April 14, 2013, Sunday — Francis Stopped for Divine Mercy
This Sunday evening in Rome, a beautiful, quiet, clear, cool spring evening, the parish priest of the Santo Spirito in Sassia church (the church next to the world headquarters of the Jesuits, 200 yards from the colonnade around St. Peter’s Square, and the church entrusted by Pope John Paul II to carry out a special devotion to the teaching about Divine Mercy preached by the Polish mystic, St. Faustina Kowalska), Father Giuseppe, a young and dynamic Polish priest, during his sermon on the day’s readings, told a little story I had not heard before.
Last week, he said, last Sunday, on April 7, the Sunday of Divine Mercy — on the eve of which Pope John Paul II died in 2005 — Pope Francis took possession of the cathedral church of the diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.
But after doing that, while driving back over to the Vatican, Pope Francis, at about 7:15 in the evening — Father Giuseppe looked at his watch; “Yes,” he said, “it was about at this time, about 7:15 in the evening, a little after 7” — Pope Francis stopped in front of the church, evidently out of respect for the Divine Mercy devotion practiced in this church, on Divine Mercy Sunday.
“Yes, it was about 7:15 in the evening,” Father Giuseppe said, still preaching his homily, and paused. “Pope Francis asked his driver to stop the car in front of the church, for a few moments. And when a few people noticed he was there, a crowd quickly gathered.
“And there was a young couple walking by, just at that time, in the providence of God. A young couple who had fallen away from the church. A young couple who were planning to be married. And when they saw the crowd gathering, they stopped, and they too caught a glimpse of the Pope.
“And catching a glimpse of Pope Francis, they were moved, deep within, and a few minutes later, after the Pope moved on, they came into the church. And they spoke with me for some time, and they want to again draw close to the church, because of the unusual events of that evening, because they saw the Pope stop in front of the church, just as they were walking by.
“And when I see the Pope, and I am sure that I will have a chance to see him, I will tell him this story, the story of how his decision to stop his car on the Feast of Divine Mercy, in front of this church dedicated to the Divine Mercy, brought mercy to those two young people, in such a tangible way that they wanted to change their lives and draw close again to God and to Christ.
“Little miracles of God’s mercy are always occurring, and that was one of them.”
A new book: “Pray for Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis”
I have received many emails asking about my absence. I apologize to those of you who wrote to me, and to whom I did not respond. I have not written any Letters since Letter #62, 19 days ago. I was simply unable to write because I had no time. I was under contract with Random House — a contract that dated back several years — to complete a book within the first 30 days of the new pontificate on the life and spiritual vision of the new Pope.
I have now completed the book, and it will be released in about two weeks, on April 30. It is also expected to appear in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian, and perhaps in other languages.
Entitled Pray for Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis, First Pope from the Americas, the book is my eyewitness account of Francis’ first days as Pope. The book narrates the events of those tumultuous days, followed by a brief biography providing a context for understanding this man, and then a look at the spiritual influences that shaped him. My main goal was to offer readers a tool that can be used in many ways as a devotional. Pray for Me is really geared toward those who would like to accompany Pope Francis on his journey of faith in the months and years ahead. You may certainly read this book cover to cover, but I encourage you to use it as a tool for contemplation, one in which you can turn to any page and open a space for prayer and meditation on Pope Francis’ life — and on your own as well.
Here is a picture of the cover of the book:
Also, during Holy Week, we held our annual Inside the Vatican Easter pilgrimage to Assisi, Norcia and Rome. In fact, portions of the book were written in Assisi, where I was able to visit the tomb of St. Francis in the Basilica of San Francesco, and in Norcia, where I was able to visit, once again, the birthplace of Benedict and his twin sister, Scholastica. So, as I completed the final chapters of a book on the transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis, I was able to stay in places important in the lives of St. Francis and St. Benedict.
But all of this meant that there was hardly time to prepare these Letters.
