Walking on the Water: Pope Francis and the Church

“How are we doing?” The answers to Ed Koch’s famous question when asked about the Catholic Church encompasses the complete spectrum of opinion from Cardinal Burke’s “Catholic Church Under Pope Francis Is ‘A Ship Without A Rudder’”[1] to Fr. Donald Cozzens foreseeing the possibility of a “Catholic Spring.”[2] What should we be doing, bewailing the radical comments and actions of a renegade or rejoicing at a new renewal of a prophet?

Three comments:

  1. “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [Jn 3:8][3] While Pope Francis is definitely “born of the Spirit,” and blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes, Jesus guaranteed that the Spirit would lead the Church in truth always:
  • I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. [Jn 14:16-17]

and He will teach us everything:

  • The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. [Jn 14:26]

and testify to the truth of Jesus.

  • When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. [Jn 15:26]

and He will guide us in all the truth that Jesus revealed as we can bear it.

  • For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. [Jn 16: 7,12-14]

Thus, while we are a sinful community of men and women, the Church, the Body of Christ, is built on rock and guided by the Spirit. Of that, I have no doubt!

  1. Richard Rohr, OFM, has had a series of meditations recently that bear on our views of Francis and the Church:
  • Experience and Doctrine: Most of organized religion, without meaning to, has actually…[told us] almost exclusively to trust outer authority, Scripture, tradition, or various kinds of experts (what I call the “containers”)—instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience itself (which is the actual “content” the containers were made to hold). In fact, most of us were strongly warned against ever trusting ourselves. Roman Catholics were told to trust the church hierarchy first and last, while mainline Protestants were often warned that inner experience was dangerous, unscriptural, or even unnecessary. Both were ways of discouraging actual experience of God and often created passive (and passive aggressive) people and, more sadly, a lot of people who concluded that there was no God to be experienced. We were taught to mistrust our own souls—and thus the Holy Spirit! Contrast that with Jesus’ common phrase, “Go in peace, your faith has made you whole!” He said this to people who had made no dogmatic affirmations, did not think he was “God,” did not pass any moral checklist, and often did not belong to the “correct” group! They were simply people who trustfully affirmed, with open hearts, the grace of their own hungry experience—in that moment—and that God could or would even care about it.[4]
  • Outer and Inner Authority: Paul trusts his experience of God and of Christ over his own upbringing, over the Twelve Apostles, over Peter, and over the Jewish Christians. Paul doesn’t follow the expected sources of outer authority in his life, neither his own Jewish religion nor the new Christian leaders in Jerusalem. He dares to listen to—and trust—his own inner experience, which trumps both of these establishments. It’s amazing, really, that institutional religion makes him the hero that it does, and almost half of the New Testament is attributed to him, because in many ways he’s a rebel. He’s not by any definition a “company man”—anybody’s company in fact! In terms of human biographies, he is almost in a category all his own. It is ironic that the ability to trust one’s own experience to that degree has not been affirmed by the later church, even though both Jesus and Paul did exactly that. They trusted their experience of God in spite of the dominant tradition. And the church came along and domesticated both Jesus and Paul. We were never told to trust our own experience. In fact, we were probably told not to have any experience. It was considered unnecessary! (Yet the Church still produced people like Augustine, Francis, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Teresa of Calcutta—who trusted their own soul experience against the tide.) Once you know something, you can’t deny that you know it. You don’t need to dismiss outer authority—its intuitions are often correct—but you’re not on bended knee before it either. The church’s fear of inner authority has not served the Gospel well and has not served history well either. I am afraid this has to do with those in charge wanting to keep you co-dependent. I don’t think Paul wants to keep you dependent upon him at all. He is the great apostle of freedom—a scary freedom that much of tradition, and most clergy, have not been comfortable with at all (Galatians 5:1-12, Romans 8:20-23).[5]
  • As long as you think you’ve got to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understand everything, you will never be a peaceful person. These things largely happen by endless ruminating and commentaries in the mind, which are usually negative…The common phrase “peace of mind” is a complete misnomer. When you are in your mind, you are never at peace, and when you are at peace, you are never in your mind, but in a much larger, unified field that includes body, mind, soul, and others all at once! We called it the “communion of saints.”[6]
  1. Finally, a vision[7] the Spirit shared, an interpretation of Peter walking on the water, makes sense to me.

There’s Peter, aka Francis, getting out of the safety of the boat, aka Ark of the comfortable Church, and going off in search of Jesus on the deep, blue sea of the world. As long as he has his attention on Jesus in whatever form He presents himself, be it LGBTs, the Israeli Prime Minister, the Palestinian President, a deformed child he kisses, the bickering bishops, Francis is cool. The Pope is savvy to this journey; it is one he has been on for his entire life, in Buenos Aires subways and old 100,000 mile cars. He knows that as soon as he pays more attention to the chaos swirling around him than to Jesus, he will be sucked into that maelstrom. So he keeps on walking toward Jesus with faith that Jesus will protect him, Jesus will lift him up, Jesus will guide him through the night and the storm, ever mindful that his role as “petrus,” the rock upon which the Church is built, makes him even more vulnerable to sinking into the world…or running back to the safety of the tried and true solidity of belief in dogmas, not the less defined, scarier, more challenging faith in Jesus.

Meanwhile, back in the boat, the rest of the Apostles, aka bishops, are thinking, if not shouting, “That’s a ghost. Don’t believe in false messiahs who perform signs and wonders so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even [us,] the elect. [Mt 24:24]. Get back here and lead us! You’re nuts to go chasing after ghosts!”

To carry the analogy of the sea a bit further, just as Francis has emphasized getting down with the people and knowing the smell of the sheep, Jesus was dealing with fisherman, and, for them, He uses the analogy follow me and I will make you fishers of men.[Mk 1:17; Mt 14:19]. Even the angels are to be fishermen: The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. [Mt 13:48-50]. The sea is where the action is, the people, the righteous and the wicked, the prostitute and the publican, the tax collector and the garbage collector, the corporate executive and the file clerk.

Maybe that’s why Frank is walking on the sea!



[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/02/cardinal-burke-pope-francis_n_6083940.html

[2] http://elephantsinthelivingroom.com/New Pope; New Hope: Our from the Underground, Fr. Donald Cozzens

[3] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

[4] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Trust Your Own Experience, Tuesday, October 28, 2014, Adapted from Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, pp. 1-2

[5] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Trust Your Inner Authority, Wednesday, October 29, 2014,

Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, disc 1 (CD)

[6] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Peace of Mind? Thursday, October 30, 2014; Adapted from Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, pp. 75-76

[7] in the sense of an allegorical interpretation of Scripture [CCC, 117.1] that was inspired in me by the Holy Spirit.


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