Next month Pope Francis celebrates the fifth anniversary of his pontificate. These five years have been exciting in that he has surprised us from time to time in so many ways. He has tried to find ways that the Catholic Church stays in touch with “the people in the pews,” e.g., by sending out a questionnaire to the entire Church asking their input prior to the two-session Synod on the Family and now a second questionnaire to young people before the coming Synod on Young Adults. In the synods themselves he has encouraged true dialogue and honesty, not merely bishops who say what they think others want to hear. He attended almost every session of these synods so that he could hear for himself what was being said and the thinking behind the statements that were made.
He set up a Committee of eight (now nine) Cardinals from around the world to advise him on how to run the Church but especially on how to reform the Roman Curia so that there would be more concentration of decision-making at the Conference level rather than everything having to be approved by the Curia, or what many call the decentralization of power. He has appointed more prelates to head these dicasteries from around the world along with more lay men and women to serve on their committees.
Even though Pope Francis is now eighty-one years of age, he has made it a point to visit areas of the world, some of which had never seen a pope, thereby putting into practice his reminder that the peripheries are important as well as the big and important cities and countries. He has even chosen to visit some places where his life was considered in danger. He has been willing to take risks, all for the sake of the Gospel. His encyclicals and letters for specific events or occasions have been filled with pastoral wisdom and possible solutions to contemporary issues. He has consistently reminded us of the need to support immigrants and refugees, especially those who are coming from war-filled regions and areas where people constantly live in danger to their lives.
However, he has had his critics within the ecclesiastical community. At his annual pre-Christmas meeting with members of the Roman Curia in 2016, he complained about the “hidden resistance, born of fearful or hardened hearts, content with the empty rhetoric of spiritual window dressing, typical of those who say they are ready for change yet want everything to remain as it was before.” And before Christmas in 2017, speaking in the same venue, he spoke of the existence within the Curia of an “unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques, leading to self-centeredness” and of persons chosen to support and implement reforms who instead “let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory.”
“Tradition,” Francis said, “is not an unchangeable bank account. It is the doctrine going forward….the essential does not change, but it grows and develops.” And how does tradition grow? “It grows like a person through dialogue, which is like the milk for the baby—dialogue with the world around us. If one is not engaged in dialogue, one is not able to grow, one stands still, one stays like a little dwarf.”
In a talk to the Italian Theological Association on December 29, 2017, Francis laid out what he believes is the true vocation of a theologian. Theologians must always refer back to Vatican II, where the church recognized its responsibility to “proclaim the Gospel in a new way.” He spoke of “faithful creativity” in responding to a rapidly changing world. The job of a theologian is to show people what lies at the heart of the Gospel. “There is need of a theology that helps all Christians to proclaim and to show, above all, the saving face of God, the merciful God, especially in the presence of some unheard-of challenges that involve the human today.” Among these challenges he listed the environmental crisis, technologies that can alter human beings, social inequalities, mass migration and relativism in theory and practice. He even calls on theologians to work together to “re-imagine the church so that it may conform to the Gospel that it must proclaim.”
We must not treat the great theologians of the past as a treasure chest of quotes but rather as examples of how to do theology. St. Augustine, for example, took Neoplatonism, the elite philosophical thought of his period, and used it to explain Christianity to the people of his age. St. Thomas Aquinas took the newly rediscovered writings of Aristotle—the avant-garde thinking of his time—and used it to explain Christianity in the 13th century. The task of theologians today is not to simply quote Augustine and Aquinas but to imitate them, to take the best secular thought of our time and use it to explain Christianity to 21st century men and women. This approach, far from disregarding the truths of the faith, helps to make the truths more understandable and pertinent.
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
For the next several weeks the Church celebrates Lent. Lasting a symbolic forty days (it does not count out to precisely forty days), Lent reminds us of times of testing described in the Bible, such as the forty years the Jews wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus and many other stories we will hear about during Lent. It is a time of preparation for the great celebration of Easter.
Today’s First Reading recalls an important “forty” story—in which God grieved all the evil that had come into the world and decided to renew creation through a flood. For forty days it rained! When Noah and his family were finally able to return to dry land, God established a new, everlasting covenant with humanity that was signified by a rainbow in the clouds.
The Second Reading draws upon the Noah story to explain how Christ suffered for our sins but was brought to life in the Spirit. Biblical scholars do not know the identity of the ‘spirits in prison,” but the phrase may refer to the spirits of the unrighteous who died in the flood. More importantly, the author suggests that the flood story was a prefiguring of Christian Baptism, in which we join ourselves to Christ’s death so that we can come to new life with him.
The Gospel continues the theme of testing and preparation by recalling the story of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, where he was tested by Satan for forty days and then appeared in public proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God and preaching the need of repentance.
