Where’s the Patriarchy? Pope Francis’s Inaugural Homily

I didn’t stay up all night to watch the Mass that marked the inauguration of Jorge Bergoglio’s ministry as Pope Francis, but it was the first thing I looked for online when I got up this morning. A few pleasing things right off the bat: Bartholomew, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople was there and exchanged the kiss of peace with Francis–the first time the Patriarch of Constantinople has attended a papal installation since the schism in 1054 ever; the Epistle was read in Spanish, by a woman; and the Gospel was chanted in Greek by an eastern rite priest. Those are all significant gestures that mark quite a change in tone and style of the papacy.

But what most shocked me was Francis’s homily. Today, Tuesday, is the feast day of St. Joseph, Mary’s husband and so [foster] father of Jesus–variously known as St. Joseph the Worker, the Patron of the Church, Protector of the Holy Family, Most Chaste Spouse, etc. This feast day has a lot of bad potential, as does any configuration which sees the Church as essentially female, passive, in danger of being polluted, and in need of the protection of a male guardian, be he Christ, a local bishop, the Bishop of Rome, God the Father, or anyone else. The specifically Christian origin of this imagery comes from the deutero-Pauline letter Ephesians, but you really can find it throughout the Bible (see especially Ezekiel and Hosea). The danger, of course, besides the constellation of characteristics I just mentioned two sentences up, is that it’s an inherently violent relationship, with the guiding, purifying, chastising, and punishing role going, obviously, to the male in the equation. So when I realized that the papal installation Mass would be happening on St. Joseph’s feast day, I was nervous.

A homily on St. Joseph is the one place I would most expect to see patriarchal ideology on full display, especially when that homily is on St. Joseph as protector. But patriarchy, and indeed any gendered aspect, really, was conspicuously absent in Francis’s homily.

How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? [And here I thought, Uh oh, here comes some comment about masculine strength and feminine genius.] By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own.

Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. [How Ignatian!] In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation! [Where’s the gender essentialism? It’s missing! St. Joseph-as-protector is being held up as a model for all Christians, not just, or even especially, for male Christians.]

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another [I was not expecting that kind of mutuality!], and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.

Now, it’s possible that the homily wasn’t entirely unproblematic. I do wonder whether his call to those in power to be “protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment” was a dog whistle referring to gay marriage. If it was, at least it was only mentioned implicitly, and only once. Contrast that with B16’s 2012 Christmas message to the curia, in which he devoted a good paragraph to denouncing gay marriage. And I’m sure that fairly soon, the media is going to start paying attention to the few books Bergoglio has published, and the run-of-the-mill, depressing things he’s said about feminism, for instance. Then again, I find myself giving him the benefit of the doubt: Was there any papabile who hadn’t said similar things? It’s remarkable that, even though he did say these things as Bishop of Buenos Aires, he hasn’t said them as Pope. (On this, see the Kindle edition of his Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra, which is a dialogue between him and a rabbinics scholar arranged by topic. You can find the remarks on feminism in the chapter “Sobre la Mujer.” I’m guessing this will get translated into English within the next few weeks.)

For now, I am optimistic and hopeful. There was a LOT that could have gone wrong with this homily, and it didn’t. True, I and other excited Catholics probably look rather pathetic right now, celebrating the fact that we’ve had “6 Days Without A Major Accident!” The bar is certainly set pretty low. But hey, sometimes what’s not said means a lot.

13 thoughts on “Where’s the Patriarchy? Pope Francis’s Inaugural Homily

  1. Thank you Sonja! I too have reservations about the “protector” theme. Drew Christiansen SJ wrote a column today that described what Francis was doing in the homily as sketching out a “Catholic ethic of care.” That language works a lot better for me than the “protect” theme. Thanks to you and all the Women of WIT for your continued, excellent contributions to our common conversation and reflection!

  2. True, I and other excited Catholics probably look rather pathetic right now, celebrating the fact that we’ve had “6 Days Without A Major Accident!”

    LOL! I resemble this remark! :)

    I did get up early to participate in the Mass, and since I can pick out only the occasional word in Italian, I was worried too about what kind of gender essentialism might be flying past my uncomprehending ears. Reading it after mass, I too was relieved and surprised at some of the directions not taken.

    I wonder about the connotations in colloquial Italian of the custod-verb he actually used. Playing with Google translate, I got “keeper”, “guardian”, and a few others. Will have to find an Italian speaker to ask!

  3. Thank you for your analysis. As a married man and father I always look forward to today’s feast, and more than a few times I have cringed when hearing homilies because marriage comes across as such a simple one-dimensional relationship. It sounds like Francisco got it right!

  4. Thanks for your reflections, Sonja!

    Against certain currently popular strands of theology, this is a nice reminder that one doesn’t have to interpret the major figures of Christian doctrine through a narrow prism of sexual difference and gender hierarchy. And leaving gender out of the picture doesn’t sacrifice any of the significance or spiritual profundity that we might learn from figures such as Joseph and Mary either. More of this please!

  5. I think this is very well expressed:

    “…sees the Church as essentially female, passive, in danger of being polluted, and in need of the protection of a male guardian, be he Christ, a local bishop, the Bishop of Rome, God the Father, or anyone else. The specifically Christian origin of this imagery comes from the deutero-Pauline letter Ephesians, but you really can find it throughout the Bible (see especially Ezekiel and Hosea). The danger, of course, besides the constellation of characteristics I just mentioned two sentences up, is that it’s an inherently violent relationship, with the guiding, purifying, chastising, and punishing role going, obviously, to the male in the equation.”

    This kind of biblical language/metaphores is something I struggled with a lot. What do you du with it? How to think about it? Any good things to read?

    Thank you for blogging! /Louise

    • One of the classics on this issue, even though it’s not technically within biblical studies, is Elizabeth Johnson’s _She Who Is_. Much of the Catholic feminist scholarship on gender and the Bible that’s widely available aims to “retrieve” female characters and images from the text, and in that sense fits with second wave feminism, but I haven’t always found that approach satisfying. I think there are some images that simply can’t be rehabilitated in a straightforward way. In those cases, I’ve found third-wave approaches, and approaches that are usually labeled as postmodern and poststructuralist helpful. Tina Pippin, Elizabeth Clark, Virginia Burrus, Stephen Moore are some names that come to mind.

  6. Oh Sonja, so well put in every way – thank you for expressing this today. I had my jaw clenched a bit, as I was up early. Then my dog decided that we should be outside during the homily; when I found it online later, I was able to loosen my jaw and exhale. Very nicely done.

    As I said to a mutual friend of ours this morning, he is not without challenge. He will break our hearts, but he has captured them first, with love. At least for me, and I tend to be weary and wary at these moments.

    So far, things are off to a very good start. Just hearing that Gospel in Greek set me for the day.

  7. What everyone else said — thank you for this analysis. I too found the homily a source of hope. And I too find it telling that many of us approached it with a cringe and relaxed because of what was *not* in there.

  8. Well, I hope he goes more lenient on contraception and abortion. As of now he is actually been pretty promising. His possible collaboration with Argentina’s dictatorial government is something that can push all hope away, but other than that he appears to be very humble and close to the people, so we might as well give him a chance. He strikes a bit to Paul VI too.

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