joys and desires (francis & benedict)

Sep 23, 2013

A number of newspaper headlines in recent days have featured encouraging quotations from an interview with Pope Francis.

Pope John Paul never gave interviews. His texts and speeches were rigorously crafted, and it seemed he feared that a departure from text might too easily be misinterpreted.
Pope Benedict initiated the new era of papal interviews with conversations with book authors (Light of the World interview with Peter Seewald), with journalists aboard planes, TV stations, small groups of priests, (diocese of Aosta, July 25, 2005), large groups of priests (close of Year of Priests June 11 2005), and children (Year of the Eucharist October 2005), among others.
I was privileged to be one of 15,000 priests at the Year of Priests Question and Answer session with Pope Benedict in 2005. The pope’s responses were remarkable for their informality and depth. His style led one reporter to write: “Never has a Pope…dealt so directly with such wide-ranging and controversial issues as Pope Benedict XVI does.” (George Weigel in his foreward to Light of the World).
I recall following a website that published the texts of Pope Benedict’s speeches in the months after his election in 2005. The webmasters had been given embargoed copies of the formal speeches before the events. But after a day or two, they realised that Benedict often departed from his prepared text more than he stayed with it! The website began to publish the formal text in black font, and in red the pope’s asides and spontaneous reflections. In some speeches there was more red than black! 
I noticed this informality too in the Q & A at the close of the Year of Priests. Benedict was holding several pages of prepared responses. However as the first question was asked he rolled up the pages, then put them aside not referring to them once.

Another inspiring difference between Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict was the freedom with which Benedict (especially in his writing) quoted from anyone who was earnestly bringing intelligence to their engagement with life. In his teaching John Paul drew widely from the saints and the church fathers. Benedict was truly catholic in quoting from people of every religion, and from no religion, agnostic and athiest alike.

Listening to Pope Francis in the last six months I have recalled many passages from Pope Benedict’s writings and speeches. On many occasions the emphasis, language and tone of the two popes is so similar that the texts can’t be told apart.


I am not downplaying the differences between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. A number of commentators (blogs etc) are suggesting that the content of the teachings and the emphasis of these two popes is the same. I sense fear in their concern that there may be growth and change in the church, and that a new style of papal leadership and emphasis may be emerging. It is true that doctrinally there is no difference. But Pope Francis is doing a superb job of reminding us that Catholic faith must never be reduced to doctrine. 

There are a number of reasons for this. Even though Francis is less than ten years younger than Benedict, he is from a new generation. While Benedict is (by a fluke of birth) European and from the ‘old-world’, Francis is (by the same fluke) post-war and ‘new World’. Most noticeably (for the media especially) Pope Francis is an extrovert, and Pope Benedict, an introvert. 

I am often haunted by the words of the English poet William Blake who holds a perception of religion that is tragically common today: 

“And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, 
And binding with briars my joys and desires”.

One of my greatest sadnesses is the chasm that exists between my own personal experience of the Church as positive and life-giving, and the negative perception of the Church held by most of the people I know. It is true that the church has significant and tragic imperfections and flaws. However I have not found any other group that more effectively holds me in relationship with Christ, enabling me to continue to strive for full, healthy and happy life. My sadness is that most people have little positive to say about the Church. They experience the Church as binding with briars [their] joys and desires.

In Pope Francis we have a leader who is building on the sound foundations of the Gospel and the Tradition beautifully clarified for us by Pope Benedict. This is evident especially in the two major interviews of the past couple of months, first on the plane journey home from Brazil in July, and the second published in four Jesuit journals last week.

There is no doubt that the past six months have seen an organic growth and development of the life of the Church in the leadership of Pope Francis. Anyone who tells you that nothing new is happening, has their head in the sand. Others who suggest that the Church is on the verge of changing teachings on matters of faith and morals are also naive.

But we are right to delight in and to savour the renewal of hope that Pope Francis has brought. It is especially encouraging to know that many Catholics who feel as though they have been driven to the periphery of the Church, are experiencing renewed hope.

After six months it is evident that we do not need to hopefully hold our breath in anticipation. Let’s inhale and exhale breathing deeply and freely, confident that the Holy Spirit (who in the election of Pope Francis renewed this good work), will bring it to fulfillment. (Philippians 1:6)


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