Thursday, March 14, 2013
Elijah visits the widow of Zarephath to discover her only son has crossed over the threshold of death’s door because he no longer breathes. Elijah prays over him and asks the Lord to restore life to the son because without him, the widow is certain to die. Jesus, on his travels to Nain, visits a widow whose son just died and he is being carried out for burial. He intervenes and commands the young man to arise because he was moved with pity for his mother. Both readings talk about restoration to life. Paul’s life was also restored from the time when he was a persecutor of the church to become an apostle to the Gentiles. New life was creatively given to Paul.
Today the church feels restored to new life. We have hope once again. The church, has seemed tired, broken, and old to us, has found a new voice from a man who appeals to many in the world. The name, Francis, says a lot about the character and style of the Pope. Francis of Assisi was a warm man whose simplicity, humility, and authenticity has inspired many over the centuries. I’m proud that a Jesuit pope has unified the church by taking a Franciscan name.
Pope Francis, the first from Latin America and the first from the Jesuit order, is an outsider to Rome. Initially trained as a chemist, Cardinal Bergoglio taught literature, psychology, philosophy and theology with the Jesuits before taking over as Buenos Aires archbishop in 1998. He became a Cardinal in 2001. He was provincial and novice master of Jesuits in the 1970’s and he personifies the Jesuit orders virtues: humility, education, and social justice.
He cultivates a humble style that was successful when he modernized the conservative Roman Catholic Church in Argentina while trying to extricate himself from a messy legacy of complicity during the military rule of 1976-83. He bowed to the crowds in St. Peter's Square and graciously asked for their blessing – a propitious start of his papacy.
In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the simple spirit of the church and devote his life to missionary journeys. It also evokes references to Francis Xavier, one of the 16th century founders of the Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and outreach.
Francis of Assisi was known for his life of poverty. Cardinal Bergoglio was also known and respected for refusing to live in the archbishop's palace in Buenos Aires. He lived in a simple apartment where he cooked his own meals. He rode the bus to work and talked with the average person on mass transit.
Francis was also famous for his love of animals and nature. With the environmental catastrophe of climate change facing the world, he could implement an aggressive and prophetic stance on environmental issues.
Francis was known for his peaceful and positive attitude toward Islam. He was no crusader when his time was marked by war between Christendom and Islam. Rather he walked through the battlefield unarmed to meet with the Sultan, who was so impressed that he listened to him and sent him back unharmed. At a time when peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians are again necessary for the good of the world, he could be sending a message not only to Christians, but also to Muslims.
Early in his career, St. Francis heard a message from God: "Rebuild my church." At first he thought God meant the building in the forest near where he was living. Only later did he realize that it was the institutional church, which was in disrepair, that he was to rebuild. With all the problems facing the church--sexual abuse crisis, declining membership in Europe and the Americas, and a Vatican Curia in need of reform--this name may point toward an ecclesial agenda.
Here are a few more facts about him: He is considered a real voice for the voiceless and vulnerable in both words and actions. The modern papacy has nearly nonstop obligations and frequent global travel. Pope Francis appears in good health, but his age and possible limitations from his single lung raise questions about whether he can face the demands of the position. He holds an outsider status with the Vatican administration that could pose obstacles in attempts to reform the Vatican.
He is known for compassion on issues such as poverty and the effects of globalization, and his loyalty to traditional church teachings such as opposition to birth control. His overriding image, though, is built around his leaning toward austerity as noted by his motto chosen for his archdiocese "Lowly but Chosen." He accused fellow church leaders of hypocrisy and forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes. He also worked to recover the church's traditional political influence in society, and at the same time has been tough on hardline conservative views among his own clerics, including those who refused to baptize the children of unmarried women. "These are today's hypocrites; those who clericalize the church," he told his priests. "Those who separate the people of God from salvation.
Much is wrapped up in this exciting news for us. We have great hope once again and a feeling of relief, compassion, and genuine affection for Francis. Together, may our lives celebrate the good news that God is doing with us. Rebuild our Church, Francis. Lord Jesus, restore life once again. Let us now take a moment in silence simply to pray for our new Pope in deep gratitude and joy.