The Second Reading presents how Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection lead us to God. Pope Benedict XVI explains that through the liturgy the love of God in Christ continues to be evident. The pope writes that the liturgy is an expression of the Paschal Mystery in which Christ draws us to himself. “God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us, and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love” (Sacramentum caritatis, #35).
We hear in the Gospel that Jesus walked a lonely path in the desert, dependant on the ministry of the angels, and emerged to preach the Kingdom of God. The Church walks the same path, preaching the Good News in humble service. We read in Ad gentes: “Since this mission continues and, in the course of history, unfolds the mission of Christ, who was sent to evangelize the poor, the Church, urged on by the Spirit of Christ, must walk the road Christ himself walked, a way of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice to death, a death from which he emerged victorious by his resurrection” (#5).
Just as the early Church looked at Jesus’ suffering, death, and Resurrection and considered how they united them to the Father, in the liturgy we continue to experience God’s love. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus caritas est of how God’s love is manifest in the liturgy: “In the Church’s liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love” (#17).
For Your Reflection: During Lent, Christians recall what their Baptism means. What does your Baptism have to do with how you live? Have you considered participation in a parish Lenten program? How does the spreading of the Gospel connect to the disciplines that you are adopting this Lent?
FEAST OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER
Thursday, February 22, 2018
This feast commemorates Christ’s choosing Peter to sit in his place as the servant-authority of the whole Church.
After the “lost weekend” of pain, doubt, and self-torment, Peter hears the Good News. Angels at the tomb say to Magdalene, “The Lord has risen! Go, tell his disciples and Peter.” John relates that when he and Peter ran to the tomb, the younger outraced the older, then waited for him. Peter entered, saw the wrappings on the ground, the headpiece rolled up in a place by itself. John saw and believed. But he adds a reminder: “They did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (Jn 20:9). They went home. There the slowly exploding, impossible idea became a reality. Jesus appeared to them as they waited fearfully behind locked doors. “Peace be with you,” he said (Jn 20:21), and they rejoiced.
The Pentecost event completed Peter’s experience of the risen Christ. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4) and began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them.
Only then can Peter fulfill the task Jesus had given him. “Once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). He at once becomes the spokesman for the Twelve about their experience of the Holy Spirit—before the civil authorities who wished to quash their preaching, before the Council of Jerusalem, for the community in the problem of Ananias and Sapphira. He is the first to preach the Good News to the Gentiles. The healing power of Jesus in him is well attested: the raising of Tabitha from the dead, the cure of the crippled beggar. People carry the sick into the streets so that when Peter passed, his shadow might fall on them
At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (Jn 21:18). What Jesus said indicated the sort of death by which Peter was to glorify God. On Vatican Hill, in Rome, during the reign of Nero, Peter did glorify his Lord with a martyr’s death, probably in the company of many Christians.
Let us pray today for Pope Francis, who now occupies the Chair of Peter. May he lead with boldness, courage, gentleness and truth!
- PETER’S IN THE NEWS
Every parish would always like to have good news spread about them, no matter the media. Well, I hope you will go to info.franciscanmedia.org/st-anthony-messenger in the very near future and click on their current issue. You will find any number of possible articles to read, but the one I am most interested in having you read is entitled “Chicago’s Lenten Kickoff,” and it’s all about Ash Wednesday at St. Peter’s. The author of the article called me one day and asked if he could interview me about what happens here in the heart of Chicago on one of the holiest days of the year. I suspect we talked about an hour, and then he said a photographer from the Chicago Catholic would be contacting me soon in order to take a few pictures. He told me the article he was writing would appear in the February 2018 issue of Saint Anthony Messenger.
Naturally I was anticipating just how he would put together my answers to the random questions he asked on the phone. As far as the photos were concerned, the only thing I asked was that, if it were possible, I would like to have a photo of the huge crucifix on the façade of the church as part of the article, but I had my doubts about that when the photographer said she could only take the shots she had been told to do. You can imagine my pleasure, and that of the friars in our community, when we saw the finished product in the magazine. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did, and be sure to recommend it to your friends!
A CHUCKLE FOR LENT
Dallas heard that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all walked on water on their 21st birthdays.
So, on his 21st birthday, Dallas and his big brother Damon headed out to the lake. “If they did it, I can too!” he insisted.
When Dallas and Damon arrived at the lake, they rented a canoe and began paddling. When they got to the middle of the lake, Dallas stepped off on the side of the boat…and nearly drowned. Furious and somewhat embarrassed, he and Damon headed for home.
When Dallas arrived back at the family home, he asked his grandmother for an explanation. “Grandma, why can’t I walk on water like my father, and his father, and his father before him?”
His sweet old grandmother took Dallas by the hand, looked into his eyes, and explained, “That’s because your father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all born in January. You, my dear, were born in June!”