Wednesday, February 14, 2018

For These 40 Days, Francis Pushes "Pause"

Even as this Ash Wednesday invariably draws the hordes to churches across the globe from dawn to well past dusk, for the Popes, the launch to Lent is always relatively sparse.

For some eight centuries, the Bishops of Rome have marked this day away from their daily centers of power – first the Lateran, then the Vatican – instead heading up the Aventine Hill for a penitential procession that, in times past, saw the pontiffs stripped of their splendor, wrapping up with a simple Mass at the Dominican base of Santa Sabina, the first of the traditional station churches.

Further marking the sobriety of the day, protocol dictates that the Pope wears the traditional "simplex" miter reserved to him – unadorned white silk, with a thin border in gold – only employed in life on this day, Good Friday and at funerals: most notably of all, the headpiece in which he will eventually be buried. (On this front, Francis has slightly altered the custom, alternating between the customary model and one trimmed in silver, the latter used today.) In addition, while the cardinals resident in the city are present as ever for the rite, the starkness of the occasion sees none of them concelebrate.

While last week saw the release of this year's formal Lenten message calling for a turn away from indifference, today's homily took an even more practical look at how to live these 40 Days, delivered in Francis' oft-used style of "three words" – here, its English translation:
The season of Lent is a favourable time to remedy the dissonant chords of our Christian life and to receive the ever new, joyful and hope-filled proclamation of the Lord’s Passover. The Church in her maternal wisdom invites us to pay special attention to anything that could dampen or even corrode our believing heart.

We are subject to numerous temptations. Each of us knows the difficulties we have to face. And it is sad to note that, when faced with the ever-varying circumstances of our daily lives, there are voices raised that take advantage of pain and uncertainty; the only thing they aim to do is sow distrust. If the fruit of faith is charity – as Mother Teresa often used to say – then the fruit of distrust is apathy and resignation. Distrust, apathy and resignation: these are demons that deaden and paralyze the soul of a believing people.

Lent is the ideal time to unmask these and other temptations, to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus. The whole of the Lenten season is imbued with this conviction, which we could say is echoed by three words offered to us in order to rekindle the heart of the believer: pause, see and return.

Pause a little, leave behind the unrest and commotion that fill the soul with bitter feelings which never get us anywhere. Pause from this compulsion to a fast-paced life that scatters, divides and ultimately destroys time with family, with friends, with children, with grandparents, and time as a gift… time with God.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the need to show off and be seen by all, to continually appear on the “noticeboard” that makes us forget the value of intimacy and recollection.

Pause for a little while, refrain from haughty looks, from fleeting and pejorative comments that arise from forgetting tenderness, compassion and reverence for the encounter with others, particularly those who are vulnerable, hurt and even immersed in sin and error.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the urge to want to control everything, know everything, destroy everything; this comes from overlooking gratitude for the gift of life and all the good we receive.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the attitude which promotes sterile and unproductive thoughts that arise from isolation and self-pity, and that cause us to forget going out to encounter others to share their burdens and suffering.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the emptiness of everything that is instantaneous, momentary and fleeting, that deprives us of our roots, our ties, of the value of continuity and the awareness of our ongoing journey.

Pause in order to look and contemplate!

See the gestures that prevent the extinguishing of charity, that keep the flame of faith and hope alive. Look at faces alive with God’s tenderness and goodness working in our midst.

See the face of our families who continue striving, day by day, with great effort, in order to move forward in life, and who, despite many concerns and much hardship, are committed to making their homes a school of love.

See the faces of our children and young people filled with yearning for the future and hope, filled with “tomorrows” and opportunities that demand dedication and protection. Living shoots of love and life that always open up a path in the midst of our selfish and meagre calculations.

See our elderly whose faces are marked by the passage of time, faces that reveal the living memory of our people. Faces that reflect God’s wisdom at work.

See the faces of our sick people and the many who take care of them; faces which in their vulnerability and service remind us that the value of each person can never be reduced to a question of calculation or utility.

See the remorseful faces of so many who try to repair their errors and mistakes, and who from their misfortune and suffering fight to transform their situations and move forward.

See and contemplate the face of Crucified Love, who today from the cross continues to bring us hope, his hand held out to those who feel crucified, who experience in their lives the burden of failure, disappointment and heartbreak.

See and contemplate the real face of Christ crucified out of love for everyone, without exception. For everyone? Yes, for everyone. To see his face is an invitation filled with hope for this Lenten time, in order to defeat the demons of distrust, apathy and resignation. The face that invites us to cry out: “The Kingdom of God is possible!”

Pause, see and return. Return to the house of your Father. Return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy (cf. Eph 2:4), who awaits you.

Return without fear, for this is the favourable time to come home, to the home of my Father and your Father (cf. Jn 20:17). It is the time for allowing one’s heart to be touched… Persisting on the path of evil only gives rise to disappointment and sadness. True life is something quite distinct and our heart indeed knows this. God does not tire, nor will he tire, of holding out his hand (cf. Misericordiae Vultus, 19).

