The radical handwriting was on the wall the moment Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected to the papacy in 2013.
At his first address to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square as Francis I, he had refused to wear the papal mozzetta. This seemingly insignificant break with tradition was the first red flag signaling that the new Bishop of Rome was a modernist. The second red flag occurred during Francis’ inaugural Mass. At that Mass, Francis’ vestments were noticeably plain. Not just plain, but ostentatiously plain. His white miter, decorated with a simple red cross, matched the miter he wore when officiating at puppet and Tango Masses in Argentina. Kneeling among Armenian rite bishops in their bejeweled tall miters during a prayer service before the crypt of St. Peter, Francis seemed to be making a show of his preference for “simplicity.”
The new pope very quickly won the world’s admiration when it was reported that he paid his own hotel bill after the conclusion of the papal conclave. Non-Catholics who never noticed a pope before were now paying strict attention. Many saw Francis’ emphasis on simplicity as a saintly attribute, especially when he chose not to live in the papal palace but in the Vatican apartments. He was very quickly dubbed the “People’s Pope.”
In 2014, the “People’s Pope” fired Colonel Daniel Rudolf Anrig, 42, head of the Swiss Guards, “for being overly strict and autocratic.” Reports stated how the pope ordered a Swiss Guard who had been standing outside his apartment all night to sit down. When the guard said it was against orders, Francis replied, “I give the orders around here!” and then promptly went out to get the guard a cup of coffee.
Paying your own hotel bill and getting an overworked Swiss Guard a cup of coffee are ‘feel good’ stories that make up only a small part of this immensely complicated man.
Ironically, over time Francis would prove to be as authoritarian as the head of the Swiss Guard whom he fired and replaced. That authoritarianism would manifest itself slowly at first, finally climaxing in his July 16, 2021 Motu Proprio restricting the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, the ancient liturgy of the Roman rite that was replaced by a more Protestant-friendly service in 1970 after the Second Vatican Council.
It is not unheard of for a pope to get involved in political issues. Pope John Paul II’s alliance with Poland’s Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement, did much to end Communism there. Pope Benedict XVI was outspoken on the dangers of Islam and even had a private meeting with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, author of the bestseller, “The Rage and The Pride,” before her death in 2006. Francis got heavily political when he told reporters in 2015 that Donald Trump was “not Christian” because he had plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico to keep out illegal aliens. In response, Trump, according to Politico, “thundered back in a lengthy statement, declaring that, ‘For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.’” Trump also added that if the Vatican was ever attacked by the Islamic State, Francis would wish that he were president.
When President Trump visited Francis in the Vatican the media was rife with interpretations of the pope’s movements during the meeting. Every gesture from the pope, from a simple head scratch to a momentary glance at the floor, was read as a sign of his disapproval of Trump. Suddenly every activist cub reporter had become a body language expert.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was at one time one of the progressive architects of the Second Vatican Council (where he appeared in photo ops wearing a necktie) but became conservative towards the end of his pontificate, issuing his famous Summorum Pontificum in July 2007 which brought new life to the Traditional Latin Mass by giving permission to Catholic priests to celebrate it without the permission of a bishop.
The fever of reform generated by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s replaced the old Mass with guitar Masses, sappy sentimental hymns, altar girls in flip flops and Mrs. Broadbent from the church choir handing out the Eucharist instead of the priest. Catholic Church architecture also took a nose dive at this time, with high altars, statues and mosaics removed from churches and replaced by table altars (Julie Child’s table) and baptismal fonts that resembled Las Vegas hotel hot tubs. The new Mass, or the Novus Ordo, was specifically designed to make the Mass less mystical and more Protestant-friendly.
Bergoglio, the Jesuit from Argentina, has always had a hatred of Tradition and the Traditional Latin Mass.
When Benedict XVI issued his Summorum Pontifum facilitating the TLM, Bergoglio would allow it in one parish but the hour he chose when it could be celebrated was usually a time when people did not like going to Mass. Celebrants for the TLM were chosen by Bergoglio but these priests generally did not like the Old Mass at all. He also imposed many restrictions on the manner in which the Mass could be celebrated. The good Jesuit disobeyed the spirit, if not the letter, of Pope Benedict’s Motu Propio.
Francis waited eight years before making a move against the TLM as head of the Catholic Church. During those years his focus was on navigating the sometimes slippery waters of Church teachings that are both liberal and conservative. Siding with the poor, illegal aliens, supporting economic equity and condemning capital punishment comes from the same Church that condemns abortion, birth control and sex outside of marriage. But Francis, the ever savvy Jesuit, had a knack for injecting a bit of ambiguity when he reflected on or talked about the Church’s most orthodox doctrines, causing many Catholics to ask, “What does Pope Francis really believe?”
