Now that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been installed as Pope Francis, I must say that I could not be happier with the papal conclave’s choice. Not that the College of Cardinals would bother to ask my opinion on the matter – I’m not even Catholic – but as a student of religion, one who stumbles along trying to follow Jesus, and a lover of startling, historic moments, I am ecstatic.
All the obvious reasons for my joy come to mind. Pope Francis is the first pope from the Southern hemisphere; the first Bishop of Rome born in Latin America; he is the first Vicar of Christ with a Jesuit background, and the first Successor of Peter to take the name “Francis,” honoring the legacy of Francis of Assisi, the medieval saint who so loved God’s creation and who practiced spiritual and everyday simplicity.
But I am most thrilled for Francis because it means the end of Pope Benedict’s reign over the Catholic Church. It’s not that I had anything personal against old Ben (remember I’m not even Catholic), though his role as “God’s Rottweiler,” the theological enforcer of the Church, made me jittery. My grudge with Benedict goes back to September 1997.
It was the Italian Eucharist Congress, and a frail Pope John Paul II was presiding. The Harlem Gospel Singers had just finished performing for the audience when who should walk out on the stage but no other than Bob Dylan! In pinstripes and a white cowboy hat, he sang three songs that night: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” appropriate I think; “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” (classic Dylan); and a salute to the youth in the crowd and the aging pope, “Forever Young.”
Talk about startling, historic moments! But bad-tempered Benny, then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, was not amused. He had failed in his attempt to cancel Bob Dylan’s appearance before the Holy See. Benedict, a classically trained pianist, loves classical and sacred music. But his love for song does not transfer to other musical genres.
He has said that all rock music is the product of Satan, he cancelled the Advent rock and roll concert series at the Vatican begun by Pope John Paul, and took a negative view of using guitars at mass. In his memoirs he sneered about Bob Dylan’s appearance before Pope John Paul II, saying: “There was reason to be skeptical – I was, and in some ways I still am – over whether it was really right to allow this type of ‘prophet’ to appear.”
So while there may be many reasons to be glad for Pope Francis’ arrival – many of these reasons complex, political, and theological – my reason is fairly simple. You have to be cautious of giving your whole-hearted trust to someone who doesn’t like Bob Dylan.
But Pope John Paul II seemed to have liked Dylan just fine. As Cardinal Ratzinger stood coldly by, he delivered a short homily after the concert that included lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” saying: “You’ve asked, ‘How many roads must a man walk down before he becomes a man?’ I answer you: One! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said, ‘I am the life.’”
Interesting, don’t you think, that the then Pope John Paul spoke of simplicity as the road forward. He spoke as Christ being enough. It has echoes of another Paul, the Apostle Paul, who once said that all his spiritual accomplishments, all his religious fanfare, all his ceremonial ballyhoo, all his pompous credentials, and all his ceremonious posturing were now considered garbage. They were trash. Junk. Rubbish. Literally, it was all manure. The only thing that mattered to his faith was Jesus Christ alone.
I am not terribly optimistic that a single man, no matter how many “firsts” are attached to his new administration, can correct years of encrusted arrogance and corruption or replace the accumulated labyrinths of doctrinal and ceremonial complexity with simplicity. But I have hope. I have hope that change is indeed blowing in the wind.