The Pope’s third year starts with a bang, and a joke

Popes are not known for telling jokes. So when Pope Francis told a self-deprecating gag, you can be sure there was more to it than that. Serious deeds are afoot in the Vatican

When the Pope tells a joke...
Tim Hedges
On 16 March 2015 14:33

‘How does an Argentine commit suicide? He climbs up his own ego and throws himself off.’ In the army it is said that a joke is as funny as the rank of its teller is exalted. So, this is likely to be seriously amusing. It was told by His Holiness the Pope.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Pope tell a joke; indeed most of them have looked as if they wouldn’t know what the word meant. Francis’s cheerful expression suggests that life in the Vatican is a giggle a minute. But it is not: there are serious deeds afoot.

As with everything else this Argentine Jesuit says, it will be interpreted on a number of levels.

The Pope told the joke at a press conference in the Vatican on the second anniversary of his election and after he had said in an interview to Mexican television that he sensed his papacy would be short: 'a few more years’.

Traditionally this would be regarded as a comment on his health: he is 78 and has only one lung. But following Pope Benedict’s resignation people are analysing a further meaning to the words.

Francis might have distilled the goals of his papacy into a few short tasks: clearing up the administrative mess; sorting out the financial disaster; and finally opening up the church to people hitherto regarded as beyond the pale: divorced and remarrieds, homosexuals and so on. He might be saying that once he has achieved that, he can move on.

What the joke may mean is that Francis is humble enough to limit his scope, to limit his papacy to these few prescribed goals. As Clint Eastwood tells us, a man has got to know his limitations.

It is in the area of opening up the Church that Francis so far believes he has failed. His widely publicised synod on the family was supposed to reach towards this conclusion, but the conservative episcopy sabotaged it, preventing any change to doctrine.

Now Francis has another plan to achieve his ends.

He has announced a Jubilee: a special year when the faithful are supposed to converge on Rome, and concentrate their thoughts on one specific aspect of religious life. In this case it is the Special Jubilee of God’s Mercy, and one of his team described it as ‘an opportunity to reach out to those who have excluded themselves from the Church and who have been excluded.’

A Jubilee is a major event, and the interesting thing is that Francis didn’t tell anyone outside his immediate circle. There are about a hundred politicians who are close to the Church and at one level or another act as conduits of information between Church and State. None were told.

But Francis and politicians....well, I suppose they are never going to get on.

Last year Francis had them in for their traditional Lenten Mass and when they couldn’t get away -- you don’t walk out on the Pope -- denounced them roundly from the pulpit, describing, ‘the hypocrisy and corruption of the ruling class, distanced from the people, shut up in its own group, its own party, with its internal squabbles’. This year he cancelled their mass.

Francis did not even tell the mayor that at the end of the year there would be millions of people descending on Rome. The last Jubilee, held in 2000, was a giant event, at the turn of the millennium with its rockstar pope John Paul II, and millions of cheerful people flooded the city.

It went very well and we must hope this one does too, although it is likely to be smaller.

The timing, as you might expect from a Jesuit Pope, is full of symbolism. It begins on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 2015, nine months away, the human gestation period.

It begins in the 50th year since the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the last great attempt at liberal reform in the Church. It ends on the Festival of Christ the King in 2016.

Francis’s Synod is not yet closed; it can still come to the conclusion he hopes for it. The Holy Father is betting that in the glare of publicity in a Jubilee, no one from the conservative side will be able to stop him making his reforms. He is betting that he can open up the Church to the excluded.

Then it will be time to go.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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