A little March Madness

03-31-2013Fr. John LettersFr. John

Maybe you didn't expect to be here with us on this Easter Day so let me say how glad we are that you are here. But don't feel like a bagel on a plate of danish as this entire month has been filled with the unexpected. A March Madness of a different sort. We end this month with a celebration of the unexpected: a man rises up from the dead! We started this month with the unexpected as well: the abdication of Benedict XVI. Mid-month gave us lots of unexpected firsts as well: the first non-European pope in a millennium, the first pope from the New World, the first pope from the Jesuit Order and the first pope to be known as Francis.

With Pope Francis what we have is a change in style, tone and probably emphasis but not substance. Many who are about to fall off the left edge of the Church roof are gnashing their teeth that he is not the first ever black, Jewish, LGBT pope. Still many who are about to fall off the right side of the Church roof are having a major hissy fit that the new pope has a rather low-church style and so far has shunned all the liturgical bells and whistles as well as the red shoes, mozzetta and ermine. Some days you just can't win.

Many are already making comparisons between the two popes, which is unfair as each is his own man with his own way of doing things and with his own unique experiences. Pope Emeritus Benedict started out as a young Fr. Ratzinger on the opening side of Vatican II, a time of great energy and expectation for the Church and he finished 50yrs after the close of the Council as the elderly Benedict XVI trying to fix a Church demoralized and depleted of its energy. He also came from the world of academia. He was a University professor and then for 26yrs the Church's chief theologian. And as any good teacher knows a teacher teaches with his words and actions at all times which Benedict did well. Benedict is the perennial professor and I am sure we will be digesting for a long time his brilliant teachings characterized by the crystal clarity of his thought. Benedict also lived in the world of the Vatican for over 3 decades so the pomp and ceremony of that world simply was very familiar to him and he was comfortable in it. Far from being "God's Rottweiler" he was a meek and humble man who was fond of "proposing" not "imposing" himself or his teaching. And let's not forget that he is German, which showed in his orderly approach to things which often seemed scripted.

Papa Francisco comes from the less orderly world of Latin America and pasturing a large flock in a major cosmopolitan city and one with a history of abrupt political upheavals. As any pastor knows, the world of leading the flock is filled with pitfalls, wolves, droughts and famines that do not lend themselves well to the theoretical. And like Peter who was a fisherman, the world of pastoral work can often be messy, salty, stinky and frustrating. As a Bishop he lived in a small apartment, cooked his own meals and road the bus. So forgive him if he prefers the everyday dishes to your grandmother's bone china. Coming from this kind of world Pope Francis tends to be more improvisational than scripted. Yet be assured that while Francis is a man of great compassion and simplicity he is also an incisive thinker who is nobody's fool. In a great moment of historical irony, the President of Argentina Cristina Kirchner, who often saw Cardinal Bergoglio as her nemesis, referred to him as "medieval", refused to meet with him when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was the first head of state to pay her respects to the new Pontiff and finally have that meeting she resisted. Francis is obviously also patient.

So the style and tone of papacies change from pope to pope and this is not to be confused with the substance of our Faith which remains the same no matter who fills the Shoes of the Fisherman. Likewise often we see with a new pope a change in emphasis. It is clear already that Pope Francis will have a different emphasis than his predecessor. Often it is as simple as do we lead with our dogma and doctrine or do we lead with our Christian witness? For Pope Francis I think the choice is obvious.

In our culture which is ruled by the "Dictatorship of Relativism" as Pope Benedict coined, in which every value is equal to every other value and no value is absolute (absolutely no absolutes is the only absolute) and you are exiled if you claim otherwise, this "dictator" makes it very difficult for people to understand Catholic teaching and so it all seems like a bunch of killjoy rules to them. The fact is that the teachings of the Church and the values of the Gospel do not make sense apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. And that is what Pope Francis will ask us to lead with. But we can't if we ourselves don't have a strong relationship with Christ. You cannot give what you do not have. That is where the work needs to be done and it may involve a much deeper surrender to God's will than with which we are comfortable. Can we live in a way that others will see the witness of our living and so want what we have? We will live a life of simplicity and personal poverty that Pope Francis is modeling for us?

We all have many expectations of the new Pope but stop and consider what expectations might he have of us? Will we be in communion with him with undivided loyal hearts? When Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter's the first thing he did was ask us to pray for our Pope Emeritus. Here I thought, was a man who amazingly was not thinking of himself. Then before he imparted his blessing to us he asked us to pray for him and humbly bowed his head as we did. At that point I thought,"I'm all in". Are you?

Love, Fr. John B.