The election of Pope Francis has all the hallmarks of the close of one era, and the beginning of another. It would seem that the dawn of the age of Mary will soon be turning into day, and the dreadful chapter of the 20th century has now been finally closed. That does not mean that the Church, the Bride of Christ will not suffer, and suffer greatly from attacks by the World, the Flesh and the Devil. However Mary’s reign is beginning.
The moment that Pope Francis walked on to the balcony at St. Peter’s, we were in the presence of a man, who seemed to express a wonderful solidity. He reminded me of a mixture of the fearlessness of Pius XI and the geniality of Blessed John XXIII. Here was, yet again an old Pope, like his predecessor Benedict XVI, but even more challenging in his being, and in his choice of name. It was, as far as I can remember from the days of my education by the Jesuits, from the age of 8 to 18, an accepted fact that a Jesuit could never be a Pope. Though people had posited that Cardinal Martini of Milan might have been made Pope, which given his less than orthodox credentials would be hard to imagine, there was this belief that such a thing could never happen. But now we have a Cardinal Archbishop of one of the grandest, if not the grandest capital in South America, who is, like St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake, espoused to Lady Poverty, coming from the country that people had not been seriously thinking about, namely Argentina; all eyes were really on Cardinal Scherer of San Paolo in Brazil. Then also he is the first non- European Pope since Gregory III, a Syrian, who had to rebuild the walls of Rome at his own expense to ward off the attacks of Liutprand the Lombard king. Francis will have to ward off the attacks of the massed armies of secularists, humanists, and godless philanthropists, and by taking the name Francis he has declared to the Church and the World the programme of his pontificate.
He will do it using the weapons of humility, poverty, peace, authentic doctrine, and the following of Christ crucified. What in effect has happened is that St. Francis has found himself in the Vatican once again, as he did 804 years ago, when he went to Innocent III, the most powerful Pope in history, and asked him to ratify the Franciscan Order, but this time the Pope wishes to follow Francis, which Innocent III, great pope though he was did not. He was far too much of the ruler, and in the best sense a politician, but St. Francis has found a man after his own heart. Here is a Pope who does not wish to be in a Limousine, but prefers the bus travelling with his fellow cardinals, after all that is what his preferred mode of transport was in Buenos Aires; why should he change? Then the day after his election he goes unannounced to Santa Maria Maggiore and places a little bouquet, more a posy of flowers, on the altar before her famous and ancient icon which he always used to venerate whenever he came to Rome. All his actions breath Franciscan humility, poverty, and peace. On the balcony on the day of his election, before he gives the blessing to the faithful in St. Peter’s piazza and to the World, he bows his head and asks for their blessing. He prays with the faithful. It all exudes the spontaneity of the poverello, and reminds us of who Christ is, and whom St. Francis imitated so perfectly in his own life.
The Pope in his first homily to the assembled cardinals at the Mass in the Sistine chapel on Thursday emphasized movement in the three readings laid down for the “pro Ecclesia” Mass that he was celebrating with his brother cardinals:
“Movement. In the first reading the movement is the journey; in the second the movement is the building of the Church; in the Gospel the movement is in the witness. To walk, to build, to witness....” Pope Francis talking of Abraham, enlarged on this theme of movement. He recalled God’s words to Abraham: “ ‘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.”
The Pope then talked of building “To build, to construct the Church. This means stones. Stones are solid but these are living stones that are anointed by the Holy Spirit. To build the Church, the Bride of Christ, on the cornerstone that is the Lord himself” He then went on to say that walking without witnessing was useless. “When 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.” Such language must have sent shudders down the curial spine, but then what the Holy Father delivered next must have stunned everybody, considering the craze for inter-religious dialogue. He quoted the brilliant French writer Leon Bloy “Whoever does not pray to God prays to the devil” because says Pope Francis “when we don’t witness to Jesus Christ, we witness to the worldliness of the devil.” One can imagine St. Francis jumping for joy at this. We find ourselves transported to the world of the Fioretti, and all the joy of the incomparable Franciscan idyll is once again re-lived.
The Pope then moved on to the centrality of the Cross in our lives: “In the Gospel, even Peter who confessed Jesus as Christ, says to Him: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. I will follow you but let’s not talk about the Cross. That doesn’t have anything to do with it....I’ll follow you, without the Cross. ‘ ” But then Pope Francis continues “when we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess a Christ without the Cross...we aren’t disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”
He concluded by saying the following:
And I wish that all of us, after these grace-filled days, might have the courage, yes, the courage to walk in the Lord’s presence with the Cross of the Lord, to build the Church on the blood of the Lord that is poured out on the Cross and to witness to the sole glory: to the crucified Christ. And thus the Church will move forward.....I wish for us all that the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of Mary, our Mother, grant us this grace: to walk, to build and to witness to Jesus Christ.”
St Francis lived in a world of violence, sexual immorality, glaring poverty, the ever terrifying prospect of famine, war, rapine, and the even more frightening spectre of leprosy, surely more horrifying than aids, and a much slower death. The only restraint on the brutality of the times was the knowledge that God finally would judge everyone at the end of time, and the reward for wickedness would be Hell. Today with our grey western civilisation espoused not to Lady Poverty but to Mr efficient technocrat, plutocrat, and philanthropist there seems to be a dead end for the human race, and dead being the operative word.
However St. Francis and Pope Francis give us a vision of what the world should be, namely a place transformed by discipleship of the Cross. We must like St. Francis be heralds of the Great King who is Christ. We must put on Christ, not new programmes of evangelization, endless seminars, and workshops. We must simply get on and preach the gospel, share the gospel, and live the gospel. It is all very simple, and St. Francis knew this and Pope Francis knows this. We must divest ourselves of power and security, and like St. Francis, and like Christ walk the world as pilgrims of the Gospel, the message of peace, in which everyone is a brother and a sister, not a citizen, or a comrade, or even worse a number as one was in Pol Pot’s Cambodia (And isn’t interesting that Pol Pot could not have been more middle class and no doubt imbibed his communism while sitting in Parisian cafés in the 1950’s). Intellectual power, political, ecclesiastical power; all these are what Christ was tempted with in the Desert. He rejected them all. The world was redeemed by Christ’s death on the Cross, and will only find its redemption by accepting that redemption.
St. Francis, two years before his death is branded with the sacred stigmata, and so resembles the poor crucified Christ whom he imitated with every fibre of his being. In this age we need yet again to allow Christ to live in us and so sanctify the civilization of the West which has become utterly degraded and depraved, lacking even the elemental pagan morality as exhibited by the Greeks and the Romans, though the former were far nobler in many ways, and the days of Imperial Rome could be every bit as depraved as our own. And how does Christ live in us. He lives in us a child who is a refugee, who with his mother and foster father has to flee his home, and go to a foreign land. He lives in us as the poor wandering preacher, who has nowhere to rest his head. He lives in us as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He lives in us as the reconciler and the healer; the one who forgives. He lives in us when we return blessings for curses, and when we turn the other cheek. He lives in us when we are suffering terrible persecution even unto death, or we have great and terrible sorrows in this life. He lives in us pre-eminently when we show mercy, and this is what Pope Francis is trying to tell us. It will be by mercy and by peace and the following of the Poor Crucified Christ that we will bring the World back to Christ, and this is what the new Pope is trying to tell us.
And so I would like to leave you with one simple story about our new Pope. When he arrived in Rome for the Conclave his shoes were so worn and ragged that a friend of his bought him a new pair, and one thinks of another great and holy saint and a follower of St. Francis, namely the Curé d’Ars, and one knows that the Church is not only in safe hands, but in the hands of most humble and loving disciple of Christ.