Wednesday, 27 March 2013

To the existential peripheries!


Last week my überbestie PM and I were talking about Pope Francis and trying to come up with what the one new thing would be that we’d like him to do. After a run through the obvious candidates of married priests, female deacons and visible unity with other Christian communities (all of which merit consideration), we arrived at the following: for the Church to open herself so that anyone who wanted to could find themselves at home in her. While the Church needs to be faithful to transmitting the perfection and holiness of Jesus, she (i.e., including me!) also needs to love all and embrace all - again as Jesus did.

There are many aspects here that come to mind, from ways to be more inclusive towards those who are divorced and re-married and towards homosexual persons, via greater clarity about the rationality of our faith (which has been taught very clearly by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but which may not have percolated through all of the Church’s statements at the local level), to being more explicit about how it is that the Church positions herself with respect to secular society (a topic already touched upon by Francis in these first days of his pontificate). Quite how this is to be done is not clear to me, but what we arrived at with PM is that this is what we would like to see Pope Francis address. (Not that we are in a position of advising the pope, but it is still good to be clear to oneself where one sees the greatest wounds in the Church.)

Then something extraordinary happened yesterday: Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino (the archbishop of Havana) published a text that I never believed would see the light of day - the notes of Cardinal Bergoglio’s pre-conclave speech. In the context of the Church’s openness, this is undoubtedly a major milestone. The discussions during the pre-conclave meetings of the cardinals are held under strictest secrecy and it is really only thanks to the pope’s explicit permission (given as pope) that Cardinal Ortega y Alamino could do what he did.

The full text is well worth reading and I would here like to emphasize just two passages.1 The first is about the kind of outreach Pope Francis has in mind:
“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery.”
What struck me here is the focus on what is just beyond the scope of the Church today and that Francis looks at it very broadly - not only the partly-physical dimensions of pain, misery and injustice, but also the mental dimensions of ignorance and thought and the spiritual dimensions of sin and absence of religion. His obvious focus on and love of the poor that has stood out since the get go is clearly a part of a much broader vision of the peripheries.

The second passage that spoke to me is about the Church’s inward-looking degeneration:
“In Revelation [3:20], Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Evidently the text refers to his knocking from outside in order to enter but I think of the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out. When the Church is self-referent without realizing it, she believes she has her own light.”
Wow! This is a very serious self-accusation to make for the Church - that she is in the way for Jesus to reach out to humanity - i.e., the polar opposite of her raison d’être! Two things give me great hope here: first, that Pope Francis has such a stark view of what the Church needs to do and second, that it was him whom the college of cardinals elected pope! In a recent interview (where he refused to comment on its content since he was sworn to secrecy), Cardinal Tomko said that this pre-conclave speech of Cardinal Bergoglio’s was “very short, but had such a strong effect that everyone was stunned. It was very profound.” That the cardinals went for someone whose words were so far from the typical political shmoozing that we are used to from pre-election rallies is a great credit to them.

Finally, if there had been any doubt about these notes, today’s general audience address by Pope Franics surely lays them to rest:
“Jesus enters Jerusalem in order to give himself completely. He gives us his body and his blood, and promises to remain with us always. He freely hands himself over to death in obedience to the Father’s will, and in this way shows how much he loves us. We are called to follow in his footsteps. Holy Week challenges us to step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others: those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help. We should not simply remain in our own secure world, that of the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed from the fold, but we should go out, with Christ, in search of the one lost sheep, however far it may have wandered.”
To conclude, I would like to quote another sentence from Pope Francis’ talk this morning: “Holy Week is not so much a time of sorrow, but rather a time to enter into Christ’s way of thinking and acting.” and wish you all a great Holy Week!

1 But I can’t not mention his quoting the opening words of the Vatican II Dei Verbum document that is among my favourites and that he presents as the motto of the outgoing Church he wants to see: “Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidente proclamans.” (“Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith.”).