Yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Francis gave the strongest, clearest, and most concise homily he has given yet of his vision for Church leadership and membership. In speaking on the occasion of the creation of new Cardinals from throughout the world, the Holy Father used the Sunday Gospel to remind them, the world’s bishops, myself, and all who are involved in the ministry of the Church of the Gospel account of the curing of the leper. in so doing he told once again that maintaining what we have is not enough, indeed far from enough. Rather the spread of the Gospel and the success of the presence of Jesus in our world must penetrate every corner of our world and force us to look to the peripheries for the modern day equivalents of the leprosy so that they can feel the healing touch of Jesus.
A local pastor shared with me before the weekend this point, which would be a part of his homily; “Such behavior [he was speaking of the Gospel note that the priests who thought that people had leprosy, banished them to the outskirts of town and forced them to announce their presence by shouting, ‘unclean, unclean’] is abhorrent to us. How could someone who is ill be treated so heartlessly? But perhaps we are no different than those priests of Levi. Think of how we treat or avoid those who are of a different race, culture, religion, sexual preference, political persuasion, age group or economic status. The list is endless.”
There is a natural tendency of all religions and maybe especially ours to “preach to the choir” or put another way to concentrate our ministry on those people and aspects with which we personally are most comfortable. For the last twenty-five years, we bishops in the United States spent perhaps entirely too much time on liturgical language, battling politicians, threatening sanctions (the result is driving more good people out of the church and into the peripheries), whining against an admittedly dangerous secularism and seemingly ever stronger perversion of our Judeo-Christian culture (should we not soon add “Islamic” to the preceding hyphen?).
Politicians and their advisers learned long ago that the majority of Catholics don’t listen to their leadership when we engage in what is mostly verbal sparing. They would be a lot more worried about us if we took to heart the social justice aspect of both the Gospel and our ecclesial mission. If we were unanimous, for example (or close to it since I think that even the Nicene Creed would garner two negative votes at USCCB General Meetings) in supporting President Obama’s first small step at immigration reform (how many homilies have you heard this mentioned in?). In my seventy-three plus years, the Church never had the credibility outside and within its own membership that we did in the 1980’s with the twin pastoral letters on War and Peace and Economic Justice for All. Even those who disagreed took us far more seriously that many do today.
For the last thirty years, the Catholic Church in the United States has been much too content to pitch its tent on a safe island assuming that the surrounding seas were serene. Fear took hold of bishops and bishops’ conferences, the theological enterprise, and relationships with exempt congregations of religious women and men. At the same time, truthfully we watched tons of people abandon the Church for many reasons. And here in the United States, we are told, the periphery became the second largest religion in the nation: lapsed Catholics.
Now there is a voice, Peter’s present successor, who challenges Church leadership to get off that island and listen to and heal, comfort and don’t condemn, the sores of alienation of many while all the time listening to the cries of the immigrants and others for help. Rediscovering the “soul” of Catholicism is what this pontificate is all about, with an enormous reliance on the Holy Spirit.
I suspect and am afraid that there are those within our ranks who hope and pray that this Pope does not live long. Sad, isn’t it, that we would wish that on the most popular Holy Father in recent history (he will eclipse St. John Paul II in the hearts and minds of the people of the world, believe me). His challenge is not with God’s people but with those of us who promised obedience and respect for him and his successors as well as those who promised the same for their local bishops and religious superiors. (For a masterful review of the present current of dissent and unhappiness with this Pope, click here for a blog posting this past weekend by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington)
Pope Francis is dealing with major issues of humanity which preclude far too many from a relationship with Christ the healer. He basically said to the world’s Cardinals in his homily that maybe those rich red robes were fine for that occasion but get out of them as soon as possible and get to work touching people like Christ touched the leper. “Sir, I know you can heal me if you just touch me.” God’s people do not care what we wear but that we care. There is a new freedom in the Church of Christ and only we can determine whether we are “players” or content to simply “sit this one (papacy) out by sticking to the safer sidelines”.
The Holy Father’s homily, which you can read by clicking here, said to me: you have ears to hear but are you listening? In my following blog entry I shall attempt an answer as to what I as a bishop, my priests, religious and members can do to respond to the Holy Father’s challenge. It may take me a few days.