25 March 2013

Homily for a Mass to Pray for Pope Francis

If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all
21 March 2013 – Thursday of the Fifth Week in Lent


Our new Holy Father has tagged himself with some luminous markers in his first week in office. His baptismal patron is St George, the soldier-saint chosen as the patron of the Crusades against Islam’s occupancy of the Holy Places; yet for his pontifical name he chose St Francis, who went to speak of the love of Christ to Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt, so as to bring the Crusades to a peaceful end.

Quite apparently chosen by the Conclave to lead the Church in both institutional and spiritual renewal (and to those who were expecting a Vatican placeman this is reminiscent of the emergence of John XXIII from the midst of the Pian Church), the Jesuit might have been expected to look to the patronage of Ignatius of Loyola for reform or Aloysius Gonzaga for purity of life and purpose – and we have known neither a Pope Ignatius nor a Pope Louis before. Instead he lighted upon Francis, “the richest of poor men”, inspired by a fellow Cardinal, we are told, not to forget the poor who are the Church in his native Latin America.

Immediately, however, clever commentators thought he must have more in mind the great Jesuit missionary of Japan, St Francis Xavier, on whose evangelical sanctity and evangelistic labours the Catholic Church in the Far East was built, just at the time a Church apprehensive of true renewal was losing its northern flocks to the Reformation in the West. There could also have been the less than worthy Pope Alexander VI’s grandson, St Francis Borgia, who gave up his dukedom to enter the Society of Jesus, starting out as a cook and waiter at table, until he became a second founder of the Jesuits, consolidating its novitiates and setting up what was to become the Gregorian University. Another remarkable Francis was not a Jesuit, but an Oratorian, the beloved Francis de Sales, the beauty of whose preaching of the love of God, simplicity of life and purity of discipleship won many who had been excited into the ferment of Calvin’s Reform back to the unity of the Church. Although the city of Geneva of which he was bishop was lost to him, his proclamation and living of the gospel was truly the new evangelisation of its day. But all of these saints are named after St Francis of Assisi and modelled themselves on him. Likewise it is to the humble, innocent Poverello whom the Lord commanded to rebuild his Church - the person in whom perhaps more than anyone else Jesus Christ has come again - that our new Holy Father has turned for a pattern in living, inspiration in endeavour and protection in prayer. We have already heard from him that the greatest power in the Church is service; that the Church is a Church of the poor; and that its duty is to protect those whom worldly society rejects and resents, along with the creation God has given to sustain us all alike.

Another one of those luminous markers was the acceptance of a ring once belonging to Pope Paul VI as his own Fisherman’s Ring. After many years, in which the painstaking faithfulness and leadership during an ear of the greatest social changes of such a beautiful and holy soul as Pope Paul have been questioned and even despised, it is a blessing to the Church that Pope Francis has signified the hermeneutic of continuity between his new pontificate and that of the wise, bold popes of the great Second Vatican Council. So the great tradition goes on and the Church brings riches from its treasury both old and new.

Yet another marker is his insistence that he is from the first successor to Peter not with grand titles such as Supreme Pontiff or Universal Pastor but as bishop of the local Church of Rome. Thus he has honoured the remarkable Petrine ministry and teaching office of his predecessor not by reference to him as “the Pope Emeritus”, but as “our retired bishop”. In this he echoes Pope Benedict’s call as successor of the apostle Peter, that Britain heard in Westminster Abbey, to give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us, not by a facile accommodation to the spirit of the age but an ever deeper unity in the apostolic faith in Jesus Christ truly risen from the dead. It is worth noting here that it was the witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the purity of teaching conserved by the Church at Rome, in direct continuity from the apostles Peter and Paul, that caused it to be seen by all, in the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, as “the church that presides in love”. Its prime role in speaking for the whole Church and resolving the authenticity of its teaching was thus respected for a millennium in both East and West. In our own day, Pope Francis is well aware that the Eastern Churches’ diaspora is now everywhere in the West; just as the Latin West is diffused throughout the world of the Christian East too. His apparent expectation that the local Church of Rome will be trusting the Churches locally to respond to the needs of humanity for the gospel by the lights of where and who they are, whether that is Rome or Istanbul, Buenos Aires or Lusaka,  Kiev or Beijing, seems to take into account the realities of how the People of God belong in the communion of the Body of Christ, the need for the Churches to act and live in collegial concert, and the urgency of mutual union among Christians for the sake of realising the blessings in the Sermon on the Mount, “on earth as it is in heaven”. Thanks to the openness of his immediate predecessor to the Orthodox Church, which enabled some notable progress in the joint Orthodox-Catholic theological dialogue, the ground has been prepared for a Patriarch of Constantinople to witness for the first time the inauguration of the local bishop of the Church which presides in love. And the real power-wielder in Orthodoxy, the confident and globally expanding but also “local” Russian Orthodox Church, was significantly represented in Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, a likely successor to Patriarch Kirill someday, who studied for his doctorate here in the West in England. The Moscow Patriarchate has long advocated an alliance from Latin West and Russian East in concert across Europe, for recalling it to the faith that once civilised it by bringing it to Christ. In rooting the Roman bishop’s wider ministry, authority and witness in the faith, needs and experience of the City and culture where he is set – serving as its own apostle of the gospel, rather than primarily ruler of the global church - Pope Francis strikes a chord with Orthodox Churches that have a strong sense of their local purpose, and challenges those which are tempted to rival the Roman curia for binding communion to central control, rather than a presidency in love. Perhaps Pope Francis will prove to be as radical for Christian Unity as his predecessor was in ending the existential papacy, so that the primacy of episcopal office might succeed him.

Perhaps the Pope’s most luminous marker is to share the concerns of the poor. Of course it is true to say that the poor are not necessarily poor because of the rich and the rich are not necessarily rich because of their abuse of the poor. The causes are as complex as the solutions are unpalatable to those with the power to deliver them. But poverty is not just economic and social. It is spiritual too. The Holy Father seems to be referring to another great saint of his Church of Rome, the 3rd century deacon, St Lawrence. When commanded by the prefect of Rome to hand over the wealth of the Church, Lawrence distributed it to the poor and told him that the poor, the disabled, the blind and the suffering were the true treasures of the Church. Sealing his own death sentence, he said that in them “the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor”.

All these markers point to a new course to the Church’s life for sure. In every image that Pope Francis has conjured up, and every holy person whose name he seems to have invoked, he puts us in mind of the Lord’s words in today’s Gospel: “If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all.” Instead, the Jesuit like the Master seeks “the greater glory of God”; and, according to his own motto, is deeply aware that the Master has chosen him not because he has some gifts or characteristics that the Lord could now find useful, but miserando atque eligendo purely out of having mercy upon him.