Father Robert Barron of Word On Fire on Pope Francis
HH: Joined now from Rome by Father Robert Barron. He’s the founder of the global ministry Word On Fire. He’s also the rector of Mundelein Seminary, the creator of the award-winning documentary, Serious Catholicism. And Word On Fire will be releasing the new evangelization documentary later this year. He also works with NBC, of course. You can learn more about him and all that he does at www.wordonfire.org. Father Barron, welcome back, and your reaction to yesterday’s news?
RB: Well, it was extraordinary. I had, as you say, the perch up above the square working with NBC. And when he first came out, I think we were all surprised. Cardinal Bergoglio was on maybe some of the longer lists, but certainly not the short lists. Almost everyone said he was too old, that we thought the cardinals would go for someone much younger after the resignation of Benedict. So when he came out, I think everybody was pretty surprised. It was also a very strong rumor, sense, intuition that a North American would get it, so either Dolan or O’Malley or Ouelette. So anyway, when he came out, we were surprised. And then furthermore, I was surprised when the Pope came out, and for a long period, he stood with his arms at his side, and no smile, and just sort of standing there. And I remember saying to the monitor, to the screen, quite like do something. I mean, make a gesture. So I was originally kind of put off because of the surprise of it, and the way he appeared. Then I must say, though, the minute he began talking, he won me over and won the crowed over. You could tell. I think all the moves he made were really good ones. And then today, he’s continued with these sort of surprising moves. He visited St. Mary Major, and on the way back, he stopped at the Casa del Claro, which is the priest residence near the Piazza Navona. And he went in to get his luggage, and they say he then paid his bill.
RB: So I was kind of enjoying that scene of the Pope paying his bill. But what was fascinating, I mean, the first impression that I think was very positive, this man of humility, poverty, simplicity, I think will do the Church a lot of good.
HH: Now what about his theology of economics? And I’m asking a number of people this. He has a great concern for the poor, and that is a clear direction to people on how to use their wealth.
HH: But what about the creation of wealth? Does he have a theory of how wealth is actually created so that it can be used for good reason?
RB: Well, I’m just now kind of reading up on his background. I think what’s most indicate there is that during the 70s, the kind of goofy era in the life of the Church, he opposed this sort of liberation theology that was so dominant in Latin America. He was a Jesuit provincial in Argentina, and a lot of the Jesuits working there were very much in that kind of Marxist, hard left direction. And Bergoglio opposed them. And I think what he’s done is he’s embraced the Church’s social teaching which puts a great stress, as you suggest, on wealth creation, not just wealth, distribution that does not except for the Marxist categories. Radical in its own way? Sure. You know, deep concern for the poor? Absolutely. But not a Marxist model, and I think Bergoglio is pretty consistent from the 70s on in resisting that, which is why to this day, they say, he’s still opposed by many people in his own religious order. So I think we’ll watch that. I am just picking up the first indications now, but I think he’s a man of the Church’s social teaching, very much like John Paul.
HH: Now next hour, I’m going to talk with Father Fessio, but I’m not going to ask him this, because he’s a Jesuit, and I don’t want to put a Jesuit on the spot.
HH: But what is unique about Jesuitical spiritual formation, and I mean that as an adjective, not as a pejorative, that is new for a Pope?
HH: What have they gone through that other priestly cardinals and then eventually popes have not gone through?
RB: Yeah, and you’re right. There’s never been a Jesuit pope. And one perspective on that which is interesting is that Jesuits take as one of their fundamental vows this deep loyalty to the Pope, which is why some Jesuits call that Jesuits should not themselves become the Pope, because their whole spirituality is a kind of subordination of the pope. But that said, I think at the very heart of Jesuit spirituality is detachment. You look at the three day exercises. The whole point is to detach oneself from wealth, pleasure, power and honor so that one can respond to the will of God, or more directly, respond to the will of one’s superior. And the idea to form soldiers, Ignatius had been a soldier, value on as spiritual soldiers. To be a good soldier, you’ve got to give up your own will. You have to be a person of obedience. That means a person of detachment. That’s why classically, the Jesuits were the shock troops to the pope. Whatever the Pope wanted, the Jesuits would do it, because they were detached from wealth, pleasure, power, honor. One of the ironies in the last 50 years, the Jesuits have often become rebellious against the hierarchy, against the Pope.
