Pope Francis: The First and the Last (Maybe)



If one were called upon to describe Pope Francis, the first word likely come to mind would be, well, the word “first.”  There’s so much “first-ness” about this new pope.  He is the first pope to hail from South America, the first pope of the Jesuit order, the first pope to take the name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi and, apparently, the first pope to have only one lung.  At his first mass as pope, he eschewed the red papal cape for a simple white cassock, his only adornment on that occasion the simple pectoral cross from his days as a bishop in Buenos Aires.  He turned down a residency in the papal palace for a less lavish domicile, the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse.  He carries his own bags and makes calls on his own mobile phone.  There’s a simplicity and humility about the new pope that both Catholics and non-Catholics find endearing.  To quote his admirers, he’s a “breath of fresh air.”      

If you are one of those people who regard the prophecies of a certain 12th century Irish monk as credible, then you likely believe that Pope Francis is also the last pope.  Saint Malachy (1094-1148) was an Irish monk who, while on a visit to Rome in 1139, reportedly had a vision of all the popes who would reign from the time of Celestine II (elected in 1130) until the alleged end of the world.  Malachy describes each of the 112 future popes in short verses which depict some noticeable feature of each of the coming pontiffs.  The Irish monk turned his prophecies over to Pope Innocent IV in 1140.   Despite this effort on Malachy’s part to safeguard his predictions, his verses were lost for 400 years.  Then in 1595, Malachy’s writing was discovered, recorded, and published as a book, Lignum Vitae, by the Benedictine monk and historian Arnold de Wyon.

The last pope to appear in Malachy’s vision was a man he called Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, the 266th and final pope, whose pontificate ends with the destruction of Rome.  The verse describing the final pope reads thus:

“In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Petrus Romanus who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people.  The End.” 

Although the Vatican gives no credence to Malachy’s cryptic verses, the 12th century “seer” does have his supporters.  However, if there is a connection between the new pope and the Petrus Romanus in Malachy’s verse, it isn’t readily apparent.  True, Pope Francis’ namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born in Italy and was named Giovanni di Pietro (Peter) di Bernardone.  And Pope Francis is the son of Italian immigrants from the Asti region of Italy who settled in Argentina.  But that doesn’t make either Francis a Roman.  There simply is no discernible connection between Pope Francis and the pope in Malachy’s final vision.

In the six months since his inauguration, Pope Francis has continued to distinguish himself from his predecessors.  Pope Francis’ namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, believed it was his God-given task to reform the church. Pope Francis seems to be of a similar mind.  Pope Francis wants a poorer, simpler church.  (The Bishop of Limburg, with his lavish new residence, has yet to get the message, it appears.) Faulting the Catholic Church for obsessing with “hot-button” social issues that divide people–like gay marriage, abortion, and contraception–Pope Francis is calling for a more “balanced” church.  He wants a more inclusive church, too. Something no pope has done before, Pope Francis is reaching out to the gay community, a move not without its controversy.  Indeed, some of his remarks have “raised eyebrows.”  He has said, for instance, that, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”  On another occasion, he said that the Church must not “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians. (I wonder what he meant by “interfere spiritually.”  Strange comment from the supreme spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.)  

The Catholic Church, according to Pope Francis, should be a “home for all.” But can the Church be a “home for all” and still be the Church?  The Church came into being at Pentecost as a body of believers, a community of Christ-followers.  The problem with inclusiveness as a goal is that it tempts the Church to “water down” its beliefs and teaching in order to make everyone feel “at home.”

In yet another first for a pope, Pope Francis held the rite of Maundy Thursday foot-washing, not in St. Peter’s where it had been traditionally held, but in a youth prison, the Casal del Marmo.  There, he washed, dried, and then kissed the feet, not of twelve priests but of twelve young offenders, some of whom had no knowledge whatsoever as to what the Pope was doing, or why, until the ceremony was carefully explained to them. Jesus had washed the feet of his twelve apostles to demonstrate servant leadership. Two of the twelve to have their feet washed and kissed by Pope Francis that day were young women; another two were Muslims.

Pope Francis’ namesake Saint Francis of Assisi is famous for his outreach to the Muslim world.  I suspect that is one of the current pope’s goals as well.  There are undoubtedly more “firsts” yet to come. 


