ROME – Five years ago, Pope Francis traveled to the famed Marian shrine of Fatima in Portugal to declare as saints two of three seers of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s appearances and revelations on that spot, which had begun exactly one century before on May 13, 1917.
At the time, Francis made it clear he took the Madonna of Fatima’s prophecies seriously indeed.
“Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures,” the pope said. “Such a life – frequently proposed and imposed – risks leading to hell.”
Now five years later, Pope Francis is set to consecrate Russia, as well as Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and has asked all the bishops in the world to join him in the act on March 25, which is the Marian feast of the Annunciation, in keeping with a request of Mary delivered at Fatima in 1929.
Officially the Vatican insists that an act of consecration of the whole world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart by Pope John Paul II in 1984 fulfilled the Fatima request, a position also backed by the late Sr. Lúcia dos Santos, the last of the original three Fatima visionaries, who died in 2005. Critics, however, objected that Russia wasn’t mentioned specifically, and neither did all the bishops of the world join in the consecration – precisely, it would seem the boxes Francis wants to check this time around.
Whatever its geopolitical or theological significance, the March 25 consecration is also a reminder that for all the ways he comes off as a maverick, a disrupter, and a revolutionary, there are nonetheless senses in which Pope Francis is also extremely traditional, perhaps even more than his two immediate predecessors.
For sure, the conventional Catholic traditionalism with which we’re all familiar, with its devotion to the old Latin Mass, smells-and-bells liturgical style, and taste for florid clerical garb, along with an extremely conservative approach to doctrine, is not for history’s first Latin American pontiff. However, just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s also more than one way to be a traditionalist.
Francis’s approach to religious life, for example, is highly traditional, and his style of governance actually can be understood in terms of how Jesuit superiors did things once upon a time. That is, the superior always has a team of advisors, and beyond that group, he consults with whomever he wants before making a decision. That decision, however, is made by him and him alone – and once it’s made, he expects it to be obeyed.
He’s also pretty much a traditionalist, in Latin American terms anyway, when it comes to pastoral style. He’s not much for theology or canon law, regarding them mostly as necessary but of secondary importance, preferring to roll his sleeves up and get involved in the lives of ordinary people, trying as best he can to be their friend and voice, and trusting that over time, the Christian convictions involved in those efforts will make their own case.
Doctrinally, Francis can take on a surprisingly traditional edge sometimes, perhaps especially when he talks about hell. (This despite a short-lived kerfuffle in 2018 when a nonagenarian Italian journalist claimed Francis had told him hell doesn’t exist, which was swiftly denied by the Vatican in words and disowned by Francis in practice.)
Here’s a typical Francis riff, drawn from one of his livestreamed daily Masses during the first COVID lockdown.
“This generation, like many others, has been taught the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil,” Francis said. “But the devil exists, and we must fight against him.”
Nowhere is what we might call Pope Francis’s “closet traditionalism” more palpable than in his approach to the Virgin Mary.
It’s difficult to see what hard-core Fatima devotees might object to in Francis’s consecration, except perhaps the decision to include Ukraine as well as Russia – a choice obviously driven by the need to seem apolitical by embracing both sides in the current conflict. Still, one can trust the Russians, especially the Russian Orthodox clergy, not to miss the significance of the pontiff dusting off the most ferociously hawkish and anti-Russian devotion of the Cold War in the context of Vladimir Putin’s scorched-earth war in Ukraine.
It’s well-known that Francis begins and ends every overseas trip with a visit to the great Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome to pray in front of its most famous icon, Maria, Salus Populi Romani (“Mary, Health of the Roman People.”) On March 11, 2020, Francis entrusted the entire world to the protection of the Virgin Mary amid the coronavirus pandemic, composing a special prayer under her traditional title as “health of the sick.” Our Lady of Lujan in Argentina, Our Lady of the Rosary in Guatemala, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, Our Lady of Coromoto in Venezuela, and many others, are all in the pope’s regular personal prayer rotation.
“The great model of a Church with a young heart, ready to follow Christ with freshness and docility, always remains the Virgin Mary,” the pope said in Medjugorje during his 2020 trip to yet another famed Marian shrine.
Okay, none of this would qualify Francis for membership in the Latin Mass Society or means he spends his down time browsing clerical garb shops seeking the latest in maniples or papal camauro. (Actually, as Francis gets older, investing in a camauro for Rome’s cold winter months might be a good idea, but it’s not how he rolls.)
By now, “traditionalism” and “traditionalist” – along with its derogatory derivative, “traddie” – have become brand names in Catholicism for a certain cluster of dogmatic and liturgical convictions, and the people described by those terms generally are no fans of Francis.
“Tradition,” however, in the Catholic sense, is still a many-splendored thing – and, at least by his own lights, Pope Francis turns out to be remarkably traditional himself.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr