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The best laid plans sometimes don’t work out. And once in a while that turns out to be for the best. Last week I was in Rome for a meeting of the Vatican Council on Art and Technology. The council ended on December 5. Since Pope Francis was scheduled to open the Holy Year on Tuesday, December 8 I decided to stay on a couple more days, a sacrifice I happily made.
Through my work with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums I was able to secure some great tickets for front row seats and a special entrance permit so as to avoid all the waiting in line and the numerous security checks. At the appointed time we made our way to the assigned Vatican entrance. As we approached the Vatican it was obviously not business like usual. There were police cars and army vehicles everywhere. Field hospitals with numerous first aid workers were set-up around the Vatican perimeter. No-one could approach the Vatican without being checked numerous times. Police boats patrolled from the Tiber and army helicopters from the air. The irony that all these barriers were set-up as we were gathering to open a set of Holy Doors was not to be missed.
Getting to the assigned entrance was not an easy task. At every turn we encountered barricades and officers who were not to be persuaded to let us through. Only after much ambulating did we end up close to where we were to enter. Still, we could not get there for the thousands of people waiting to go through security. By now I was a little worried so I called my Vatican contact asking for advice. She apologized for the hassle and suggested we just wait in line and show our VIP tickets to security. “What tickets” I asked. “Oh no, had we not picked them up at the Porta Santa Anna the day before?” she replied. We had not.
At that very moment a “hospitality minister” asked us for our tickets. Since we had none we were told we would not be able to enter there. Moreover we were waiting in the line for the concelebrating bishops and priests and were to move immediately. Embarrassed we started to walk away as the gentle mist turned into veritable rain. Since the predictions were for a sunny morning we had no umbrellas to protect us from the rain and my increasing frustration.
“Strange who you run into in Rome” I heard someone say behind me. As I turned around I noticed it was Fr. Ubel, the rector of our Cathedral. He was in line with concelebrating priests. We spoke for a while before his line started to move and he disappeared in the crowd. I did not quite know what to do. Maybe it was time to give up and return to the hotel where we could watch the Mass on TV.
Knowing to tread carefully my travel companion offered to buy me a coffee. He gently nudged me not to give up and suggested that we enter with the many other people who had no tickets. Admittedly, I did not look forward to joining thousands of people waiting in line to squeeze through tiny security gates under the scrutinizing eye of Italian police. Nevertheless, we walked back to the Via della Conciliazione and joined the thousands of other pilgrims who either forgot to pick up their tickets or never got any.
It turned out to be ok. We recited the Rosary and we sang the Salve Regina as we waited. By the time we got to Saint Peter’s Square the liturgical procession had begun. We stood for the entire service and my eyes went back and forth between the giant screens and the actual celebration which took place in miniature form far away.
The opening of the Holy Doors happened at the end of Mass. Apart from the cardinals and a few select bishops who entered St. Peter’s Basilica with the pope all of us watched the opening of the Holy Doors on the giant screens around the square, including the people who I was sure had taken up my prime seat. Not that I was holding any grudge.
When Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors after reciting the prescribed prayers, a thunderous and sustained applause erupted through Saint Peter’s Square only to be followed by a profound silence as everyone saw Pope Francis pray in silence at the threshold of the Holy Door. He stood there for many moments steeped in prayer. Then he walked through the holy Door to more applause. Tears ran down my cheeks.
Having passed through the Holy Doors and walking with great vigor, his shepherd’s staff in hand Pope Francis then led a procession of cardinals and bishops to the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This altar is erected above the tomb of the first among the apostles and the first pope, Peter. Usually the pope walks at the end of a procession. This time he led the procession. At the tomb of St. Peter he prayed for the fruitfulness of the Holy Year for the Church and all of humanity. Though I wish laypeople, women, men and children would have been part of this procession, seeing him lead the cardinals and bishops was a striking image of the strength and conviction with which Pope Francis is leading the church, without any sense of fear.
