind and soul more erudition about more eras of history and more cultures and languages than all but a handful of others on earth. But in his writings on the life of Christ -- the latest being on the infancy of Jesus -- he writes for you and me, not the experts. For them, the solidity of his work speaks for itself.

The pope's sober, scholarly writings have been planted like time bombs in the history of the next two generations, or more. They will keep exploding with light as readers slowly think them through.

* * *

I have known Joseph Ratzinger since we were both young men at the Second Vatican Council in 1963-64. He was already famous for the great work he did at the Council as an expert and writer for Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, one of the early giants. Even as the youngest of the famous "Rhineland" theologians from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, Ratzinger soared in his reputation for deep, clear, and erudite creativity. All knew he would one day be a powerful figure in the worldwide church, but in those days one thought mainly of Italians in the papacy.

Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II were like brothers. They reserved time on Friday afternoons to go deeply into theology and the situation of the church now and in the future. As early as 1982, Ratzinger is known to have said to a group: No, communism is not a future menace to the church; communism is a dead idea. No serious person any longer looks to it as a reasonable account of reality.

My friends in Rome tell me that, powerfully popular as Pope John Paul II was among the people, Benedict -- by his shyness, diffidence, and respect for others -- quickly became even more so.

He has been a quiet pope, scholarly, deeply trustworthy with the confidences of others, seeking the good of all those around him. He has also been -- among the cardinals and among the public intellectuals of Europe -- one of the sharpest pencils in the box.

As early as 1992, Josef Ratzinger was elected to the French Academy as the successor of Russian nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. In 2004 Ratzinger debated the most public atheist philosopher in Europe, Jürgen Habermas, in Munich. To the surprise of many onlookers, most critics gave higher marks to Ratzinger in that courteous, respectful, and unsparing give-and-take.

After the death of John Paul the Great, I very much wanted his great friend Ratzinger to succeed him, old and frail of health as he was. Some of us thought he might not live three years. I am most grateful God gave him eight as pope, and hopefully many more as a hermit living in the small building being prepared for him at the Vatican.

Incidentally, that hermitage will solve the problem of his security very neatly. He will be cut off from the constant traffic of communications from all round the world, but his scholarship -- his true vocation -- can still continue, and in his weakness he can concentrate on union with God in hours of quiet prayer. As have many scholar saints.

The church in the near future is going to sail through very heavy and often antagonistic waters. It will probably continue to shed many members in the more developed, more pagan, more progressive nations. But on the great sea of humanity, these nations are few, dispirited, and losing influence. In the expanses of Africa and Asia, especially China, thirsty souls are coming eagerly to drink of the cool waters of quiet truths, by the millions.

Benedict has helped deepen the wells from which to take their fill.



The Myth of Romantic Love

Adapted from Michael Novak's book The Myth of Romantic Love  for The Huffington Post.


Many people spend their entire lives looking for such love, wanting to feel such love, wondering, when they are first attracted to a guy or girl, if that's what they're now feeling. Above all, most people love being in love, love the feeling of loving, love even the mad passion of being in love. They are bewitched by the passion that would make them want to die rather than not be in love. (I saw this phenomenon often in summertime romances all around me in Italy in 1961 and 1962, when I was writing two novels there. In summertime in those days American girls came in droves and were romanced by young Italian Romeos as they had never before experienced. My hotel near the Piazza di Spagna seemed taken over by young lovers. Often the American girl, her schedule pre-set and unchangeable, departed tearfully, brokenhearted to leave.)

Central among the features of romantic love is the fact that it consists in falling in love with love, not with a concrete person. In its high form it scorns mere bodily, erotic, sexual love. In this pure form it prides itself on being "above" the biological love that is satisfied by pornography or by groping interaction with another human being. Romantic love loves the higher passion, the spiritual ecstasy of love, not the body. A woman in romantic love loves being swept off her feet, longing for more, to the point of death. "I would rather die" than lose the feeling of loving him and being loved by him.

To feel the ecstasy of passion, romantic love entails a boundless desire, a longing for the infinite, a longing to "slip the surly bonds of Time," to escape from bodily limitations into the realm of the forever and the infinite. It is a revolt against mere flesh, against the limits of the human condition. The body, it finds gross. What it loves is the rarefied spiritual passion that only romantic lovers know. It loves feeling lifted "above the herd," into a higher sphere. It is not a sated appetite, but in fact quite the opposite. It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire. It feels a kind of murderous hostility toward rude awakenings.

This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles. If romantic love were to lead too quickly to physical consummation, it would cease being romantic. For then it would require dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and -- bump! -- romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. No, for the sake of romantic love, it is much better for fulfillment to be delayed, for obstacles to be put up, for a sword to be laid down between the longing couple, or a curtain drawn between them. For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another, must never get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life.

Romantic love is to be contrasted with the Jewish and Christian vision of human love. It is plain from scripture that God expected -- nay, commanded -- his followers to be sexy: "Increase and multiply and fill the earth." Sexuality is a crucial part of human life, both for deeply personal growth and, second, for the continuance and prospering of the human community as a whole. Even toward the end of Biblical times, there were not more than 250 million people living on this earth. That left a lot of "increasing and multiplying" to be achieved. And that meant a lot of sexual acts.

But the Jewish and Christian view of the human being is that sex is a natural expression, not only of the body, but of the soul. For there is no separation of body and soul. The human person is one, not two: an embodied spirit, a spirited body -- one. The notion that there is an errant body (like a wild steed) to be disciplined by a superior soul (the charioteer) is from Plato, not from Judaism and Christianity.

The extent to which modern philosophy is still divided against itself -- soul separate from body -- is due to mistakes by Descartes and his progeny. There are still worrying, in a primitive manner, about a supposed "mind-body" problem. Instead of imaging that knowledge comes through clear ideas, Descartes would have been much more accurate to have recognized that all knowledge begins in the five senses. It is less true to say "I think, therefore I am," than to say "I sit, therefore I am." Our first brush against existence is through the body.

The "mind-body" problem? What kind of problem is that? From the beginning, soul has been embodied in nerves, sinews, muscles, flesh. And among living persons these have been inspirited. The human person is a unity, not a duality. A man caressing his wife is not practicing a merely physical act; his whole soul is speaking in it. Her "Yes" is from her soul and body, both. They are one -- as soul and body, as wife and husband.

 View full article at the Huffington Post.

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