First Thoughts on Pope Francis
There is so much that could be said about Pope Francis that one hardly knows where to begin. But, in a desire to begin someplace, and in the hope of simplifying without becoming overly simplistic, I am willing to risk reducing these 30 days — it is a month and a day since Pope Francis was elected on March 13 — to four points:
Pope Francis is linked to Pope Benedict. Pope Francis’s respect for Emeritus Pope Benedict is profound. Francis has not moved into the Apostolic Palace, but has continued to live in the Domus Santa Marta. He takes most of his meals there, sitting at the main round table in the dining hall. Though some in the Curia are urging him quietly to move to the Apostolic Palace — and many believe that, in the coming weeks or month, he will yield to that urging — he has stayed in the Domus. In addition to enjoying the company of others — the Domus is the residence of some 50 monsignors who work in the Vatican, and others guests often pass a night or two there, and take meals there — it almost seems that Francis does not feel it appropriate to move into the rooms of the old Pope while he is still living. And, if one studies some of Francis’s recent talks, one can find many passages that echo the words of Pope Benedict. A case in point is Francis’s recent discourse to the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Some lines are almost word-for-word citations of talks given by Pope Benedict. Clearly, either Francis or someone close to Francis is studying what Pope Benedict said in years past on these matters, then drawing on those words in these first days of the new pontificate. So I see great continuity between the two Popes where many say they see only innovation and discontinuity.
Francis is extraordinarily Christ-centered. Christo-centric, in the traditional form of the word. Centered entirely on Christ as the measure and model for everything elese. We could glimpse this already in Francis’s citing of the Franch Catholic convert writer Leon Bloy on the first day of his pontificate, March 14, and we could see it again today in his remarks at St. Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls. Today Pope Francis said the following, which we may take as typical of a Christo-centrism which has been present every day during this first month. Speaking of Christ, Francis said:
“It is he who has called us, he who has invited us to travel his path, he who has chosen us. Proclamation and witness are only possible if we are close to him, just as Peter, John and the other disciples in today’s Gospel passage were gathered around the Risen Jesus; there is a daily closeness to him: they know very well who he is, they know him. The Evangelist stresses the fact that “no one dared ask him: ‘Who are you?’ – they knew it was the Lord” (Jn 21:12). This is important for us: living an intense relationship with Jesus, an intimacy of dialogue and of life, in such a way as to recognize him as ‘the Lord,’ and to worship him.”
Many will say that Pope Francis is “the Pope of the poor” or a “social Gospel Pope.” In so far as this may be intended to mean that Francis is focused on the poor or social concerns to the neglect of the essentials of Christian doctrine and tradition, this is certainly not true. Or rather, it is backwards. Francis’s faith is not less important to him than the poor, for whom he cares very much, or social justice, for which he also cares very much. Rather, his faith in the Risen Christ is the center of his understanding of himself, of the Church, and of the whole universe. And from that center, out of that faith, comes Francis’s profound commitment to social justice and the poor. The love of Christ moves him, urges him. This is what all of us are sensing, that he is moved by a great love. And the secret is that his love in the love of Christ, Christo-centric.
3. Marian devotion.
At the same time, Francis is devoted to the mother of Jesus: to Mary, the Jewish woman who 2,000 years ago conceived and bore and nursed and cared for the Son of God, and is therefore called the Theotokos (the “God-bearer”). From the first morning after his election, when he went out of the Vatican to St. Mary Major, almost secretly, to venerate the very ancient icon of Mary and the child Jesus called the Salus Populi Romani (the Safety or the Protection of the Roman People) until today, when he went to St. Paul’s-Outide-the-Walls to venerate another ancient Marian icon before which, in 1542, St. Ignatius of Loyola and his first companions made the pleadge which founded the Jesuity order to which Pope Francis belongs, he has shown his devotion to the Virgin. And his request to Cardinal Jose Policarpo, Archbishop of Lisbon and Patriarch of Portugal, to go to Fatima on May 13 and pray there that Francis’s pontificate be placed under the protection of Our Lady of Fatima must be seen as an exclamation point emphasizing this devotion. Policarpo, on April 8 in his introduction to the 181st general assembly of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference this week, at the end of his opening speech, said: “Pope Francis asked me twice to consecrate his new ministry to Our Lady of Fatima. It is a request I may fulfill in the silence of a prayer. But it would be fine if the whole Bishops’ Conference would associate itself to make this request. Mary will guide us in all our labors [meaning all things to be discussed] in the meeting, and also in the way to accomplish this wish of Pope Francis.”