I never made it through the Holy Door. There simply were too many people and rather than first I was now last in line. As I watched cardinals and bishops, presidents and diplomats walk through the Holy Doors I found myself praying for the many people who experience the harsh reality of closed doors. Sometimes these closed doors can be literal doors – doors to homes, doors to work opportunities, doors to hospitals, even doors to churches. These can also be symbolic doors: obstacles such as war, famine, inequality which prevent people from accessing needed opportunities. And these can be spiritual and emotional barriers. There simply are too many closed doors in our world. And as time goes by more and more doors are being closed.
Maybe the shared human experience of opened and closed doors was the reason for the thunderous applause as Francis pushed open the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. In that very gesture he not only reminded us that Christ is the Door to Mercy. He also strongly affirmed that the doors of the Church are to be kept open to everyone rather than to a select few. And he invited all of us to open the doors of our countries, our cities, our homes and our hearts especially to those most in need. This is not an easy task, but it is one that must be embraced for the sake of the church and the well-being of all people.
Why celebrate a Holy Year of Mercy? Because we need it! We need it very much, indeed!
Advent is one my favorite seasons of the liturgical year. Not only is this time of preparation for Christmas full of anticipation and the promise of new things. This is also the time to indulge in some great cultural traditions such as Messiah and the Nutcracker.
I love Messiah for its beauty and its spirituality. I love Nutcracker for its warmth and playfulness. Both require great commitment on the part of all performers. And everyone has to work together: performers, stage hands, light engineers and donors. Even the people in the audience play an important role as their receptivity is vital to the success of any performance. Both Messiah and Nutcracker provide moments of joy; they cause the occasional tear; and in the end they leave us profoundly moved. Somehow, December without these great artistic traditions seems incomplete.
From a faith perspective, the liturgical celebration of Advent in preparation for Christmas is of course much more important. And yet, there are some similarities. During the season of Advent and Christmas all of us work together to create the most moving and most uplifting celebrations we possibly can. Our priests, our musicians, our staff, our liturgical ministers and our assembly come together to celebrate in the best possible way the greatest mystery of all: the birth of God in our midst
On occasion I take a reluctant guest to experience Messiah or the Nutcracker. More so than not the performance converts them to these artistic greats as they make them part of their own December experience. Similarly, during Advent and Christmas many new people join us for worship. For them it may be their only experience of the mystery of our faith as celebrated in the liturgy. Hopefully, some of them will be re-introduced to our community or even converted to our faith.
And for those of us who gather weekly for worship, may this holy season be a time of deep spiritual renewal. May we find great joy and even experience the occasional tear as we celebrate the mystery God’s mercy which is embodied in the birth of Jesus. And above all, may we take to heart that in Jesus, God became like us so that we may become more like God. To that end, during this Year of Jubilee in celebration of God’s mercy let us show mercy to one another as God shows mercy to all of us. No need for wrapping paper as this is the best gift ever.
My father was a great story teller. Over dinner he acquainted us with distant ancestors we only knew from old photographs and bad paintings. Before bed he made biblical stories truly come alive. And on Saints’ days he regaled us with their famed deeds. These stories have greatly shaped my love and respect for my family, my faith and our saints. They are engraved in my memory.
It is through stories that we hand down from one generation to the next who we are and what we believe. These shared stories shape our memories. And memories are essential to our human existence. Without memory we would have no language because we would be unable to recognize words. Without memory we would have no experience of family because without their stories we would not know our ancestors and contemporaries alike. Without memory we would have no faith because without knowledge of the Bible and the lives of the saints there would be nothing to believe and no-one to worship. Without memory we are simply nothing. Thus the telling of stories and the remembrance of our ancestors both in life and in faith are essential.
Though popular for millennia, our tweeting generation seems to have lost the art of telling stories because story telling takes too many words and too much time. In addition, most saints seem less “cool” today than they were 50 years ago when people collected cards of saints rather than cards of baseball players. And who, today wants to know what caused a great-aunt to enter the convent or an uncle to join the army? All of that lies in the past and is not helpful for a now-obsessed generation. This worrisome ttrend puts our collective memory at risk and thus poses a challenge to our human experience.
Thankfully, many of us still want to know where we have come from and who has gone before us. The faded photo of a long since gone ancestor in full habit standing in the desert begs the question as to who she was and what she did. The statues of numerous saints stand quietly in their shrines waiting for us to notice them, to recognize them and to remember them.
