When I was a boy, a European Jesuit priest temporarily staying at our parish befriended the altar servers. As he explained to my parents, “The boys will correct my English; you adults are too polite.” It was a bit of wisdom that I verified when my own time came to learn a new language.
Only after he returned to his homeland did I learn that Father was a world-famous mathematician. For us altar servers, he was more important than that. He let us lose. We were at that age when children begin to suspect that the reason they win games with adults is that the adults are losing intentionally. The Jesuit did not condescend to us. He respected us enough to beat us.
One of our after-school activities was to go to the church basement, where Father would have six or so chessboards lined up for us. We kids would then try to stay on the board for more than a few minutes. A Jesuit at the chessboard can be a formidable opponent.
The more I observe Pope Francis in action, the more I wonder if he might be a Jesuit chess player.
He has been Bishop of Rome for just over a year and a half, and in that time has both raised and disappointed expectations. Certainly his humility in asking for prayers from the crowd when he was elected, his friendliness in posing for selfies and his non-judgmental attitude epitomized in his “who am I to judge” response to a question about homosexuals all heartened Catholics and others who hungered for a pastoral papacy.
On the other hand, many observers have been disappointed that he seemed slow to move against bishops who have covered up and even facilitated sexual abuse by priests. During the recent Synod for the Family an interim report indicated new directions in dealing with pastoral problems, but the backlash against that seemed to cause a pullback. The question arises: What is Francis going to do?
Perhaps chess might give some idea of what is happening.
A chess game begins with a player trying to evaluate the opponent’s skills, strengths, weaknesses and habits of play. The recent Synod for the Family might be understood in those terms. A variety of bishops gathered, some of them vehemently and publicly opposed to Pope Francis. He was able to hear their opinions, evaluate their arguments and draw them into demonstrating their “strategies”, as well as the amount and nature of the support they might have.
Once the players have sized each other up, the “midgame” begins, when players begin to clear the board of opponent pieces, or at least neutralize them.
That is one way to view the pope’s “firing” of Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Church’s highest court and assigning him to the basically ceremonial role of chaplain to the Knights of Malta. Cardinal George Pell has been moved from Sydney, Australia, to Rome to supervise the cleaning of its corrupt, or at least incompetent, financial situation. This frees Australian Catholics of a notoriously unpastoral bishop and puts him to work on ledgers and finance, where he has talent but will not deal with people. The first step toward removing the American bishop Robert Finn who was convicted of covering up sexual abuse by a priest with whom he shared conservative proclivities has finally been taken.
Sometimes, the midgame requires the sacrifice of certain plays and pieces for the sake of later victory.
Perhaps the biggest move by Francis to neutralize opposition has been something that looks at first like a “sacrifice” of sorts, the canonization of Pope John Paul II. But, by doing so, the pope has given a group of people who might oppose him something they wanted while leaving them without what might have been a key rallying point for opposition; namely, calls for the canonization. By combining John Paul’s canonization with the speeded-up canonization of John XXIII, Francis also indicated his leanings.
In chess, once the midgame has cleared away many of the “powerful” pieces, the contest transitions to what is called the “endgame.” In this part of the game, pieces that had been relatively powerless, the pawns, become important. In chess, this is because the way becomes clear to “promote” some of them.
The game of Vatican chess may be entering the endgame. Pope Francis has appointed a relatively unknown bishop to the US Archdiocese of Chicago, replacing the outgoing archbishop with a new orientation in pastoral care. The new secretary of state and foreign minister of the Vatican are notably different from their predecessors. To appoint a new bishop in Peru, where the hierarchy has been dominated by members and supporters of Opus Dei, the pope went outside the continent to choose a man from the United States.
In appointing cardinals, Francis has promoted men from places that never had cardinals before while leaving some places traditionally led by cardinals without a red hat on top. His next appointments to the College of Cardinals will likely include the promotion of other “pawns” to new significance.
I don’t know if Francis is a Jesuit who plays chess. For all I know, he has no idea of how a knight moves. But even if he never approaches a chessboard, he seems to be playing to win.