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.