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Pope Francis turns 84

Robert Mickens - La Croix International - Wed, Dec 16th 2020

After nearly eight years as Bishop of Rome the Jesuit pope remains somewhat of an enigma

Pope Francis, Vatican City, October 21, 2020. (Photo by Maria Laura Antonelli / AGF Foto/PHOTOSHOT/MAXPPP)
Pope Francis probably won't be celebrating next Thursday when he marks his 84th birthday. That's because it seems he's just not much interested in celebrating any kind of personal milestones or honors.
No harm in that. In fact, it's something actually quite admirable. And rare in this day and age.

But surely, he must stop and reflect each time the calendar reaches December 17 and take stock of the year that's just passed and the one that lies ahead.

The Argentine pope seems like the type of man who probably uses the annual anniversary of his birth to celebrate and recall those who have been important in his life, primarily those who brought him into this world -- his mother and father.

And he likely ponders the gifts and lessons he received during the early years of his life in Buenos Aires from his paternal grandparents, especially his grandmother, about whom he has often spoke fondly.

Certainly, he gives thanks for his parents and grandparents and prays for them and asks their intercession, too. After all, he is Catholic and believes in the communion of saints.

When Francis marks a birthday, he probably thinks of the people who helped mold him, at different stages of his life, into the person he gradually grew to be.

He has mentioned some of these folks at various times in interviews and conversations that have been made public.

Francis is somewhat of an enigma

I keep saying "seems like", "probably", "appears to be" and so forth because it's not clear what Francis actually does or thinks about. And not just on his birthday, but on many things.

Oh, he's written and said a lot. An awful lot. But that doesn't mean he always reveals what he's really thinking.

And, at times, he says things that are hard to square with things he has said or done at other times.

In a word, Jorge Mario Bergoglio/Pope Francis is somewhat of an enigma.

He rails against clericalism, yet he can also be as clerical as anyone.

He has lofty words about advancing the role of women in the Church and society, yet he has a tendency to trade a bit too easily in misogynistic stereotypes.

He's made mercy the focus of his preaching and the motto of his pontificate, yet he has shown at times that he can be punishing and unforgiving.

Thank God for all of this.

Our pope is only a human being. He's not perfect.

Yet we Catholics, for whom "papolatry" is a mutant gene in our religious DNA, sometimes find that hard to admit.

Previous popes -- such as Santo Subito, il Grande Professore or the Pastor Angelicus -- had groups of cultlike disciples who believed they could do no wrong.

Unfortunately, Francis has his own such group.

Those who are part of this coterie believe in all sincerity that they are helping him, especially as he is increasingly attacked by "enemies", a whole range of Catholics among them. But Francis' defenders often see him as incapable of making a mistake or being wrong.

"I am a sinner," is how the pope responded when asked, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?"

From sinner to His Holiness

Yet he -- like all the popes of at least the last several hundred years -- is called Holy Father and Your Holiness.

These devotional "titles" or forms of address are often over-exaggerated by those who are caught up in the very clericalism -- and, in turn, hierarchical sycophantism -- this pope says he abhors. They call him Most Holy Father or Most Blessed Father.

Francis often talks about when he was "bishop in that other diocese" and recounts real or hypothetical dialogues in which the person he's talking to addresses him simply as "Padre".

Even still, Francis has not forbidden the use of those more lofty, devotional forms of address. And that is all they are. Holy Father and His Holiness are not proper titles. Neither is "pope".

Then there are the so-called titles of other hierarchs. During the last consistory, Francis derided those cardinals who relish being called "Eminence". Yet, he's not outlawed the use of that "title".

Clericalist forms of address

Bishops are still called "Your Excellency" and probably, in some musty corners of the Church, there are those who call them "My Lord". And they say "Your Grace" when addressing an archbishop.

It's obvious that the Argentine pope does not go in for these medieval forms of address. But it's also pretty clear why he's not done anything to get rid of them.

He nearly caused a revolt early in his pontificate when he tried to stop the practice of naming priests honorary prelates and giving them the title "Monsignor".

In the end, Francis merely stopped anyone under the age of 65 from being named an honorary prelate, but with one exception -- men in the Vatican diplomatic corps. Go figure.

With apologies to all my monsignor friends, this office-less title is the epitome of hierarchical clericalism. It is connected to the old papal court and the monarchical papacy, the remaining traces of which Francis says must be wiped away.

It's not at all apparent how keeping these exalted titles can do anything except perpetuate a clericalist and hierarchicalist mentality that Jesus -- though he did not use those terms -- always condemned.

He told his followers to call no man "Father". Well, he was somewhat of an enigma, too.

And he probably won't mind if we say, "Happy Birthday, Padre Francesco!"

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