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Francis shows his human side

Pope's slip of the tongue may bring unexpected benefits to priests

  • Fr William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • March 12, 2014
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When the head of an international religious order visited Japan many years ago, I was asked to be his translator. One evening at a convent of the order, the superior greeted a large group of nuns, saying what a pleasure it was to be with them for the visitation (shisatsu).

I thought I had turned his words into Japanese, but the shocked looks on the faces of the audience told me something was amiss. I hit my mental rewind button, and then asked the nuns, "Did I say the superior is here to commit suicide (jisatsu)?" Their solemn nods turned into relieved laughter when I explained my mistake.

Everyone who uses a language other than his or her native tongue -- intercultural business people, migrants, refugees, missionaries -- or hears such people speak has similar tales to tell. Often, the stories are amusing. Sometimes they are frustrating. On occasion, they may even be tragic. Almost always, they are embarrassing to the speaker.

There have been news reports that Pope Francis committed such a gaffe during a Sunday talk to a crowd gathered outside St Peter’s Basilica for his blessing. Like me at the convent, he mispronounced a consonant, and may have inadvertently uttered a vulgarism. Like vulgarisms in any language, direct translation makes no sense, but the reports indicate that it was the Italian equivalent of using an English word that once earned me a mouthful of soap from my mother.

We can wonder whether the Spanish-speaking pope merely mixed up sounds, or if the word he actually said is, in fact, a part of his Italian vocabulary. And if it is, does he know the vulgar connotations of it that go beyond the literal meaning? Should Vatican reporters keep an eye open for a cardinal heading toward the pope’s residence with a big bar of soap? Should they investigate whether or not Regina Bergoglio ever washed out her son Jorge’s mouth?

Each day, we see how like the rest of us Pope Francis is. Of course, his predecessors all the way back to Peter were like the rest of us, too, but too often they or others tried to hide that fact. As we mark the first anniversary of Francis’ election, he continues to fascinate Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his normalcy. No longer hiding papal normalcy may finally break down one of the most insidious problems in the Church, clericalism.

Clericalism, the attitude that clergy are special, deserving of special treatment and not subject to the human, civil, social and even etiquette norms that others must obey, lies behind the sex abuse scandals that have brought the Church’s leaders into deserved disrepute.

It is clericalism that allows an archbishop whose archdiocese includes one of the most blighted cities in the United States to build at archdiocesan expense a more-than-$500,000 addition that will add an indoor second swimming pool and a hot tub to his already comfortable retirement home.

These and other sins have alerted people to the fact that the clergy can be weak. Even more, the arrogance of leaders who have enabled abuse, used the contributions of Catholics for their own purposes and closed parishes or institutions without consulting the people whose lives would be affected have made Catholics increasingly unwilling to give the benefit of doubt to professional churchmen. The presumption that clergy are extraordinary men whose generous sacrifices deserve special thanks and treatment has been dealt a probably fatal self-inflicted wound.

That is good news for the Church. Now that the pope has made a gaffe such as any of us could make, people should realize that all their clergy are merely human -- frail, and even slightly ridiculous -- like all of us.

The tragic scandal of sexual abuse has shown that priests can perpetrate evil, but too many people think superhuman or super sinner are the only categories for viewing them. In fact, clergy have "bad hair days" just like anyone else. They get tired and upset. They carry emotional baggage. Clericalism (on the part of both clergy and laity) forgets or refuses to recognize those facts.

The demise of clericalism will have several good results. The first, and most important, is that those clerics who delight in being pampered and treated like lapdogs or minor nobility will have to grow up and earn their reputations through service rather than status. And they will be held to the same standards of responsibility as any other adults.

One group that will joyfully benefit from the demolition of clericalism will be the large number of clergy who hate what clericalism does to themselves. When it becomes commonly accepted that bishops and priests use toilet paper at the same rate as others, that will free clergy from having to live up to superhuman expectations. It will free them to be as normal in ministry as Pope Francis. His 'oops' moment may be the most important thing he said that day.

Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.

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