Don’t Call Them Crazy

The heinous nature of the attack perpetrated by al-Shabaab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on September 21 has just been made public. Not only were 61 innocent civilians gunned down and six Kenyan soldiers killed during the assault, over the next three days hostages were tortured, physically mutilated, and hanged. Thirty-nine people are still missing. Another atrocity followed within a matter of days, this time perpetrated by the group Boko Haram on students in an agricultural college in Gujba, Nigeria. Fifty students were murdered as they slept. What sort of people carry out attacks on innocent shoppers and sleeping students? Western media and government leaders call them “sick men, criminals, cowardly, crazy.” But are they?

Not in their own eyes. When a four-year-old British boy called one of the attackers in the Westgate Mall a “very bad man,” the terrorist reportedly gave the boy and his sister a couple of Mars chocolate bars and said, “Please forgive me, we are not monsters” and then allowed the kids and their mother to escape, after telling the children’s mother that she had to change her religion to Islam. To me, that’s key to understanding the killers and their motivation. Despite their cold-blooded barbarism, these are not crazy men: Their operations are too meticulously planned and executed to be the products of delusional minds. What they are is jihadists. Moreover, they are part of a proliferating transnational religious movement, global jihadism, whose goal is nothing less than the imposition of Islam worldwide, beginning in the jihadists’ own backyards.

Not all Western media and government leaders, of course, are oblivious to or refuse to publicly acknowledge the religious ideology that drives the jihadists. Those who do, however, almost to a person, portray the jihadists as confused individuals who terrorize and kill in the name of Allah because they don’t really understand Islam. If this is the case, then it behooves Islam’s spiritual leaders to bring an end to their misunderstanding. Western governments alone cannot “de-radicalize” jihadists, as the recent case of Ali Dirie, a Canadian of Somali descent, points out. Dirie was convicted in 2009 of smuggling a hand gun across the US/CAN border to a terrorist group. He spent two years in prison. His rehabilitation program in prison obviously failed, for he died recently, fighting with the rebel forces in Syria. Critics say the government needs to do a better job with youth like Dirie. Really?

Who should correct those who misunderstand Islam? Logically, it should be a Muslim of the highest authority. But finding such a person poses a dilemma, in that there is no supreme authority in Islam equivalent to the Roman Catholic Pope or Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. There is no supreme political leader, no caliph, and there hasn’t been since Atatürk dissolved the caliphate in 1924. There’s the ulama, a body made up of Islam’s legal scholars who are qualified to give opinions on legal matters, but they are more interpreters of the law than spiritual leaders. There is no equivalent of the Catholic priesthood or Protestant clergy in Islam, either. The imams are mainly prayer leaders (at least in the Sunni branch of Islam), appointed by the local mosques that employ them. Not all of them are particularly well-educated.
Appealing directly to the Qur’an for guidance poses difficulties of another kind.

The Islamic idea of revelation is very different from the Judeo-Christian concept. The Bible is regarded as the product of a cooperative effort between God and multiple human authors. The writer of 2 Peter describes what that cooperative effort looked like: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2:21). The Greek word translated into English as “carried along” is the same Greek word used to describe a ship carried along by the wind (a wonderful depiction of ‘inspiration’, I think). Men spoke, God spoke. Human authorship is evident in the great variety of genres, writing styles, narratives–and, occasionally, discrepancies–that one finds in the biblical text. Because the Bible is acknowledged to be the work of many human authors as well as a Divine Author, the Bible has been deemed to be “fair game” by scholars–Jews, Christians, non-Jews, and non-Christians alike–for intense scholarly investigation, literary criticism, and debate.

That has not been the case with the Qur’an. Muslims believe that their holy book contains, quite literally, the words of God. When one listens to or reads the Qur’an, one hears Allah speak, not his Prophet Muhammad who was merely a passive conduit. Moreover, the composition that was conveyed to Muhammad in Arabic is a copy of a divine Book which exists in heaven (sura 85:21-22). Like God, the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated. Given this understanding of the Qur’an as Divine Diction, it’s difficult to challenge anything one reads on its pages, including suras that sanction warfare.

I don’t see an end any time soon to the threat of global jihadism, quite the opposite. There will undoubtedly be more Westgates in the days ahead. The least we can do is call the threat we now face by its rightful name. To do otherwise is irrational, crazy, even.