When the Vicar of Christ Imitates Christ, Why is it so Alarming?

when-the-vicar-of-christ-imitates-christ-why-is-it-so-alarming-father-gordon-j-macrae2s Pope Francis shakes the comfortable and complacent in the Catholic Church by professing the Gospel as Jesus did: by shepherding us toward the narrow gate.

I am most grateful for Ryan MacDonald’s guest post on These Stone Walls (October 16), and to readers who took up this cause with their prayers, sacrifices, and time. Please continue to help circulate that post. As Ryan explained, the small help of many can be a powerful force for good.

Even this simple request for help, however, was not without controversy. Like the contentions between brothers I wrote of in “Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother,” Ryan’s post posed a challenge about one of my brothers that sparked a conscience problem for me and a dispute with some well meaning friends.

In his draft sent to me, Ryan included the name of a priest to whom I sent a plea for information that might have helped in my appeal. The priest responded with a cold refusal to help, insisting that I never write to him again. When I asked Ryan to edit out that priest’s name – which he graciously did – I was challenged by some friends who thought I should be way beyond any such concern for my brother.

One priest-friend whom I asked for advice suggested that the priest’s refusal to help was handwritten on his parish letterhead, and carried no obligation on my part to keep his refusal private. After all, my friend pointed out, many letters I wrote confidentially to my bishop, and even some of my legally privileged defense files, were selectively handed over to Bishop-Accountability to be published online. A few other friends challenged me saying that the priest’s help would have cost him and my diocese nothing while the refusal to help may cost me my freedom.

I was suddenly on the hot seat, as though my friends were angry with me for not being angry enough with him. It isn’t so. To be honest, I have been plenty angry, not only with that priest but with others who cope with the fear of false witness by living in denial of it. I’m just not sure what could or should excuse me from having a concern for how my anger might effect my brother’s good name. I simply did not want to do this on These Stone Walls.

I’m not pointing out this struggle of conscience to place myself in a better light, but rather to tell a simple truth, a truth I have tried to convey many times on These Stone Walls. We do not always choose how we will suffer, or even how much. But we do get to choose the person we are going to be in the face of suffering. It’s a truth I conveyed most recently in “Suffering and St. Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls.” It’s a truth I never fully understood until I was thrown into prison.

My dilemma about the priest who just wanted to step over me left beaten by robbers on the side of the road might seem a small thing to some, but it was a soul searching inspired by Pope Francis. He has had a lot to say to the world lately, and he has had even more to say to the Church. What he has been saying causes me to question not only my actions but the motives behind them. He is calling upon the Church to practice humility, and a necessary part of that means telling the truth about ourselves TO ourselves. He calls us to look where God looks – not only to our actions, not only to the letter of the law – but into our own hearts to see and tell the truth about what is there.


It now seems so long ago, but just eight months ago I wrote “Sede Vacante: The Sky is Not Falling on the Catholic Church” after Pope Benedict the Beloved resigned the papacy. Catholics had no modern frame of reference for such an event, and many with agendas of their own in the news media, and even in the Church, used our shock and dismay to sow discord and doubt. I can’t help but wonder how much of the alarm circulating throughout the Catholic online world over the words, positions, and demeanor of Pope Francis flows from motives less honorable than fidelity to the Church and tradition. After all, some among us who claim to treasure and preserve the Tradition of the Church can sometimes seem all too ready to suspect and cast shadows upon this Pope, and even denounce him outright. And yet, such a demeanor toward the pope would have been unthinkable in the era of the Church that traditionalists long to restore. Don’t get me wrong on this. I like to think that I am among those who uphold Tradition, but I could never be among those who accused the Pope unjustly.

Pope Francis Reaction

Among the better analyses of this Pope’s recent interviews was “Pope Francis Shakes Up the Church” by the National Catholic Register Senior Editor, Joan Frawley Desmond (October 6-19, 2013). Ms. Desmond summed up well a recent Shockwave of Pope Francis:

“As Catholic leaders scrambled to clarify Francis’ message to the faithful and a bemused public, they must also address anxiety from believers who have labored in the trenches of pro-life or marriage outreach and seek reassurance, rather than what might be interpreted as a scolding.”

Much of the criticism of Pope Francis is not expressed as a concern about his words themselves, but rather about how he subjects himself and his words to exploitation and misinterpretation in the secular media. To defuse such a concern, the October issue of Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, published an eye-opening survey of fifteen leading American newspapers and their editorial coverage about the Pope. The news media is hearing Pope Francis more clearly than we think, more clearly even than some in the Church who fear his priorities. Here are some examples:

Kansas City Star, March 13, 2013: Pope Francis will not “waver from the Church leadership’s strident opposition to abortion, gay marriage…”

Chicago Tribune, March 14, 2013: Pope Francis has ”forcefully opposed” such subjects as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2013: Pope Francis is not going to change the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 2013: “The Pope is no free-thinking reformer”; and July 30, 2013: Encouraged by Pope Francis’ statement about not judging gays, but…the “door is closed” on women’s ordination.

