Year of the Sinner
"Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train!"
In the end-of-the-year bustle, Rolling Stone bestowed its Best Album laurel on Modern Vampires of the City, by New York rock quartet Vampire Weekend. The write-up didn't mention the album's biggest hit, which is odd because it's the song people are most likely to connect with from heavy radio play.
Perhaps it was an honest omission, perhaps the subject matter had something to do with it. "Unbelievers" is one of those oddball songs where the music and the lyrics run at cross-purposes. It's similar to David Gray's "The One I Love," a catchy upbeat number about a man being shot and bleeding out in his lover's arms.
In a similar, well, vein, "Unbelievers" sounds like a cheery song. Yet it delivers damnation instead, literally.
"We know the fire awaits unbelievers, all of the sinners the same," Vampire front man Ezra Koenig sings.
If so then the pope is going to burn -- by his own admission.
In September, the Jesuit journal America and several other publications ran a long interview with Pope Francis. Priest and editor Antonio Spadaro asked his boss about the name on his birth certificate: "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?"
Here's the priest's account of what happened next:
"The pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask.... He nods that it is, and he tells me: 'I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.'"
Surely you can see the inevitable headlines: "Pope: I Am a Sinner."
To religious believers, this was not breaking news. From a normative Catholic perspective, these were among the most defensible words the pope uttered all year, echoing both Tradition and Scripture. Plenty of Protestants and Orthodox were nodding along as well.
The Apostle Paul is the author or inspiration of much of the New Testament. He argued in a letter to an understudy that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the worst."
That is according to the New International Version of the Bible (from the first chapter of First Timothy). Other translations render "worst" as "foremost" or "chief." Thus, Paul is often said to have called himself the "chief of sinners," and it's not a great stretch.
And thus Francis, seasoned from hearing years of confessions and of confessing his own transgressions every two weeks, called himself a sinner as well. He rightly swore off all attempts at ignoring his words through cutesy literary devices.
In his many statements and preachments, the new pope also frequently talked about the devil. Again, he made it clear this wasn't a figurative prince of darkness.
During one homily, the pope said, "Some may say, but, 'Father, you're too old fashioned. You're frightening us with these things.' No, it's not me! It is the Gospel! And these are not lies: it is the Word of the Lord. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to take these things seriously. He came to fight for our salvation. He won against the Devil."
Many liberal admirers of the pope politely ignored his words. A few brave souls took the devil by the horns. One spectacularly misguided soul attempted to change the pope's words and got slapped down by the Vatican.
The Huffington Post published a piece with the simply marvelous title "Pope Francis, You Had Me at Hello, You Lost Me at Sinner." Rea Martin, author of "mystic fiction," wrote part of a mash note to Francis who "other than the significant ongoing issue of women as deacons and priests...is everything I ever wanted in a pope."
Francis was "Christ in the temple overthrowing the money changers and upsetting the power cabal of the corporate religion...the man of the hour rising to every occasion, pastoral and political, identifying with his flock instead of the elitist hierarchy."
She interrupted that love letter to take issue with Francis's use of the term "sinner." Sure, she admitted, "We all sin to varying degrees and frequencies, depending on our definitions of sin..." But while this is true, sort of, "a sinner is not who I am, or for that matter, who he is. Or anyone."
In fact "Identifying ourselves as sinners is unhealthy, and when you think about it, has gotten us absolutely nowhere in the last few millennia or so, except into a lot of trouble." So maybe this "spectacular" pope could knock it off with the sinner talk?
Eugenio Scalfari, famed unbeliever and contributor to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica took things a step further. First he did an interview with the pope without recording it or taking notes and was forced to admit that maybe he put words into the pontiff's mouth.
Then, Scalfari put forward an interpretation of Francis's latest encyclical so blinkered that the head of the Vatican press office felt it necessary to send a letter to paper denying that the pope "has abolished sin."
Quite the opposite, in fact. The pope's approach to sin is decidedly old fashioned and deadly earnest. In mid-December, Francis made headlines by ordering all high ranking members of the Church's curia to hear confessions.
At the time, there was even speculation the pope himself would sit in the confessional "discreetly," to help fellow sinners find forgiveness, and salvation.