The month of November is the preferred time in our church calendar to remember all those who have gone before us, both saints and sinners. We have the Icons of the saints in our sanctuary begging the question as to their story. We have the photos of our beloved dead on our side altars inviting us to remember and share all the things they did, both good and bad. And we inscribe their names in our Book of Remembrance commending them to the mercy of God.
I often think back on the treasured moments spent listening to my father’s stories. It is in his deep resonant voice that I remember David in the Lion’s Den and St. Francis’ encounter with the wolf. It is in his voice that I recall the time my grandfather spent in a German concentration camp and my grandmother’s “visit” with Pope John XXII. Now it is my turn to tell our stories. It is your turn to tell your stories.
So, on Thanksgiving, rather than filling your home with ceramic pumpkins and papier-mâché turkeys – not that there is anything wrong with that – pull out pictures of your family, dust off the statues of the saints and tell their story for their story is yours.
Many years ago I went on an art historical tour through Italy. The focus was on mosaics. Naturally, Ravenna was on the list of cities to visit. I had studied Ravenna’s many early Christian churches but had never seen them in person. I was completely enamored with their beauty. And though I remember all of them with great fondness, one church left a lasting impression: the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.
Not only is this church constructed in the elegant early Christian basilica style, the 5th and 6th century mosaics are just splendid. The walls of the nave are divided in three freezes. The mosaics on the top tell the story of the life of Jesus, who is God. The other two freezes depict a grand procession saints, humans who have become like God.
Sitting quietly in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo I not only succumbed to a true artistic ecstasy but more importantly I had a deep spiritual revelation. As a liturgical theologian I knew and truly believed that whenever we gather for worship we not only gather with our local community but we gather with the entire church, even those who have gone before us and those who are yet to come. Flanked by all the saints depicted so beautifully I had a more profound experience of our communion with the saints than I have ever had before.
Years later and thousands of miles away I had a similar experience in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Angels in Los Angeles. The nave of this magnificent 20th C. building is decorated with beautiful tapestries designed by John Nava. Like the mosaics in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo these tapestries depict row upon row of saints. Some saints have their names written beneath them. Others don’t, leaving room for those saints living among us and those yet to be born. As I processed toward the altar to receive Holy Communion I had a true sense of Teresa of Calcutta and John Bosco, Bridget of Sweden and Ignatius of Loyola and countless other saints walking with me not only toward this earthly banquet but even to the eternal banquet.
The solemnity of All Saints is the day per excellence that we celebrate our communion with the saints. At The Basilica of Saint Mary we have neither mosaics nor tapestries to assist us in this celebration. However, we do have Icons. Therefore, on November 1st we process the images of the Blessed Mother and countless other saints into the church and we place them in the sanctuary. We do this not only to honor these saints but also to celebrate their presence among us, especially when we gather for Eucharist. We also bring in photos of our loves ones and place them on the side altars. We do this to either celebrate that they belong to the Communion of Saints or to pray that one day they too may be admitted to the Communion of Saints.
The mosaics of the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, the tapestries of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Angels, the Icons of The Basilica of Saint Mary remind us of one profound reality: we are all on a journey toward sainthood. Some of us get their quickly. Others need more time, sometimes even past our death. And so we march on together, saint and sinner, side by side as we proclaim our faith in God who became human so we may become like God.
Recently I gave a talk at Holy Name Catholic Church in Steamboat Springs on “Beauty that Saves.” I was happy to do so as it is one of my favorite topics. Moreover, the pastor is a university classmate whom I had not seen in years. And I had yet to experience their new parish church.
Minutes before the presentation I was pulled aside by someone who appeared agitated. As a matter of fact he was quite angry. Without any introduction he asked if “they really have to spend so much money on their new church?” Without waiting for an answer he continued “and why did every window have to be stained glass while the poor go without food and shelter.”
My involvement with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums occasioned a further rant about the church being so rich and the need for the church to “sell all the art and give the money to the poor.” I thanked him for his observations and excused myself as the talk was to begin. He stormed out and somewhat shaken I started my lecture.