The Boston Globe, April 3, 2013: “No one expects Pope Francis to be ordaining women anytime soon.” In the same issue of Catalyst, Catholic League President Bill Donohue summed up the first months of Pope Francis’ papacy in reassuring terms:

“Not in my lifetime have I seen such an outburst of enthusiasm for a newly minted pontiff. And not just from Catholics: Pope Francis has won the plaudits of everyone, from people of all faiths to die-hard secularists…So far the New York Times has said nothing about our new pope. That will change. Liberal Catholics tend to be happier with Pope Francis than conservative Catholics. That will also change. The Holy Father is just as traditional on moral issues as his predecessors…” (“How’s the Pope Doing?” Catalyst, Oct. 2013)


That subheading was the title of a September 20 editorial by Phil Lawler at CatholicCulture.org. I have not always agreed with Phil Lawler, Editor of Catholic Culture and Catholic World News, especially on a few points about what constitutes justice in the U.S. priesthood scandal. However his editorial at Catholic Culture was a beacon of light and clarity amid lots of public distortion. It reminded me that perhaps I should be listening more closely to Phil Lawler.

Consider this:

“If the pope’s main responsibility is to keep us all comfortable, then Pope Francis is failing miserably…But there’s a precedent for [his] way of speaking. Jesus made people uncomfortable. The Lord’s words and gestures were often misinterpreted, and His critics found it easy to put things in an unfavorable light…Would it be better, really, if the Pope limited himself to statements that could not possibly be distorted? Should he stop trying to make subtle distinctions, or making new observations about controversial topics? That would be a form of self-censorship: shaping the message to suit the media.” (Phil Lawler, Sept. 20, CatholicCulture.org)

Even putting aside the needs of the Church, about the last thing the world needs is another leader whose views accommodate neat, acceptable little media sound bites, shallow and substance free. Pope Francis shakes my complacency too, but I hear something in his words that the Church and the world desperately need to hear. He is speaking as the Vicar of Christ, and in the words of Christ, and it’s alarming with its lack of cushioned and subtle nuance – just as it was alarming for the hearers of Jesus.

As the secular world strikes at the shepherd, Pope Francis strikes at the heart of needed reform. Consider this little “cleansing of the temple” quote from an October 1, 2013 interview of Pope Francis with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica:

“Leaders of the Church have often been narcissists, gratified and sickeningly excited by their courtiers. [The Curia] is Vatican-centric…I don’t share this view, and I’ll do all I can to change it.”

The Pope’s words about the plague of careerism and narcissism among Church leaders were given a stark example just a day later in a Wall Street Journal article about Catholic Bishop Franz-Peter Tebarz van Elst, Bishop of the Diocese of Limburg, Germany. He has undertaken a major renovation and redecoration of his palatial residence with a scandalous price tag of $42 million while Pope Francis opts to live in a modest Vatican guest house.

Pope Francis Critics

I can’t help but wonder about how such priorities form in the mind and soul of a Church leader. About one-tenth of one percent of that bishop’s home improvement bill would see my appeal for justice to its very end. This sort of self-indulgent stewardship might remind Church leaders yearning for less Rome-centered authority that absolute power corrupts absolutely – and it is the Church’s good fortune that we have a Pope who seems to be a glaring exception to that rule.

To the horror of some in the hierarchy, Pope Francis has rightly and justly suspended and removed that bishop. As I wrote in “Pope Francis has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother,” Francis is determined that we will not be a self-referential Church, and our leaders will be servants, not kings. In a comment on that post, Catholic writer Carlos Caso-Rosendi from the Holy Father’s native Buenos Aires, Argentina, had a sobering reflection about the nature of the man the Holy Spirit chose. Among bishops, his pastoral experience with the poor and marginalized have been unique.

The truth is that the Church’s bishops don’t mind seeing the Roman Curia get its comeuppance, and the Church’s priests don’t mind seeing the bishops get theirs. We’re okay with papal correction so long as it’s aimed somewhere else. This Pope has some words for priests and the priesthood, however, that make me squirm, and when he equated the Church with a “field hospital” for the spiritually sick and injured, and alienated, we all squirmed.

In “The Key to Understanding Pope Francis” at Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler framed perfectly the agenda of Pope Francis in a way that spells out how much the rest of the Church has been somewhat behind the curve of late:

“Pope Francis recalled the story of the Good Shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to search for one who is lost. Then he suggested that in today’s secular culture, the shepherds of the Catholic Church confront a very different problem. ‘It’s the 99 who are missing!’ [Pope Francis] said…So he has devoted his first attentions to the outsiders; he speaks constantly of bringing the Gospel to those ‘on the periphery’…” “Yes, the Pope makes me uncomfortable. As well he should.” ( Phil Lawler, CatholicCulture.org, Sept. 20, 2013)

My friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus once wrote that the scandals of the Church today are really scandals of a lack of fidelity at all levels of Catholic life. After writing this post, I learned that CatholicCulture.org has published a Review of These Stone Walls that I had not seen until this week. TSW was given Catholic Culture’s highest marks across the board in the area of “Fidelity.” That’s the best that could be said of any of us. That it’s said today of TSW makes even 19 years of unjust imprisonment seem almost worth the effort to endure it.


