Shepherds Smelling like their Sheep

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By Robby Tantingco

Peanut Gallery

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


AT LEAST Pope Francis changed the global conversation.

No one's talking anymore about Vatileaks, pedophile priests and Peter the Roman, only about Pope Francis taking the bus, Pope Francis refusing to stay in the papal apartment, Pope Francis saying Mass for garbage collectors, and Pope Francis eating at a common cafeteria.

He's doing even better than the popes in movies. Pope Kiril (Anthony Quinn) in "The Shoes of the Fisherman" only went out one night to visit the slums; Pope Francis outdid him by going back to his pre-conclave hotel to settle his bills. Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness) in "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" only kissed the feet of one beggar; Pope Francis kissed, washed and dried the tattooed feet of not one but a dozen dregs of society!

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What will he do next? Drive corrupt Curia officials out of the temple with a whip? Sell the treasures of Vatican Museum to fund Catholic charities in Asia and Africa? Reveal the real Third Secret of Fatima?
The new pope is breaking traditions and protocols faster than Curia officials can pick up the pieces. They exchange nervous glances every time he sets aside a homily prepared by theologians and exegetes, and delivers off-the-cuff remarks, like parish priests do.

I see them biting their nails when he says things like "It is not in soul-searching and introspection where we encounter the Lord, but in going out to the outskirts."

That scene at the Casa del Marmo detention center last Maundy Thursday, where Pope Francis bent down to kiss the feet of a young woman (who was also a Muslim)-that must have sent Curia officials crawling up walls.
Even Christ never went that far. In the Bible, it was the woman (a prostitute) who kissed His feet, not the other way around.

The washing and kissing of feet was supposed to be a reenactment of the Last Supper, where only the 12 apostles, all male, participated. This is the reason the Church never invited women to the ritual.

But now that the Pope has considered women good enough to play the role of apostles, would he also consider them good enough to function as apostles? I'm sure Curia officials will try to do damage control by saying the whole thing was about Christ's humility, not women empowerment.

Already one canon expert has said the Pope violated liturgical and canon laws, to which the Vatican spin doctors retorted that the Pope "did not violate the law, he merely disregarded it."

Has Pope Francis gone too far, too soon?

One Pope (John Paul I) was rumored to have been murdered by Curia officials after indicating he would reform the Vatican Bank. The dark operatives lurking inside the Vatican wasted no time: they killed him only 30 days after the conclave. No wonder Pope Francis refuses to stay in the papal apartment, where he would have to sleep on the same bed that John Paul I was found dead in 1978.

The excitement around Pope Francis demonstrates once again that the 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic Church can reinvent and renew itself when it wants to. CNN is already reporting that big numbers of former Catholics are returning to the fold.

But the size of the flock will amount to nothing if the shepherds tending the sheep remain few and flawed.

If Pope Francis is a role model, then he's a role model first and foremost for priests and prelates, especially those who live like petty kings in their petty kingdoms, swimming in luxurious lifestyles courtesy of their indulgent benefactors and wealthy friends.

How many priests all over the world drive around in SUVs, showing off their latest tablets and touchscreens, dining in fine restaurants, sculpting their muscles in exclusive gyms, and buying all the things you know a priest's meager salary can never afford?

How many priests will not say Mass unless the right stipend is paid? How many of them set minimum fees for services and sacraments, or treat Sunday collections like personal money?

Priests with lavish ways are just as scandalous and damaging to the Church as priests with sexual liaisons and indiscretions. They have driven thousands, perhaps millions, of Catholics right into the waiting arms of other Christian denominations.

What will these priests do now that Pope Francis has made humility, simplicity and poverty the norm rather than the ideal? Meaning, Catholics now have a right to expect, even demand, their priests and bishops to follow the Pope's example.

Will these priests still be able to keep a straight face when they stand before their congregation, knowing that the Pope has given them marching orders to "prioritize the poor," and knowing that their parishioners know?

Will they make church fees optional for the poor, as they should be? (I know at least one local priest who attempted to do exactly that in his parish.) Will they give up their expensive cars in exchange for more modest vehicles?

Will they have the courage to simplify their lifestyles, the courage to refuse gifts from their benefactors, and the courage to tell those same benefactors to distribute their wealth to the poor, as Christ commanded?
Will they finally obey the canon law and create finance committees in their parishes to manage parish funds, so that they can focus on pastoral work and leave the rest to Divine Providence? Can they practice what they preach and put their absolute trust in God, "who feeds the birds and takes care of the lilies of the field, so how much more ye of little faith"?

Or will they try again to explain their way out by saying that Jesus was only using figures of speech, that surely "Love your enemies," "Forgive them seventy times seven times" and "Give all that you have, then follow me" should not be taken literally?

Well, by refusing to take the limousine and wear expensive vestments, Pope Francis shows that Christ's commands should be taken literally.

If we want radical change, we have to take the gospel's blunt message as, well, gospel truth, and not water it down with footnotes or trivialize it with jokes. (Some priests make their sacred homilies standup comedies, aiming for laughter instead of joy.)

When Pope Francis kissed the feet of that young woman last week, he did it to demonstrate not just Christ's humility but the woman's importance. He didn't care if it offended the rarefied cardinals and archbishops of the Roman Curia. Making a positive change in the life of that one person was worth breaking all Church traditions and protocols. After all, didn't the good shepherd in the gospel leave all 99 sheep to search for one missing lamb?

I have always thought that the Church, with its emphasis on power and pomp and profit, has gotten the message of Jesus all wrong.

Now, at last, we have a Pope who, like St. Francis of Assisi, is taking seriously God's instruction to "rebuild My Church."

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on April 02, 2013.

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