(For more information about this consecration, see the following links:
http://www.santuario-fatima.pt/files/_cep_discurso_do_presidente_201304_516154c7b9438.pdf and http://www.cfnews.org/page88/files/6f0f74d55622002af31864b2f006a3be-94.html)
Because of his Christian faith, because of his Christ-centered faith and his devotion to the Virgin Mary, Pope Francis has a real passion for invidual people. He is against the oppression of all people, and especially young people. and his angry against people that cause this. True, he loves babies, and has kissed many in these first few days. But he is not just the smiling pope who loves babies. In his home city of Buenos Aires, when he saw young people experimenting with crack cocaine and slowly destroying their lives, he blazed with a righteous fury because of his deep love for these young people. He denounced drug dealing—especially of the drug paco, a form of crack cocaine processed with sulfuric acid and kerosene that quickly destroyed the minds of many young people. In 2011, then-Cardinal Bergoglio condemned child trafficking and slavery in Buenos Aires, saying, “In this city, there are many girls who stop playing with dolls to enter the dump of a brothel because they were stolen, sold, betrayed… In this city, women and girls are kidnapped, and they are subjected to use and abuse of their body; they are destroyed in their dignity. The flesh that Jesus assumed and died for is worth less than the flesh of a pet. A dog is cared for better than these slaves of ours, who are kicked, who are broken” (La Nacion, September 24, 2011, citing Bergoglio’s homily at the fourth Mass for the Victims of Human Trafficking, Buenos Aires).
But this compassion and love for the exploited and abused also is manifested in many small ways. An Italian web site has a sweet story about Pope Francis who apparently gets up very early without an alarm. Here is a loose translation of the story, which I do not doubt is subtantially true:
Recently, when he left his apartment at Domus Marta and went out into the hall, the Pope found a Swiss Guard standing at attention outside his door.
He asked him, “And what are you doing here? Were you awake all night?”
“Yes,” the guard answered respectfully.
“One of my colleagues gave me a break.”
“And you’re not tired?”
“It’s my duty Your Holiness, for Your safety.”
The Pope looked at him with kindness. He went back into his apartment and, after a few minutes, returned with a chair in his hand: “At least sit down and rest.”
Shocked, the Swiss Guard replied, “Forgive me, but I can’t! The rules don’t allow it.”
“My captain, Your Holiness.”
“Oh, is that so? Well, I’m the Pope and I am asking you to sit down.”
So, between the rules and the Pope, the Swiss Guard, complete with his halberd, chose the chair. And then the Pope brought him some bread and jam for a snack, saying, “Buon appetito, brother.”
So, we are right to understand that we have a Pope who has a profound link with Pope Benedict, who has a profund Christo-centric and Marian spirituality, and who acts with profound kindness toward ordinary people.
Complete ext of the Pope’s Remarks Today at St. Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
It is a joy for me to celebrate Mass with you in this Basilica. I greet the Archpriest, Cardinal James Harvey, and I thank him for the words that he has addressed to me. Along with him, I greet and thank the various institutions that form part of this Basilica, and all of you. We are at the tomb of Saint Paul, a great yet humble Apostle of the Lord, who proclaimed him by word, bore witness to him by martyrdom and worshipped him with all his heart. These are the three key ideas on which I would like to reflect in the light of the word of God that we have heard: proclamation, witness, worship.
In the First Reading, what strikes us is the strength of Peter and the other Apostles. In response to the order to be silent, no longer to teach in the name of Jesus, no longer to proclaim his message, they respond clearly: “We must obey God, rather than men”. And they remain undeterred even when flogged, ill-treated and imprisoned. Peter and the Apostles proclaim courageously, fearlessly, what they have received: the Gospel of Jesus.
And we? Are we capable of bringing the word of God into the environment in which we live? Do we know how to speak of Christ, of what he represents for us, in our families, among the people who form part of our daily lives?
Faith is born from listening, and is strengthened by proclamation.