RB: But I think at the heart of their spirituality is detachment, availability and spiritual soldiering, if you want.
HH: Now at the same time, there’s this enormous contradiction that a son of Ignatius takes the name of Francis, which at least in the popular imagination, has always been opposed to each other.
HH: What did you make of that?
RB: It’s fascinating, and you know, some of us were speculating oh, maybe he meant at least in part Francis Xavier, who was a great Jesuit. But it was clarified today. Cardinal Dolan said no, in the conclave, when he was elected, he said I’m taking Francis to honor Il Poverello, you know, Francis of Assisi. So that’s the case. It’s not Francis Xavier. Here’s my thinking about it. I think it’s extremely important, of course, that’s the first major move the Pope makes, is his name. I think first of all, the poverty, and he’s a man of poverty. We know that. He’s eschewing the trappings of power. He takes the tram and not a limousine, he lives in an apartment, not a palazzo. He’s an advocate on behalf of the poor. And that’s what we need now, I think, to put a more winsome face on the Catholic Church, which has been suffering from so many scandals and corruption and so on. And I take a further step. This occurred to me today the more I thought about it. St. Francis back in the late 12th Century hears the voice from the crucifix saying Francis, rebuild my Church. And it was taken to mean build up this Church of mine which has fallen into worldliness, into corruption, especially clerical corruption. Well, I think this Pope is a very reflective man, is not missing a beat there. What’s required now is a radical reforming an renewing of the Church. And I think we do it in that same Franciscan spirit, which is going back to the basic radical principles of the Gospel. I do think he had that in mind.
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HH: So Father Barron, in terms of populating the Curia, and in terms of making cardinals at the next consistory, that’s the meeting at which the Pope announces who he is welcoming into this important body, what do you expect to see from Pope Francis?
RB: Well, I do think he’s going to move quickly on a Curial reform. In the days and weeks leading up to the conclave, that’s all you heard. And from left and right, I must say. It was kind of an absolute consensus that the Curia needs to be reformed, by which I mean, I think, much greater accountability, much greater transparency, and also, though, as you suggest, a turnover in personnel. There’s some people who have made such a career out of the Curia that they get stuck. And some of that is part of the Italian culture, you know, of kind of families taking care of each other…
RB: People getting ensconced into positions. So I think all of that, and then there’s this problem of corruption, the famous 300 page dossier that the new Pope will read on corruption in the Curia, both financial and sexual, it appears, although we’re not altogether clear about that. So I do think this is a Pope who was elected to be a reformer of the Curia. Now what specifically? Almost everyone thinks Cardinal Bertone has to go. He’s been the secretary of state under Benedict XVI, almost universal consensus he’s been a bad influence. Beyond that, the particular names? Who knows? Certainly, I’d say Georg Ganswein, who’s been the secretary to Pope Benedict, head of the papal household, I’m sure he’ll go. And some people see his presence as a problematic one in the Curia. Beyond that, some suggest that the head of the CDF, which is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Muller, was brought in by Papa Ratzinger, and then he probably will go. So we’ll see.
HH: How about red hats? There are a dozen soon-to-be open vacancies in the College of Cardinals, I think. Where do you expect, will he go to the new world? Or will he stay in the old? What’s he going to do?
RB: Yeah, I have a feeling he’s going to try to correct the imbalance in the College of Cardinals. It is frankly ridiculous that Europe had 60 cardinals in this conclave. Latin America had, I think, it was 14. And 40% of the world’s Catholics are in Latin America. But we had a much smaller percentage of cardinals. The Philippines, which I think is now maybe the third largest Catholic congregation in the world, had precisely one cardinal representing it.
HH: That is crazy.
RB: So there is certainly imbalance, and I think the Church has to look much more to the Southern Hemisphere where it’s burgeoning. After the African Church, it’s been the most remarkable success story of the last 100 years.
HH: Father Robert Barron, safe travel home. I hope we can talk to you when you’re back in Chicago, www.wordonfire.org, America.
End of interview.