The man obviously was very concerned and frustrated with the plight of the many people who live in difficult circumstances. Like many others he directed some of this anger at the church, its perceived riches and lack of care. This was not the first time I faced someone making these kinds of accusations. They always sadden me because though they may come from a place of honest concern they are also somewhat misinformed.
The church is very committed to alleviating the pain of those in need. This is an essential part of our mission. Rather than being an impediment to this art and beauty are considered an important component of the Church’s ministry to those who are in need because “Beauty Saves.”
During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s the so-called Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor in shelled buildings and in abandoned city squares. He also played for funerals, knowing that these were often the target of snipers. He did this because he believed that beauty was so needed in the midst of all this malice. He also did it because be believed that beauty could and should stand up against the ugliness of hatred and the madness of war. And he truly believed that “Beauty Saves.”
Beauty provides much needed cosmos in a world that is often dangerously teetering on the brink of complete chaos and despair. As we try to alleviate people’s immediate needs and work toward structural changes that cause these needs we do that in an environment of peace and beauty. We offer beauty as an antidote to the ugliness experienced by so many people. Beauty truly has the ability to create more beauty. Beauty is contagious.
Much of our outreach at The Basilica of Saint Mary happens in the Teresa of Calcutta Hall. Several of the paintings from our collection hang in this hall. They are there because we believe that their beauty will create more beauty. One painting is particularly striking and a propos: The Hospitality of Saint Julian by Cristofano Allori. This 17th C. Italian painting depicts St. Julian as he assists a young person in need. The story behind this painting is complex and long. The essence however is that Julian had decided that he was done helping people and from now on would only care for himself and his wife. One day a young person asked him for help. As Julian angrily refused to help the young man he suddenly realized that the young man was actually Jesus. He immediately rushed to his aid and recommitted himself to help those in need.
This painting epitomizes the essential connection between beauty and service. On the one hand it beautifies the room where we help those who are in need thus creating a beautiful and peaceful atmosphere. On the other hand it reminds us of our obligation as Christians to do as Christ did and to do it because in each person we meet, above all those in need we meet Christ himself.
After my presentation in Steamboat Springs I ran into the man I mentioned above. He was less agitated. He mentioned that he had snuck back in after storming off earlier in the evening. After apologizing he asked if I might give him a copy of my presentation. Beauty does save.
You may have noticed the sign announcing the Blessing of the Animals outside The Basilica. It occasioned someone to write me a rather unpleasant note. In it I was accused of engaging in sacrilegious behavior. Thankfully I have developed a thick skin over these past many years so it did not make me angry, rather it made me sad. How could anyone think that celebrating God’s beautiful creation is sacrilegious?
I was 19 when I first experienced a Blessing of Animals. I had finished my first year in seminary and was able to spend the month of October in Italy with some of the other seminarians. It was the first of many, many trips to this beautiful and mystical country.
On October 4, the feast of St. Francis I was in Assisi at the Franciscan monastery of San Damiano. Surprisingly the small monastery was not overrun by tourists. We gathered in the courtyard with some of the young friars and a number of neighboring farmers for the celebration of the Eucharist. To my surprise and delight we were also joined by several animals. The early October weather was glorious. Being a romantic, I imagined myself in Zefferelli’s movie Brother Sun, and Sister Moon. At the end of Mass the priest asked all of us to extend our hands in prayer over the animals and he led us in a beautiful blessing. I will never forget the experience. It almost caused me to join the Franciscans.
When I started working at The Basilica I learned that our community had been Blessing animals for many years. And though I delighted in this I was a bit uneasy with bringing the animals into the church for the service. But since this had been the custom at The Basilica I went with the flow and found it to be beautiful.
Catholics have such a rich tradition of blessing people, animals and all sorts of things. I thought of sending the table of contents of our Book of Blessings to the author of the above mentioned e-mail. He might be surprised to learn that we not only bless animals, we also bless athletic fields; all sorts of machinery; fishing gear; motor bikes; shopping malls and communications centers to name just a few. Catholics like to bless things. As a matter of fact, Catholics REALLY like to bless things.