But let us take a further step: the proclamation made by Peter and the Apostles does not merely consist of words: fidelity to Christ affects their whole lives, which are changed, given a new direction, and it is through their lives that they bear witness to the faith and to the proclamation of Christ.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times to feed his flock, to feed it with his love, and he prophesies to him: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18).
These words are addressed first and foremost to those of us who are pastors: we cannot feed God’s flock unless we let ourselves be carried by God’s will even where we would rather not go, unless we are prepared to bear witness to Christ with the gift of ourselves, unreservedly, not in a calculating way, sometimes even at the cost of our lives.
But this also applies to everyone: we all have to proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel. We should all ask ourselves: How do I bear witness to Christ through my faith? Do I have the courage of Peter and the other Apostles, to think, to choose and to live as a Christian, obedient to God?
To be sure, the testimony of faith comes in very many forms, just as in a great fresco, there is a variety of colours and shades; yet they are all important, even those which do not stand out.
In God’s great plan, every detail is important, even yours, even my humble little witness, even the hidden witness of those who live their faith with simplicity in everyday family relationships, work relationships, friendships.
There are the saints of every day, the “hidden” saints, a sort of “middle class of holiness” to which we can all belong.
But in different parts of the world, there are also those who suffer, like Peter and the Apostles, on account of the Gospel; there are those who give their lives in order to remain faithful to Christ by means of a witness marked by the shedding of their blood.
Let us all remember this: one cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one’s life. Those who listen to us and observe us must be able to see in our actions what they hear from our lips, and so give glory to God! Inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.
But all this is possible only if we recognize Jesus Christ, because it is he who has called us, he who has invited us to travel his path, he who has chosen us. Proclamation and witness are only possible if we are close to him, just as Peter, John and the other disciples in today’s Gospel passage were gathered around the Risen Jesus; there is a daily closeness to him: they know very well who he is, they know him. The Evangelist stresses the fact that “no one dared ask him: ‘Who are you?’ – they knew it was the Lord” (Jn 21:12). This is important for us: living an intense relationship with Jesus, an intimacy of dialogue and of life, in such a way as to recognize him as “the Lord”, and to worship him.
The passage that we heard from the Book of Revelation speaks to us of worship: the myriads of angels, all creatures, the living beings, the elders, prostrate themselves before the Throne of God and of the Lamb that was slain, namely Christ, to whom be praise, honour and glory (cf. Rev 5:11-14).
I would like all of us to ask ourselves this question: You, I, do we worship the Lord? Do we turn to God only to ask him for things, to thank him, or do we also turn to him to worship him? What does it mean, then, to worship God?
It means learning to be with him, it means that we stop trying to dialogue with him, and it means sensing that his presence is the most true, the most good, the most important thing of all.
All of us, in our own lives, consciously and perhaps sometimes unconsciously, have a very clear order of priority concerning the things we consider important. Worshipping the Lord means giving him the place that he must have; worshipping the Lord means stating, believing – not only by our words – that he alone truly guides our lives; worshipping the Lord means that we are convinced before him that he is the only God, the God of our lives, the God of our history.
This has a consequence in our lives: we have to empty ourselves of the many small or great idols that we have and in which we take refuge, on which we often seek to base our security.
They are idols that we sometimes keep well hidden; they can be ambition, a taste for success, placing ourselves at the centre, the tendency to dominate others, the claim to be the sole masters of our lives, some sins to which we are bound, and many others.
This evening I would like a question to resound in the heart of each one of you, and I would like you to answer it honestly: Have I considered which idol lies hidden in my life that prevents me from worshipping the Lord?
Worshipping is stripping ourselves of our idols, even the most hidden ones, and choosing the Lord as the centre, as the highway of our lives.
Dear brothers and sisters, each day the Lord calls us to follow him with courage and fidelity; he has made us the great gift of choosing us as his disciples; he sends us to proclaim him with joy as the Risen one, but he asks us to do so by word and by the witness of our lives, in daily life.
The Lord is the only God of our lives, and he invites us to strip ourselves of our many idols and to worship him alone.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Paul help us on this journey and intercede for us.
“Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw love out.” –St. John of the Cross