The demon of messianism leads ministers to set themselves up as the center of all pastoral activity in which they participate. The temptation subtly penetrates their lives, until they end up feeling indispensable in everything. … Those who fall into this temptation do not ignore God nor do they fail to pray and appeal to the Lord with problems. They do so, however, so that God may help them in the ministry they plan and direct. Ultimately, what we are dealing with here is incorporating the Lord into our work, and not incorporating ourselves into the work of God. Following the temptation, we unconsciously substitute our personal messianism for the messianic ministry of Christ, the one evangelizer.This attitude before God manifests itself in an equally faulty attitude toward those with whom we collaborate. We become incapable of delegating responsibilities or tasks. We do not really trust people, except for a few—those who are a consistently faithful copy of ourselves, with whom we permanently surround ourselves. … There is always a relationship between the attitude towards God and the attitude towards others, and vice versa. Distrust of collaborators in ministry, therefore, reflects a distrust in God. This is what we mean by the demon of messianism. …The messianic attitude does not allow others to grow, since the apostolic endeavor’s growth and maturity do not run parallel as they should with the maturation and growth of all who carry it out. In the same way, the messianic ministers’ [sic] initiatives and creations do not necessarily contribute to a community’s formation nor do they prepare anyone to succeed them in ministry. Often they identify themselves with their work even to the point that the ministry ends when they leave or are transferred. It has been tied too much to the person, and successors are not prepared to step in. (pp. 23-24)
[Another temptation is] not trusting in the power of truth…. [which] is a variation of lacking confidence in God [as in messianism], but it has separate characteristics as a temptation. … Many cannot believe that there are times to accept without understanding. It is not ‘popular’ to assert truths such as the positive value of austerity, suffering, and the cross, or life after death. Likewise the value of chastity, virginity, persistence in marriage, or the defense of life even in extreme cases may be unpopular. …In this context, the minster is tempted to vacillate. He or she may not offer Christ’s truth as it is…. The assumption may be that the truth will not be accepted and followed, or that is inconvenient. Some truths go by the wayside or fall into ambiguity when in various ways the minster of the Word trusts more in human prudence than in the truth force and attraction. … Instead of the the Gospel’s demands and its light, the minster proposes the ‘reasonable’ advice of human experience, depriving people of the opportunity to yield progressively to the truth that sets them free. (p. 29)
[A third temptation is] preaching problems and not certainties… [which] causes confusion between different moments and levels of ministry in the Word. … [O]n the level of catechesis, homilies, and missionary preaching, it is always necessary to hand on the Christian message…. People in this situation expect the certitude of faith in order to renew their lives. They do not want their issues and problems returned to them without a response. … The essence of evangelization is to announce a message and not problems…. Evangelization announces certainties, not conjectures or personal opinions.There may be many causes of this temptation. Ministers may lack experience, judgment, or discernment. They may be projecting their interior state. If they themselves are vacillating in their convictions, or if their Christian life is more a bundle of problems and questions than certitude, they will tend to transmit that to others. The old saying ‘the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart’ fits ministry perfectly. The Christian community is built on the faith, hope, and love of its members. It is not built on doubts, confusions, and shared problems. (p. 30)
[A fourth, and, for the purposes of this essay, final, temptation is that of] secularizing Christian hope…. [This temptation] consists in transmitting a message of purely secular hopes to the detriment of fundamental Christian hope. For example, the minister promotes a better social or political future, with the accompanying freedoms that men and women are searching for today. He or she preaches confidence in overcoming sickness, poverty, and other human dilemmas. Although we should strive for these legitimate human hopes, the promises of Christ do no guarantee them in this life. We do not know with certainty if they will be achieved. To proclaim them as Christian hope deceives the people, and reduces the Gospel to a message of legitimate human liberation or optimism about the future. …To secularize hope is to do away with the proclamation of the human vocation to eternal life, holiness, faith, and love as the driving force and the supreme value of human liberation. With that, ministers will be tempted to change their service into the inspiration of secular expectations and the commitment to a better future. (p. 31)
In contrast to the photo of the iPriests, ponder this photo of Pope Pius XII in procession:
The multiple layers of order, decorum, and rank act like a Kevlar vest for the fusillade of instinctive popular affection, or like the arresting wires for a tailhook on an aircraft carrier, slowing down and tethering the ultramontane instinct of the masses before it goes the way of Kid Icarus beneath a papal sun. Precisely because Pacelli was ensconced in such an intricate web of sacred semiotics—his individuality cloaked by the mystical bureaucracy of the papacy—the appeal of Pacelli the Man was blunted, dimmed, diffused, so that the popular devotion could flow over him, past him, beyond him towards what he was merely animating, rather than being caught in the populist hydraulic of his personal charisma (much less his shoes).
Once upon a time, a man elected to be pope did not just die to himself by devoting all his labors to the care of the Church, but also rather literally buried his own self under the byzantine demands of the papal attire, routine, manner of speech, associations, residence, and so on. “Congratulations, you’re the pope—now vanish!” That was how a sacrosanct apparatus like the papacy ran on the stable fuel of sacrosanct populism.
