EARLIER THIS MONTH we celebrated the fourth anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis – he is shown here on the visit he made, not long after his election, to celebrate Mass on the island of Lampedusa with refugees encamped and those caring for them, praying for the souls of the many men, women and children who have been drowned near the island. Although his predecessors were marked also by their support for refugees throughout the world, Pope Francis’s message of solidarity with them and his call on Catholics, particularly in Europe, to support them in every way possible has been a defining characteristic of his ministry as pope.
The second of our parish Lent talks the week before last attempted to identify where we can discern the power of evil and the Evil One in the world and even in the Church of God. One of the examples is the way in which Pope Francis is often undermined in his ministry, by open and covert dissent from his teaching and by snide and disloyal remarks, particularly in the darker areas of the Catholic ‘blogosphere’. This has been focussed on almost everything he has done as pope – not wearing red shoes (and I am not joking), his teaching on the care of creation in his encyclical letter from 2015, Laudato Si’, his teaching about refugees to which I referred above, his response to the synods on the Family in the exhortation Amoris Laetitia which called for Bishops’ Conferences to be given more discretion in relation to the pastoral care of divorced Catholics who have remarried and his approach to the Order of Malta. The irony is that some of those who have attacked Francis claim to have been very loyal to his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict (who has made clear his own deep loyalty and affection for Pope Francis in recently published interviews).
This disloyalty to the pope is, of course, not new in the history of the Church. There are plenty of examples merely in the last century: during the First World war Benedict XV was openly undermined by most of the bishops of Europe (including the Bishop of Southwark and the rest of the hierarchy) over his opposition to the war; we know that St John XXIII was aware of attempts to thwart him in his work for peace at the end of his life in 1963; and it is likely too that Benedict XVI was not properly supported towards the end of his pontificate in his efforts to reform the Curia.
Francis knows this but in Lent particularly we should remind ourselves of why it is so important for us to be loyal to the Holy Father, whoever he is. We talk of the Bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ – that means we think of him as the representative of Our Lord on earth. He is the successor of St Peter, to whom Jesus entrusted leadership of the Church: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not triumph over it’. So adherence to the pope’s teachings, and loyalty to him, are simply not negotiable for Catholics: this is what men like St Thomas More and St John Fisher gave their lives for under Henry VIII.
Last week in our Lent session we looked at examples of goodness in the world, and one of these is the effort to help children and young people listen to the Holy Father’s message. We did this very successfully in school last summer in a week of special events to mark Laudato Si’, to get children to think about how they can care more for the environment, so pray this Lent for the pope – that he will be given wisdom and strength.