This early in the papacy of Pope Francis, every tiny detail, every response, every move is fodder for analysis and discussion, as professional and amateur pundits alike tell us what every turn of phrase or newly emerging biographical detail will mean for his papacy. This is in part understandable – the Church and the world want to know more about the man just chosen to lead the world’s over one billion Catholics. But it can also, fueled by 24-hour news media hype, lead to serious misunderstandings as people project their own desires or fears onto every new revelation. This is why we need to be patient and prayerful as we all prepare to get our bearings from the new captain of the Barque of Peter.
Still, some modest and reasonable judgments can be made by people of good will. It says something important about our new Holy Father that at a moment when the whole world was watching, in a very human and unscripted moment with the huge crowd looked on in silence, he demonstrated incredible humility by asking for our prayers before his first act as Pope, which would be to bless the Church and all people of good will. Adding to this impression, one which only grows the more we learn about his personal history of solidarity with the poor and simple living, are anecdotes such as the report that he declined the chauffeured limo ride to the post-ceremony dinner in favor of riding in the minibus with his brother cardinals.
We’re also learning more about the 2005 conclave where it is widely, if unofficially, reported that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was the runner-up in votes behind Cardinal Josef Ratzinger; demanded that his name be removed from contention, throwing all of his support behind the future Pope Benedict XVI. This is not a man who was pining for the honor and power of the Chair of Peter.
Such responses tell us something about a man’s heart. What he says in more carefully crafted moments tells us something about his mind and his intentions. We see in his first homily as pope, given yesterday at the “pro Ecclesia” Mass, a striking and explicit continuity with Benedict XVI. The theme of the homily: to walk, to build, to witness, always with the Cross.
First, the Pope Francis reaches back into the Old Testament and God’s admonition to Abraham to
‘Walk in my presence and be blameless.’ Our life is a path. When we stop walking there is something that isn’t right. To walk always in the presence of the Lord, in the light of the Lord, seeking to live the blamelessness that God asks of Abraham in His promise.
Next, alluding to St. Francis of Assisi’s great commission, the Holy Father calls his brothers and us to build:
…to construct the Church. This means stones. Stones are solid but these are living stones, stones that are anointed by the Holy Spirit. To build the Church, the Bride of Christ, on the cornerstone that is the Lord himself.
Then, in what is his first step into “the practical” within his theme, he recalls one of the most constant calls of his two predecessors, the centrality of evangelization to the Church’s social mission, indeed to her identity:
To witness … We can walk when we want to, we can build many things, but if we do not witness to Jesus Christ then it doesn’t matter. We might become a philanthropic NGO but we wouldn’t be the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we don’t go forward we stop…we go backwards. When we don’t build on rock, what happens? The same thing that happens to children when they build sandcastles at the beach. They wind up falling down because they have no solidity.(emphasis added – another translation of the homily contains the term “pitiful NGO” or non-governmental organization)
Let the Church say Amen! Please read the Holy Father’s short homily when you have a chance. The Church, as Francis’ predecessor so wonderfully put it, is not merely some institution with a mission, she is a mission. This mission requires the faithful, for the love of Jesus Christ (Caritas), to encounter and serve – to walk with – our most vulnerable and poor brothers and sisters in solidarity and subsidiarity.
Here, in his very first homily, in his first statement of priority to his brothers, Pope Francis echoes Benedict in insisting that this essential work of the Church is not merely a “philanthropic” effort that assumes the professional standards (if not all the practices) of secular groups, many of whom today collectively spend billions to stop babies from being born. Her work is motivated by love, and is truly radical in the best sense, seeing in every person the entire person, destined for heaven even while struggling here on earth. When the Church acts as if she were merely “a philanthropic NGO,” she is betraying her mission and her identity.
We have been talking about this a great deal in Spirit & Life, though we are far from alone in doing so. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Deus Caritas Est,Caritas in Veritate, in several letters and statements, and especially in his last motu proprio, “On the Service of Charity”, Benedict XVI could not have been clearer that now is the time for renewal in the charitable outreach of the Church. Caritas in veritate – charity in truth – is the leading edge of the New Evangelization, which is to bring Christ to the world. To see Pope Francis so clearly make this a top priority is a welcome sign.
But we must be very clear about this, just as we must affirm the continuity with the previous popes, with the entirety of Church social and moral doctrine. It is not that Pope Francis is on “our side” about the urgency of setting this situation right in the Church. Rather, we must all be on the side of Christ, picking up our Cross and following him, regardless of perceptions of “liberal” or “conservative,” “right” or “left.” We cannot turn this into a partisan crusade, and we cannot pigeonhole Pope Francis politically, any more than we could with Benedict or Blessed John Paul II.
We stand with the Church and with the pope in a spirit of gratitude and obedience. This is indeed a historic time for the Church – a time of great change and great hope. It’s time to get serious about our faith and pray earnestly for our Holy Father.
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