When the papacy decided to “loosen up,” lose the triple tiara, and dye the Church’s allegedly graying hair, the semiotic and spiritual focus shifted from the office to the man in that office. “Ecce homo!” As the traditionally robust papal exterior has been scraped and sanded down to a thinner, more “functional,” more “personal” veneer of down-to-earth pastoral accompaniment, rather than a seemingly aloof royal authority, an otherwise healthy love for what the pope represents has been projected onto the man who happens to be representing the papacy.
It is, to use a crude analogy, as if children at an amusement park have been conditioned to fawn over the man inside the Goofy suit instead of loving Goofy qua iconic reality. Once you removed Goofy’s head, the spell was broken, and the only choice for most children was to walk away disillusioned or to latch onto that new, all-too-human face with the same instinctive zeal. But just as an actor is hired to hide inside his role, so a pope is elected to deny himself inside the larger iconic reality of the living authority of St. Peter, who “to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the Holy Roman See, which he founded and consecrated with his blood” (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 2).
What We Now Call Personality
As long as our pastors insist on thinking with “the world,” on trying to learn from “the world,” on appealing to “the world,” rather than simply calling it to conversion–in a word, as long as the hierarchy remains stuck in the rut of pastoral accommodationism that was carved out at Vatican II, we will not shake the perception that the pope is but the most prominent “mega-church” pastor in the pack. The papacy has become so democratized, so “personalized”, that the ancient instinct to venerate the pope can only find purchase on the particulars of The Man With The Papal Ring. Hence, authentic love for the pope and our shepherds is not based on popular relevance, but on traditionalism. For it is by anchoring ourselves in the ornate sanctuaries and estuaries of the larger Catholic Tradition that we, to paraphrase Chesterton, may be freed from the tyranny of our own age–the age of the image, the I’mAge.
To cite Chesterton again:
Luther opened an epoch; and began the modern world. He was the first man who ever consciously used his consciousness or what was later called his Personality. He had as a fact a rather strong personality. Aquinas had an even stronger personality … [but] it never occurred to him to use anything except his wits, in defence of a truth distinct from himself. It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon. … [H]e belonged to an age of intellectual unconsciousness, to an age of intellectual innocence, which was very intellectual. Now Luther did begin the modern mood of depending on things not merely intellectual. … When he quoted a Scripture text, inserting a word that is not in Scripture, he was content to shout back at all hecklers: “Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” That is what we now call Personality. A little later it was called Psychology. After that it was called Advertisement or Salesmanship. … [Luther] destroyed Reason; and substituted Suggestion.5 Thomas Aquinas (1933), chapter VIII.
Personal Charisma, Popular Appeal, and Pastoral Persuasion vs. Reason, Tradition, and Royal Order–that is the choice Catholics face, a choice between good-guy, rockstar popes, on the one hand, whose kinetic personalism compels them to “open for” Buddy Jesus in all the major cities, and popes, on the other hand, whose quasi-anonymous bearing and traditional, sacrosanct trappings actually bespeak the vice-regent of Christ the King.
Without the traditional semiotic buffer that obscures his individuality, the Man In The High Basilica cannot but become one Great Leader among others (e.g. “the Catholic Reagan,” “the Catholic Obama”, etc.). This is why Pope Francis’s World Famous Humility™ rings so hollow. By rejecting the conventional residence, clothing, shoes, expressions, liturgical disciplines, etc. of the papacy, Pope “Call Me Jorge” Francis becomes a tractor beam of attention, deepening, as I have argued, a spiritual displacement that began in the Conciliar Epoch, when the papacy decided to vulgarize itself in the name of ecumenical outreach. By emphasizing how different he is from, and how much more selfless he is compared to, his predecessors, Pope Francis has become the biggest egotist in the world. After all, sadly, “bosses are often narcissists.”
Nothing personal, Fr. Bergoglio, but you’re the pope–please act the part. We Catholics will be your biggest fans.
Elliot Bougis (Florida Man™) is a convert from the Reformed tradition. After a decade of teaching in Taiwan, Elliot returned to America and is now a freelance translator, interpreter, marketer, and writer. He is a happily married, multilingual father of three and occasionally a fitness nut. Find out more at ebougis.wordpress.com.
|↑1||This is a win of sorts for Rome: the Synod managed to cause far more damage and chaos than the largest hurricane ever recorded by satellite, proving that the Church is still a mighty force in the world.|
|↑2||This danger is also sometimes referred to as “in cauda venenum“.|
|↑3||U.S. Presidents have not needed to change the Constitution to flout it, so why should leading prelates have to “change doctrine” to achieve the same effect?|
|↑4||I do admit, though, that there is something very odd, and oddly disturbing, about a hall full of ordained men snapping photos at the pope like teens at a pop concert. That’s what you get, though, when you raise up a generation of pastors to “learn from the world.”|
|↑5||Thomas Aquinas (1933), chapter VIII.|