Pope Francis continues to generate unusual publicity in the secular media, almost as if they (secular print and broadcast media) had never heard anything positive about Catholic Faith until now. The general coverage of his remarks and acts is puzzling because what our Holy Father says or does is by no means revolutionary in nature. Rather, it pertains more to style and emphasis.
Like Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope John Paul II, Francis prefers to embrace simplicity, whenever possible, in his words and actions, although his choices as to what and how to exemplify the Gospel metaphor of selecting fresh wine flasks for noble wine whose supreme quality cannot diminish ever, surprise us.
Recall that Good Pope John addressed this very aspect of the metaphor when he convoked Vatican Council II. On 20 Oct., 1962, with the assembled Fathers of Vatican II, he declared:
"Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we intend…to seek the most effective ways of renewing ourselves and of becoming increasingly more faithful witnesses of the Gospel of Christ. We will strive to propose to the men of our time the truth of God in its entirety and purity so that they may understand it and accept it freely." (cf. The Pope Speaks, Vol. 8, No. 3; 1963, p. 303. Italics added.)
John Paul II was a master of this approach. Again and again, millions flocked to his pulpit; in Manila, he had to be flown by helicopter over the congregants in order to reach the altar and pulpit; the crowd was so dense and deep.
Now, however, issues related to style, and even to simplicity itself, have somewhat changed. Newer wine flasks are needed.
And Pope Francis has proven equal to what music composers call "variations on a theme."
Again, key Catholic doctrines, those which express the Church’s reading of the Bible and hence are founded on Scripture and Tradition, can never be modified. For example, the reality of the Eucharist cannot be overturned, ever. Nor the necessity of baptism, at least in voto; i.e., baptism of desire. Nor, in moral theology, can intrinsically evil acts become justifiable; abortion, for example, which ranks among the most evil assaults on reverence for human life in our times. Moreover, these are doctrines belonging to the very constitution of our Church, norms left to us by Christ and the Apostles, in a never-changing Tradition from the very beginning, such as the determining matter and form of the Sacraments, the Petrine function, the ordination solely of men, the evangelical counsels and religious life, the utter necessity of penance, the charism of celibacy freely assumed for the sake of the Gospel, and so on.
All of the above (and more) must be preached today, as always, while attending to their specific relevance in our age and to the idiom with which they are cloaked. The truths remain constant while the language used can vary in accordance with contemporary usage and impact.
Here I should add a note of caution with respect to the English language, doubtless one of the richest cultural treasures we have, and for which we are eternally indebted to the Lord. Because English is an intensely living vehicle of thought, it admits of surprising variations in meaning or emphasis. Surely this observation alone is warning enough regarding relevance of expression. Besides, English is less concrete a phenomenon than, for example, Hebrew, the major tongue of the Old Testament Scriptures; hence, even an accurate English translation of Biblical Hebrew might need a special assist. T.S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest English poet of the 20th century, wrote somewhere that if English-speaking people wanted to study another language, they should begin with Hebrew, in order to compensate for the abstract nature of English words or phrases.
Pope Francis appears conversant with the above principle. Again and again, he chooses metaphorical expressions that are concretely as memorable as they are precise. Of course, his native tongue is not English, but a solid Romance language, as appealing to the mind and emotions as it is masculine in sound.
Thus it is that Pope Francis is especially comfortable when he is speaking about the real and existential rather than the abstract. For example, consider the Pope’s reference to abortion as removing the face of Christ from our world; or when he says that abortion reflects our wanton "throwaway" culture.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.