In the political realm, the pope’s leftist progressive beliefs were best exhibited during a speech before Congress in 2015. “In these times when social concerns are so important,” Francis said, “I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
The Catholic Worker Movement, founded in 1933 during the Great Depression, began with an emphasis on feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless. Day (1897 – 1980) was a journalist and social activist who converted to Catholicism while keeping her anarchist beliefs. Today, the Catholic Worker movement has gone way beyond the vision of Day, who as a strict Catholic would not recognize the movement’s embrace of illicitly ordained women priests and the celebration of the Mass at movement houses by anyone called to do so.
Before the 2020 election, Pope Francis did everything but give his apostolic blessing to the Biden campaign. Biden, who claims to be a devout Catholic and who is said to carry a rosary in his pocket, supports abortion on demand and has been criticized by many U.S. Catholic bishops for his views. In June 2021, The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft a statement on the meaning of communion, and whether President Biden and other politicians should be denied the rite based on their public stand on abortion.
“We are not accustomed to a hearing from a pope, a month before Election Day, who criticizes “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism,” and castigates those who, through their actions, cast immigrants as “less worthy, less important, less human.” The Washington Post reported in Oct 2020
Pope Francis has charged headlong into a variety of issues, including migration, climate change and economic equality. His June 2015 environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” called for a radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels.
Francis’s first big liturgical scandal occurred in October 2019 during the so called Synod on the Amazon when statuettes of an idol representing the Mother Earth goddess, or Pachamama, were venerated in St. Peter’s Basilica. During the ceremonies there was a dancing procession of Pachamama where people prostrated themselves before the two wooden statues that represented naked and pregnant women and a statue of a male phallic figure reclining on his back. The event was meant to symbolize “the cry of the Amazonian land and native peoples.” When the figures were stored at the church at Traspontina, an Austrian Catholic activist, Alexander Tschugguel, took the idols and threw them into the Tiber.
Francis later apologized for the incident.
In 2017, a group of Catholic scholars and priests wrote an open letter to the College of Bishops accusing Pope Francis of heresy.
Things were getting dicey but Francis continued to talk about the building of a “global human common good.” Francis was by now an irrepressible populist or, as one critic put it, “the globetrotting do-gooder CEO of Catholicism.” At a Mass in St. Peter’s Square in September 2019 celebrating World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he said, “Loving our neighbor as ourselves means being firmly committed to building a more just world, in which everyone has access to the goods of the earth, in which all can develop as individuals and as families, and in which fundamental rights and dignity are guaranteed to all.” In January 2021, Pope Francis’ elaborated on his thoughts and called for open borders when he wrote that nations had an obligation “to welcome, promote, protect, and integrate those who come in search of better lives for themselves and their families.”
Ironically, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has always defended the right of countries to limit immigrants. The Catechism, in fact, also states that migrants must respect the host country and assimilate.
When Bergoglio was elected pope he predicted that his papacy would not be a long one but that prediction has obviously fizzled out. The longer Francis’ reign goes on, the more damage he seems to create. On July 16, 2021, he committed what many Catholic Traditionalists have called an act of violence against the Church when he restricted the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass.
Under Francis’ new guidelines, a priest wanting to celebrate the ancient rite must first ask his bishop for permission, after which the bishop must seek permission from Rome. Since the beginning of his papacy Francis has appointed only progressive bishops and cardinals. This guarantees a difficult path when it comes to TLM permission slips.
You Tube Catholic commentators like Taylor Marshall, Timothy Gordon, Michael Matt, Mother Meriam, Dr. Robert Moynihan and many others spent days trying to make sense of the pope’s anti Latin Mass Motu Proprio. The blunt and at times nasty sounding document is a much harsher rekindling of what Bergoglio did to the Latin Mass communities in Buenos Aires. Jay Dyer, a Traditional Catholic who went over to the Orthodox Church (where Tradition is not subject to fashion) predicted that many Traditional Catholics would enter the Orthodox Church as a result of Francis’ invective.
Francis’ act of activist violence against Traditional Catholics has had a ripple effect. As of this writing those reactions are still building and many observers see it as the pope’s last straw. Francis, they say, has met the ultime de la résistance, the Latin Mass communities throughout the world with their flourishing, full seminaries and convents and packed-to-the-gills parishes, a stark contrast to the empty pews in the modernist wing of the Pachamama church with its altar girls in flip flops and pony tails.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Literary Philadelphia and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.