Return without fear, to join in the celebration of those who are forgiven.

Return without fear, to experience the healing and reconciling tenderness of God. Let the Lord heal the wounds of sin and fulfil the prophecy made to our fathers: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36: 26).

Pause, see and return!

"Repent and Believe"

Sure, this has become the most packed church-day of the year... but, for once, to focus on that angle is to miss the point.

To one and all on this Ash Wednesday, may every blessing, joy and goodness of Lent be yours – whatever the path, may we all know the grace to make something of these 40 Days ahead.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

"The Bolt From the Sky," Five Years On

Five years ago today, in the minutes around Roman Noon, the single most stunning and chaotic moment the Vatican beat's ever known broke out.

Following the routine business of a consistory to announce canonization dates, Pope Benedict XVI began addressing the 50 or so gathered cardinals and other prelates in Latin. Not many among the group could figure out what he was saying on their own, but the bulging, racing eyes of one who did – the Papal Almoner Archbishop Guido Pozzo, a once and future top negotiator with the SSPX – betrayed the moment's consequence: seventeen days later, the Pope would vacate Peter's Chair in life, its first holder to resign the office for reasons of his age and health since 1296.

As Papa Ratzinger left the Sala del Concistoro, some cardinals wept, while others wandered around in a daze. As the Dean of the College, Cardinal Angelo Sodano – informed privately by B16 in an audience three days prior – responded for the group, it came as "a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky." That two separate bolts would strike the dome of St Peter's six hours later (above) merely served to reinforce the point.

The line's been used here before, but bears repeating: for all the attention and analysis that's been given to the iconoclastic style of Benedict's successor, in reality, the ultimate modern redefinition of the Petrine office was the last move made in it by Joseph Ratzinger. Much as it was in pure continuity with the path of the contemporary papacy – following the gradual divestiture of territorial rule, the tiara and (most of) the papal court, and alongside these the development of a daily global presence – the decision to detach the concept of the supreme munus from the duration of its occupant's lifetime inevitably marked the role's most fundamental shift of all. (At least, in recent times – the last time this was an issue, of course, Christianity hadn't yet arrived in the Americas.)

In the months following the resignation – while Francis took the global stage by storm as Benedict quietly settled into his "monastic" retirement in the Vatican Gardens – no less than the comedian Tracy Morgan still couldn't wrap his mind around it.

"It's getting dark out there," the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star mused in a late 2013 interview. "The Pope quit. How could that happen?

"You can't resign when you have that position," Morgan said. "God doesn't accept that."

Sure, the post's 264th occupant saw it differently, not to mention the canons. Nonetheless, what began early on that Monday in February broke open a flood of questions, controversies – and, indeed, complications – which haven't begun to be resolved. And as the now Pope-emeritus writes of being on a "pilgrimage toward home" amid this anniversary, but one thing is clear: the issues and effects wrought by Benedict's historic departure will outlive him... and, so it seems, likely his successor, too.

*   *   *
Here, the video and English text of Benedict's announcement as it happened:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.

However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

From The Champions' Desk

For a city that rarely gets what it deserves, this week has always been The Ultimate Wish... and to say the experience lived up to the hype and our hopes just doesn't begin to cut it.

It's a reflection of Philadelphia's collective neurosis that simply to employ the arrangement of words many of us never thought we'd ever get to use to describe reality – "The Eagles have won the Super Bowl" – might, even now, see someone show up and snatch it away remains a little bit in mind. That it's come to pass amid this wildly unpredictable season is oddly perfect, but nonetheless adds to the lingering sense of shock.

Yet even as this scribe's hometown is defined more than most by what unfolds as Sunday afternoons grow colder and darker into the winter, the team and the game are merely the outlet for bigger things still. And so it was that for most of us, the Birds' rare return to football's biggest stage – and now, the cathartic thrill (or, indeed, "mass-scale civic exorcism") of the result – could only ever be its most joyous to the degree we shared it with the families, friends and neighbors who don't just mark our game-days, but everything in between.

Having been able to do that with my own clan these last two weeks has made for a lifetime's blessing and what many of us will cherish as the greatest Philly moment we'll ever see. As Lord only knows when we'll get to do this again – but nothing will be like this one – thanks for your patience and understanding through it. Just as much, having been inundated by congrats and closeness from a good few of this crowd all over the place, please know how the virtual shower of champagne and Gatorade will always mean the world – as this crew has become a cherished part of the scribe's family over these years, it simply wouldn't have been complete without you.

And now, time to rev up again – as all the usual fights are still going, looks like there hasn't been too much to miss. In any case, with Lent just ahead, may all its blessings be yours... and in time, may days like we've just had here come true no less for the places and people you love.