But what does it mean when we bless someone or something? I will spare you the etymology of the English word as it is a bit too bloody. Let’s just look at benedicere which is the Latin for the English verb “to bless.” Benedicere is a contraction of two words bene and dicere meaning “to speak well” or “to speak words of good wishes.”
Thus, when we bless someone or something we engage into a two-fold action: first, we bless and thank God for the many gifts bestowed on us; second, we ask God to hallow that, which is being blessed. Therefore, when we bless animals-recognizing their sacred place in creation-we thank God for the gift of animals and we ask God to protect them. This is a most sacred, and assuredly not a sacrilegious act, don’t you think?
As people were entering The Basilica this morning everyone was eager to speak about Pope Francis. Most had been glued to the TV all week. And all of them mentioned how moved they have been by the words and actions of Pope Francis. It has been quite the week, indeed. Pope Francis’ six day visit to three major US cities has made a lasting impression on all those he encountered either face to face or through the media. Speech after speech he brought the Good News to those willing to listen and most everyone did.
Last Thursday we hosted a viewing of the address Pope Francis gave to the Joint Session of Congress. We were a somewhat eclectic group. Some people I knew, yet most I didn’t. As the time of the arrival of Pope Francis drew nearer the conversation in the room became more animated. Then at the announcement that the “Pope of the Holy See” was entering the chamber we instantaneously became quiet. It was a momentous day, indeed. Who would have ever thought that the leader of the Catholic Church would be asked to address our political leaders?
His beautiful opening paragraph drew enthusiastic applause from the members of congress and our guests alike. “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.”
Noting that he had come to engage in a dialogue with everyone, his tone was gentle but firm as he reminded our leaders and all of us of our shared responsibility to work for the common good of the entire human family. As was expected, he touched on all the causes he has been advocating but was able to do so without politicizing them, rather speaking about them in the light of the Gospel. And he skillfully tailored his remarks to his audience referencing a beloved president, a revered Baptist minister and two Catholics who were once considered radical, each in their own right.
First, Pope Francis spoke of President Abraham Lincoln as “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”.” Then, he recalled Martin Luther King’s epic march from Selma to Montgomery as emblematic of his campaign “to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans.” Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement was lauded by Pope Francis for “her social activism, her passion for justice” and for her tireless work on behalf of all those who are oppressed.” Of Thomas Merton Pope Francis said that above all he was “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.” He went on to say that Merton “was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
Citing the strengths, passions and dreams of these four great US citizens Pope Francis spoke about the difficulties our world faces today and he invited us to respond to the needs of our time with the same conviction as our forbearers responded to the needs of their time. So, following Lincoln’s example Pope Francis asked us to be the guardians of freedom for all, a task “which requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.” Like King he asked us to strive for “full civil and political rights” for all. Like Day he asked us to be “passionate about justice” and “defend all those who are oppressed.” Like Merton he asked us to “challenge the certitudes of our times,” to be “open to new horizons,” to be “lovers of dialogue” and to be “promoters of peace between peoples and religions.”
Translating this in some concrete action points he spoke about the urgent need to care for our common home, the earth and he expressed his conviction that our country will play an important role in this. He asked us to be welcoming to immigrants “seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation.” He called on us to revere all life and to never take anyone’s life because everyone is “endowed with an inalienable dignity” even those on death row. Quoting from his encyclical Laudato Si he praised business as a noble vocation because it produces wealth and improves the world “especially when it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” He also stressed the importance of the family. Pointing to the difficulties many families face today especially those trapped “in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair” he said that these are not just “their problems” rather they are “our problems.”
In essence, Pope Francis called us all to restore the relationship we have with one another, with other cultures, creeds and countries and indeed with all of creation. Only when we live in right relationship with all the above will we be able to come back from the brink of complete alienation on which we have been teetering for too long. So, let’s heed Pope Francis’ call and engage in open, respectful and honest dialogue with one another. Let us strive for radical solidarity and profound respect as we extend our hand in love and mercy to one another. And let us build a culture of compassion and care remembering that though we may be different in what we think and in what we believe we are all children of the same God “endowed with an inalienable dignity.”
