Willy Herteleer was a homeless man who lived in the Borgo — the network of narrow streets north of St. Peter’s Square. He went to Mass every day at the Pontifical Church of St. Anne just inside the Vatican walls. The Catholic News Agency quotes his views about Mass: “My medicine is Communion.”
Willy Herteleer was also known as a street evangelist. As he roamed the streets with his belongings in a pull cart and a cross around his neck, he would stop and ask passersby, “When did you last go to confession? Are you going to Communion? Do you go to Mass?”
On Dec. 12, Willy died in a hospital near the Vatican and a few of his friends began to look for a burial place for him. German journalist Paul Badde, author of “The Face of God” — a book about the Holy Veil of Manopello — had just become a brother in the Confraternity of the Campo Santo of the Teutons. The Campo Santo Teutonico, or Teutonic Cemetery, is a small piece of land within the Vatican walls donated by Charlemagne as a burial plot for pilgrims of German or Flemish descent who died on pilgrimage to Rome.
Because Willy Herteleer was Flemish, Badde suggested that he be buried in the historic Vatican cemetery. Angela Ambrogetti, writing for the Catholic News Agency, recalled how “Willy’s friends organized everything, obtaining the necessary permission from the Vatican, Italy, and Belgium, where Willy began his life. They made contact with his family — his four children whom he had not seen for decades.”
This simple act of charity might have remained no more than a touching story of a few Catholics performing a corporal work of mercy by giving a dignified burial to a poor man. Instead, it has erupted into an online firefight illustrating the polarization within the American Catholic Church.
The story of Herteleer’s burial was published Wednesday, and on Saturday the conservative news aggregator PewSitter headlined the story, “FrancisChurch: Bum Given Bishops Resting Place.”
The shadowy editors of PewSitter are notorious for using quotation and question marks to show their disdain for the leadership of Pope Francis and any Catholics who are sympathetic to him. So a story on slain Archbishop Oscar Romero will refer to him as “martyr” Romero. An article about the Pope’s suggested economic reforms will be headlined “Francis: End the throwaway economic system. Time for worker cooperatives!” so the effect is at once disrespectful to the pope by referring to him as “Francis,” while the exclamation point creates a tone of sarcastic mock enthusiasm suggesting that he is a communist.
With enthusiastic links to self-appointed firebrand Michael Voris, and a steady current of right-wing political bias and sleazy editing, PewSitter is getting a name for itself as the aggressive aggregator of choice for the conservative American Catholic tribe disenchanted with Pope Francis’ papacy.
Not content to pillory the pope and mock the “FrancisChurch,” the editors at PewSitter dish their scorn on fellow conservative Catholics who dare to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt. For many, their cruel and ignorant headline on Willy Herteleer’s burial is the last straw.
Mark Shea, who blogs at Patheos, weighed in here with a blog post and delivered a stern denunciation to PewSitter: “In your malice against the Holy Father, the successor of Peter, you have now insulted Jesus Christ in his precious poor one in the very hour of his death.”
“PewSitter is small fry. It’s a tempest in a teapot!” you might protest, but what the furor over the PewSitter headline reveals is that American Catholicism is divided as never before. Some conservatives who feel threatened by Pope Francis have retreated into a right-wing, paranoid enclave from which they broadcast panicked videos, sarcastic blog posts, and uber-orthodox traditionalist jeremiads.
In the meantime, progressive Catholics have adopted Pope Francis as the poster boy for the whole secular, left-wing agenda. Conveniently overlooking his uncompromising pro-life statements, his support for the traditional family, his warnings against the devil, and his dismissal of same-sex marriage, they project their own agenda onto the pope and hail him as the new “good pope John” — the radical reformer and secret progressive.
Re-grouping into Catholic tribalism of the right or the left does huge damage to the Church. When we are in need of a strong, clear message and a united witness to the world, we descend instead into partisan bickering, mutual accusation, and self-righteous posturing. Retreating into a self-made religious ghetto is also indicative of the worst religious psychology: that of the sectarian Pharisee.
The Pharisees withdrew into their self-righteous holy huddle and strengthened their prejudices by blaming everyone outside their select circle. Whenever this happens, scapegoating is the inevitable result. We first blame those on the outside and then plan to destroy them.
The burial of the homeless pilgrim Will Herteleer in the Campo Santo of the Teutons was a simple and dignified act of Catholic charity. That anyone would use it in a cynical attempt to discredit the papacy of Pope Francis and deepen the divisions in the Church is an act of ignorance only exceeded by its arrogance.
Instead of using the deed as a cause of division, Herteleer’s burial should have been an action of charity around which all Catholics should unite in simple gratitude. Those Catholics of both extremes who take refuge in their respective fortresses should give up their self-supporting prejudices and begin again to live out the radical gospel of Christ the Lord.