Giving Renewed Meaning to the Title of Pope



In our apartment there were two religious renderings affixed to the wall.One was the standard sanguinary Sacred Heart of Jesus. The other was of the Pope. Pius X11. Eugenio Pacelli, although at the time I didn’t know his name. All I knew was , he was the Pope, therefore something to be dealt with, something to be integrated into my daily understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic, even at a young age.

What I did know was rudimentary. He was the Pope therefore head of the one, holy, universal, Catholic apostolic church. He was Italian . And he was infallible. If he said something, you could take that to the bank. At church we prayed for his continuing good health.

Pope Pius XII. Source:

My parents contributed to something called Peter’s Pence which was for the Pope’s upkeep Looking at his photo, he struck me as being very austere. He had a mean little mouth and I never saw him smile. He looked like a bank manager. I paid little attention.

It was very different with  his successor, Roncalli, another Italian, Pope John XXIII. He was short, pudgy and looked like our milkman. And he seemed to smile  all the time. He changed everything, including my small Catholic world, with the Second Vatican Council.

Pope John XXIII – Source:

As a striving altar server who  struggled to memorize all that Latin, I was initially ticked off that he went vernacular. But the more I saw him, the more I came to like, even love the very idea of him.

I didn’t pay much attention to Paul VI until years later when I got to know   the theologian Hans Kung. It was Pope Paul who silenced Father Kung, ordering him not to teach Catholic  theology at Tubingen University. Kung and I talked many times about his fight with the church. I even thought of writing a play about it.

John Paul II seemed more of an international diplomat than a Pope. He seemed  to spend more time in the air and in more places that the American Secretary of State. He was also very much to the right in most things sacred and profane.

Benedict came and went so fast that I never did get a fix on him. Although I did feel antipathy toward him as it was he as Cardinal, who led the fight to silence Father Kung.

Pope Paul VI – Source:

It seems to me that in my lifetime there have been two kinds of Popes, insiders and outsiders. Pius, John Paul, Benedict and Paul were insider popes. That is they were planted, watered and flowered in the hothouse that was the administrative Church.

Pope John and  Pope Francis were to my mind outsider Popes. That is they were ready to break free of the orthodoxy of the administrative church and bend it more toward a pastoral church.

Francis has reduced the distance between himself and the faithful. And the rest of the world for that matter. His humility is palpable. He has foregone the usual sumptuous  trappings of the office.

In the five years since his Coronation, he has given the Church a new posture and a renewed sense of mission within the wider world. It is not an accomplishment universally accepted within the bureaucratic and doctrinal elements in the CHurch and especially in the Curia.


He strikes me as someone I could sit down and have a beer with.

He argues that the eucharist is not a reward for the godly but a medication for wounded souls.

And he adds; “I want to remind priests  that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.”

His most quoted phrase—”Who am I to judge”?—is at once deeply spiritual and profoundly human at the same time. We all want to be forgiven, by family, by friends by those we love.

He has said the Church  must see itself as a hospital or a first aid station. Above all it should show mercy. Divorced couples who want to remarry or carry n a life of Catholic worship should be helped not condemned. Some people living in second marriages “can be living in God’s grace, can  love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”


Again, unspoken refrain, “Who am I to judge.?”

But it has been this statement which has  caused a rebellion within his Papacy: “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth.”

There is and always has been an element  within the Church which clings to the notion that black and white is what Church teaching is all about. There are  precepts and policies handed down by Divine fiat that are immutable. That to even consider a nuanced approach to doctrine goes against the mission of the Church and worse, leads to confusion and consternation among the faithful.

Which is why there is almost open rebellion against his Papacy by elements in the Synod of Bishops and the College of Cardinals. The leader is the gruff tough-talking American Cardinal Raymond Burke.


Burke’s major complaint against Francis arises out of a footnote in the papal document Amoris Laetitia or  The Joy of Love. In the footnote, Francis says that divorced and remarried couple might sometimes receive Holy Communion.

Burke has gone so far as to question the Pope on the meaning of the footnote. If not satisfied with the Pope’s responses, he had threatened to find him guilty of heresy.

Others say Francis has reduced the magisterium of the church, that instead of being a beacon  of moral constancy, it has become a kind of drive thru department store of your-choice religious options.

All of this Vatican hugger mugger  detracts from the fact that Francis seems to have particular insights into what it means to be human and to be living on this planet at this time.

He is thoroughly modern. It is probable that every successor will follow his example and have a Twitter account. He issued an encyclical which directly confronted the looming disaster  of climate change.


Above all else, he has re-focussed the mission statement of the church with  an emphasis on the poor, the crying need for compassion in an indifferent world and a rejection of the mad doctrines  of consumerism.

To my mind Jorge Mario Bergoglio, gives renewed meaning to the title Pope. It means Father.

Michael Enright is host of The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One.

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