Friday night Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in Minneapolis celebrated the Mass according to the Maronite Rite at The Basilica of Saint Mary. Characteristic of this ancient rite is that it is celebrated in the language spoken by Jesus.
Saturday morning we celebrated the Mass according to the Dominican Rite. This rite was developed in the 13th C. for exclusive usage by the Dominicans. Though it was mostly abandoned in 1968 in favor of the Roman Rite it may still be celebrated with the appropriate permissions.
Sunday we sang hymns, prayed in English and rejoiced in the simple beauty of the Roman Rite, thus in one weekend manifestly celebrating the true liturgical universality of the Catholic Church.
Most of us think that the Roman Rite is the only way in which we celebrate the liturgy. And though most Catholics indeed celebrate the Roman Rite there are many other rites used by Catholics. The Roman Rite itself even is celebrated in two different ways: the “ordinary form” which is the Mass as it evolved after the Second Vatican Council and the “extra-ordinary form” which is the so-called Tridentine Mass.
This liturgical diversity has always been characteristic of the Catholic Church even from the very beginning as the liturgy celebrated by early Christians varied from city to city. In the East this gave rise to different autonomous churches, some of which are part of the Catholic Church while others are not. Today, there exist 23 autonomous churches within the Catholic Church. These include among others the Greek Byzantine Church, the Coptic Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church and the Maronite Catholic Church. And though they are part of the Catholic Church each of these churches celebrates the liturgy according to their own traditions albeit many of them have to some extent conformed to the Roman Rite.
In the west the situation was very similar as major cities had their own unique way of celebrating the liturgy. Among the major rites in the west were the Roman Rite as celebrated in Rome, the Ambrosian Rite as celebrated in Milan, the Gallican Rite as celebrated in Gaul (France) and the Mozarabic Rite as celebrated in Southern Spain, to name but a few. The Roman Rite gradually became the dominant rite in the west as the role of the pope became stronger and the need for unification of the church became more pressing. Nevertheless, even though the Council of Trent declared that the Roman Rite ought to be celebrated universally, certain ancient and revered rites were retained.
To diversify things even more, some of the major religious orders such as the Benedictines, Carthusians and Dominicans developed liturgical custom which were particular to their own order, no matter their location. Though most of these rites specific to religious orders have been abandoned in favor of the Roman Rite some of them may still be celebrated under certain circumstances.
And for those who thought that the diversification of the Catholic liturgy was a thing of the past even in our times new rites have been added. The Congolese Rite was created in the mid-twentieth century to better suit the spiritual needs of the people in Central Africa. And an adaptation of the Anglican Rite was adopted in the 21st C. for use by members of the Anglican Church who sought unification with the Catholic Church.
It is absolutely amazing how liturgically diverse we are as a church. And though our liturgies may be different, we are all part of the same Catholic Church no matter what language we pray in or which rituals we follow.
With the gift of diversity also comes the danger of division. Therefor, let us rejoice in our liturgical richness and diversity, avoid all division and together work on the up-building of the Body of Christ.
Friends proudly posted a great picture of Pope Francis on Facebook. They took the picture on August 21 as they walked by Casa Santa Marta, his residence just inside Vatican City. It shows him standing in the doorway. He has a beautiful broad smile and his right hand is raised as if he is motioning my friends to join him for a chat. This unexpected encounter must have made their visit to Rome.
That same day, early morning visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica undoubtedly experienced a similar thrill as they made their way to the Presentation Chapel for Mass. Praying before the tomb of Pope Pius X was Pope Francis. Even Mgr. Lucio Bonora, the priest who was scheduled to celebrate Mass was taken aback. Noticing Pope Francis Mgr. Bonora immediately offered to step aside so the Pope might celebrate the Mass. The Monseigneur was told to continue as previously arranged. To everyone’s surprise, Pope Francis joined the assembly for the entirety of the Mass even lining up with them to receive Holy Communion.