Pope Francis Catholic

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    In this Pope we see the teachings of Christ shining through just as we see them shining through you!
    My fervent hope and prayer is that he will get involved in your case.
    Always in my Mass and prayers each day, dear Father! God bless!

  2. Dear Fr Gordon , Tonight at mass I shall pray for you and all priests not to mention ourselves !.Before the adoration of ” The blessed sacrament”.

  3. There are three things that mark us as Catholic: Our Eucharistic Lord, the Blessed Mother of God, and the Vicar of Christ our Roman Pontiff. Take any one of them away and we can no longer call ourselves Catholic. I know there are many soi-dissant traditionalists and others who find fault with the Pope that God gave us but that cannot change the fact of Jesus’ promise: “Peter, I shall pray that your faith won’t falter.” It is hard to imagine God not fulfilling His promises. He also said: “I shall be with you until the end of the age.” Jesus is with us, He is in charge, and he has given us a Pope. So far he is doing much better than the first Pope whom in spite of his many weaknesses made it to be a saint. Pray and don’t worry, and in the words of John Paul II: Non abbiate paura! Do not have any fear!

  4. Doug Sparkes says:

    Regarding the problem/debate over what to do or what not to do about the priest who chose to abandon you in your hour(s) of need. I don’t know much, but as I grow older it becomes clearer that in the day of reckoning I won’t be judged by what others did or did not do to me, but only what I did or did not do to others. We’ve covered this before … the best revenge is forgiveness.

  5. MarcAnthony says:

    While I tend to agree with you, the major problem I’ve seen the smartest conservative critics have with Pope Francis is that he’s making statements that are either unorthodox or very ambiguous. This is a very debatable point, but to be fair it really doesn’t have anything to do with not wearing red shoes or anything like that. That’s just a symptom of the larger issue trying to change the way the chair of Peter is used.

    Consider: If what Pope Francis is doing regarding changing the way the papacy is run is so great, shouldn’t we consider the idea that it was Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II who handled it the wrong way?

    I tend to agree with you Father McCrae, but I do think these critics can make for legitimate food for thought and deserve well thought out responses.

  6. Gina Nakagawa says:

    Another wonderful post, Father. When will we learn to admire the admirable? Pope Francis is a man after Jesus’s own heart. As Catholics, we should be supporting him and praying for him. God bless and keep him and give him the strength for his most difficult job!

  7. Domingo says:

    I really don’t understand why ‘some’ Catholics do not like Pope Francis. I read one complaint about why he is so ‘unpope’ by not doing what a pope is supposed to do: wear red shoes and sit on the papal throne and wear papal robes and act more like it.

    Ah, I thought, a pope for the eyes, that’s what the person wants him to be.

    I just like the way Pope Francis is. And I thank God every day for him.

  8. Lionel (Paris) says:

    I like this Pope

  9. Kathy Maxwell says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    You are absolutely right in your statements about Pope Francis. Evangelization brings people into Christ and His gospel, not a worldly kingdom. Until we are uncomfortable, we don’t change.

    I have defended Pope Francis to many, including some religious. His words are deliberately misreported. I am convinced that God sends us just the Vicar of Christ that we need, when we need him.

    God bless you in your efforts towards justice.

  10. Kathleen Riney says:

    I understand what you are Teaching us Fr. G…I also “got it” from the very beginning, what pope Francis is trying to teach us… It’s Just SOO hard. Example, if I had been in the “Garden” with Peter, the ground would have been littered with “Ears”!!! As for the Priest who wrote you that letter, the way I see it, he doesn’t really Need 2 ears anyway, because he isn’t Listening! :) I believe it’s so hard to ‘hear’ Pope Francis, because we have heard NOTHING but “be Nice, as Jesus was Nice”….& “Social Justice” rants.. As I type this, my husband is finishing off a very work intensive Rosary. (Finally, a RC Bookstore actually Wants to sell them)…I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, by RCs, “You don’t need to charge so much just for ‘stringing beads’, we don’t NEED expensive, (under $200 & NO< I"M NOT ADVERTISING) rosaries!" The first time I tried to be nice, but ended up telling the lady, "Ok, you string them then"! After I had a chance to pray..it occurred to me that it was Judas who was always complaining about the "cost" of things…Things he thought should be sold & the money given to the poor….(Like the 3-4K Diamond the above lady was flaunting)..I also made it a practice, to give a rosary to any Priests that were in the area where we had a Booth. To thank him for saying 'yes' to his vocation, & as a private penance for all the years I neglected to pray for you guys!! One time, the Priest was in a "recruiting" Booth. I handed him 'his' Rosary & thanked him….He looked at it like it was something too repulsive to touch, & tossed it on his table, & left!! I 'heard' the word, "Judas", interiorly ..& to my complete embarrassment, I started to cry….Because it was so Sad…I "knew" what his problem was…so I left the Rosary there, & he's been in my prayers & fasts ever since….not because I'm holy, I'm Not! Because I Have to!! Just like Pope Francis is trying to tell all of us now….Time is short, especially for me!! For that I'm most grateful. As I'm grateful for being in your Parish! Pax Christi….Kathleen

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