I once had a virtual audience with an actual anti-pope. I watched the documentary Pope Michael with some friends who then arranged a Skype conversation with its titular subject. If memory serves me right, I asked him about he balanced his time in Kansas with his duties to the people of the Diocese of Rome. I found his conviction charming even if his spiritual authority far from credible. But he seemed like a nice guy.
David Bawden, the man who called himself “Pope Michael,” died earlier this month. According to one set of internet rumors, he may have sacramentally confessed and recanted his false claims to be the successor of St. Peter before journeying home to God. Other online reports call this story mere rumor and gossip. Whether or not that tale of deathbed conversion happens to be true, I’m taken by its drama. I am still holding out hope for the happy ending.
It makes a lot of sense that Christians would cherish the aesthetics of forgiveness and find even imaginary accounts of reconciliation beautiful. The Christian vision of history, after all, centers around the cross-shaped, self-emptying love of God. The life of Jesus the Christ displays how beauty and redemption harmonize. This is the Lord who eats with sinners and who weeps for lost friends, in whom and through whom all is made new again. For the medieval imagination, it is only fitting that such love not only redeems a fallen world but makes creation even more beautiful to behold.
Attention to the real Holy Father’s penitential journey to Canada rightfully overshadowed news of the death of an obscure American anti-pope. As Michael Higgins observed in his blog last week, Pope Francis performed a tenderness in his listening and presence. Acts of contrition need to precede the work of healing.
For Catholics, the Church will always be both the bearer of the tradition and a continuation of God’s intervention in history. Pope Francis also demonstrates how to discern the sinfulness of compromised institutions. The Church is also a social construction, a human conglomerate complicit in systemic oppressions like residential schools. Restoring credibility for the Church includes corporate penitential actions. These are visible signs of faith meant for the world to see.
So, too, are the visible signs of faith in the sacred art that invites us to delight in creation. As Dante says through the mouth of Virgil, human creativity cooperates with the Creator, our arts are like God’s grandchildren (Inferno, Canto XI). But just as we inherit the glories of Catholic music, sacred architecture, painting and poetry alongside legacies of abuse and violence, a renewing Church needs to be cautious about how our contemporary works of penance are received. The same might be said of the signs and symbols of Catholic life: rosaries, icons, candles, robes, statues. The lush arts of Catholicism demonstrate a theological conviction about the good of the world God has made. But works of art might be shared by believers and non-believers alike; authentic shepherds and schismatics can, in theory, both wear a white zucchetto.
The danger comes when penitential prayer appears theatrical, as if performed for its own sake. Acts of contrition, however beautiful to behold, seek to rehabilitate wounded relationships beginning with oneself. Penance serves an inner conversion (a “turning around”) that pushes us towards acting differently in the future, aware of the wrongness of the past without obsessing over it. The Pope’s penitential journey offers an opportunity for the whole Church to reevaluate alignment identity. Catholic reparation for institutional complicities in evil remains a project for every person in the Church (some rightfully called to do more than others).
There are dangers to moving quickly because a preferred image may take the place of the truth. I believe we are still adapting to the speed of information sharing in our era of ubiquitous surveillance. Pictures and video arrive in real time often with commentary. Emotional reactions are real even if the story turns out to be fake. This rapidification of knowledge, to borrow a concept from Laudato Si’, can also undermine the inertia of penitential acts. Rapidification makes it difficult to separate the history-making fact of a Pope’s apology from the imperfect gaffs of a human doing human things. Penance appears awkwardly celebratory when filtered through social and traditional media. Indeed, the same rapidification inspires defensive calls to “get over it” when the apology does not seem enough for centuries of wrongdoing. Forgiveness should be quick and easy so we can scroll on to the next story.
The aesthetics of forgiveness are so powerful on stage or in a movie because drama, by its very nature, collapses big changes into short spans of time. A slick montage allows interpersonal transformation to be miraculously swift. Sometimes forgiveness does move fast. That’s the beauty of God’s infinite mercy made instantly accessible in the personal drama of sacramental confession. But repairing a compromised human institution calls for more than complaints or kitsch counter-papacies. Rather, it is the people of God doing works of great love that will prove how God’s holy Church remains credible even after all this time.
Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.