For a pope to participate in the Mass with the assembly may raise an eyebrow or two. To be sure, there are good liturgical and ecclesiological reasons why one would expect the pope to be the celebrant of the Mass. Attending Mass “in the pews” is highly unusual. But then again, this is not the first unusual thing we have witnessed during this papacy. We have almost come to expect the unexpected. It all started when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica dressed in a simple white cassock on the day of his election. After some brief words he asked everyone to pray for him as he humbly bowed his head in a moment of silence.
Since then he has done many unexpected things. He has washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday. He uttered the now famous words: “Who am I to judge.” He speaks of the sacraments as medicine for the sinners rather than an award for the saints. He prefers unity over uniformity. He encourages a culture of encounter and describes the church as a field hospital. He is not afraid to speak off-the-cuff and follow his heart. And when unsure asked a specific question he readily admits that he needs to study the matter in greater detail.
When I meet with people, be they parishioners or not the subject almost always turns to Pope Francis and what a blessing he is for the Catholic Church and the world. They mention his simplicity and humility. They don’t see him as a distant figure, rather they see him as one of them. They see him as the guy who stands in his doorway and waves at passers-by; the guy who sits next to them at Mass; the guy who washes everyone’s feet, no matter who they are; the guy who is comfortable meeting presidents but prefers to hang out in the favelas; the guy who challenges all of us to be better and does not humiliate us when we fail; the guy who never tires of calling us back no matter how far we have strayed. And he does all this because he believes this is what he ought to do as the Vicar of Christ in our world today. Moreover, he asks all of us to do the same as we too are called to be Christ to the world.
I am not sure if Pope Francis indeed motioned my friends to come over to him. And if he did I am not sure if they accepted his invitation. Regardless, looking at the picture I see Pope Francis motioning to me and to all of us inviting us to join him and live out the Gospel message in our world in all humility, with deep faith and profound love. Isn’t it amazing what a simple picture can evoke?
A few years ago one of our priests delivered one of his strongest homilies ever using only a minimal number of words. After proclaiming the Gospel he walked down to the communion rail and demonstrably closed the bronze gates thus separating the sanctuary from the nave of the church. Standing in the sanctuary behind the closed gates he said. “This is who we used to be.” Then he opened the gates as wide as he possibly could and walked into the nave saying “This is who we are today.” Without another word he walked to the celebrant’s chair and sat down. In response, the congregation stood up and burst out in applause. Now, I am not a great lover of homiletic props but in this rare case it worked and I will never forget the message.
The profound desire for an inclusive church expressed in this homily and echoed by our community was once again affirmed this week by Pope Francis. During this Wednesday’s general audience at the Vatican he referenced his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” saying: “No closed doors! No closed doors! Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community.” And alluding to the Gospel of St. John, chapter 14 he continued: “The Church is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone.”
In her short story "Revelation" Flannery O’Conner went even a step further turning our pre-conceptions about church membership and salvation upside down. Mrs. Turpin, the main character has a frightful and disturbing vision of heaven. In it she sees the redeemed souls wind their way to heaven. To her dismay the souls who arrive first are those whom she has always considered unworthy. She is shocked to see herself and her “proper” Christian friends at the very rear of this colorful parade of souls. Though she does make it to heaven she clearly is not happy that those she always considered unworthy made it there too. Worse, they made it ahead of her.
Maybe salvation is not as clear cut as some of us desire it to be and participation in the church is not as exclusive as some of us believe it to be, for indeed we are a colorful bunch.
We are a poor, we are rich and everything in between;
We are over-educated, we are under-educated and everything in between;
We are conservative, we are liberal and everything in between;
We are young, we are old and everything in between;
We are differently able;
We are male, we are female, we are gay, we are straight;
We are single, we are couples, we are families;
We are native-born, we are immigrants;
We have black skin, we have white skin and everything in between;
We are strong in our faith, we are weak in our faith and everything in between.
We are an extremely diverse tapestry of humanity in search of salvation. We are the church on a shared pilgrimage in unity, not uniformity. We welcome one another. We dialogue with one another. We help one another forward on this Christian journey of ours. The doors are open. All are welcome and who knows who will be first in heaven. Like Mrs. Turpin, we might end up being surprised, very surprised indeed.