Friday, 30 May 2014

Francis in Jerusalem: brothers in mercy

Francis rabi imam

[Long read.]

Last weekend saw Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, during which he delivered 15 scheduled speeches and made several spontaneous stops that have been in the headlines all over the world. Here I don’t mean to re-tell his whirlwind visit, since that has already been done very well elsewhere, but just to pick out some of my favorite moments from the homilies and addresses he delivered during that 3-day period (in chronological order).

First, there was his homily during a mass in Amman on 24th May (note the focus on diversity in unity, which is one of the key themes of the whole trip):
“The mission of the Holy Spirit, in fact, is to beget harmony – he is himself harmony – and to create peace in different situations and between different people. Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle, for variety always enriches. So today, with fervent hearts, we invoke the Holy Spirit and ask him to prepare the path to peace and unity.”
Second, he addressed refugees and disabled young people in Bethany (note the use of humility as a means of closeness to Jesus and his damning words addressed to the arms trade):
“Coming here to the Jordan to be baptized by John, Jesus showed his humility and his participation in our human condition. He stooped down to us and by his love he restored our dignity and brought us salvation. Jesus’ humility never fails to move us, the fact that he bends down to wounded humanity in order to heal us: he bends down to heal all our wounds! [...]

[A]s we observe this tragic conflict, seeing these wounds, seeing so many people who have left their homeland, forced to do so, I ask myself: who is selling arms to these people to make war? Behold the root of evil! Hatred and financial greed in the manufacturing and sale of arms. This should make us think about who is responsible for this situation, for providing arms to those in conflict and thereby sustaining such conflict. Let us think about this and with sincere hearts let us call upon these poor criminals to change their ways.”
The next day (25th May), Pope Francis then addressed President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian authorities, where he concluded his speech as follows (note the reference to God’s almightiness, which is very prominent in Islam, the reference to brotherhood, and the Arabic greeting at the end):
“Mr President, dear brothers and sisters gathered here in Bethlehem: may Almighty God bless you, protect you and grant you the wisdom and strength needed to continue courageously along the path to peace, so that swords will be turned into ploughshares and this land will once more flourish in prosperity and concord. Salaam!”
Later the same day, Francis then delivered a homily in Manger Square, Bethlehem, from which I’d like to quote more extensively, since it provides a great insight about the importance he gives children:
“The Child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the sign given by God to those who awaited salvation, and he remains forever the sign of God’s tenderness and presence in our world. The angel announces to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child...”. [...]

The Child of Bethlehem is frail, like all newborn children. He cannot speak and yet he is the Word made flesh who came to transform the hearts and lives of all men and women. This Child, like every other child, is vulnerable; he needs to be accepted and protected. Today too, children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception.

Sadly, in this world, with all its highly developed technology, great numbers of children continue to live in inhuman situations, on the fringes of society, in the peripheries of great cities and in the countryside. All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean. Today, in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child.

And we have to ask ourselves: Who are we, as we stand before the Child Jesus? Who are we, standing as we stand before today’s children? Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and care for him with the love of a father and a mother? Or are we like Herod, who wanted to elim- inate him? Are we like the shepherds, who went in haste to kneel before him in worship and offer him their humble gifts? Or are we indifferent? Are we perhaps people who use fine and pious words, yet exploit pictures of poor children in order to make money? Are we ready to be there for children, to “waste time” with them? Are we ready to listen to them, to care for them, to pray for them and with them? Or do we ignore them because we are too caught up in our own affairs?”
In the same location, Francis then issued an invitation to prayer for peace (which was very quickly accepted by both parties - within a matter of hours):
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.

All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers. All of us – especial- ly those placed at the service of their respective peoples – have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers.”

Francis bartholomew slab

From the perspective of ecumenism, the most important speech was then the one Pope Francis delivered at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in the presence of Patriarch Bartholomew (note its supporting pillars being mercy, forgiveness, joy and unity, and the fractal nature of ecumenism - from the visible union among Christian churches to the ecumenism of everyday acts of closeness):
“Let us receive the special grace of this moment. We pause in reverent silence before this empty tomb in order to rediscover the grandeur of our Christian vocation: we are men and women of resurrection, and not of death. From this place we learn how to live our lives, the trials of our Churches and of the whole world, in the light of Easter morning. Every injury, every one of our pains and sorrows, has been borne on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd who offered himself in sacrifice and thereby opened the way to eternal life. His open wounds are like the cleft through which the torrent of his mercy is poured out upon the world. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the basis of our hope, which is this: Christòs anesti! Let us not deprive the world of the joyful message of the resurrection! And let us not be deaf to the powerful summons to unity which rings out from this very place, in the words of the One who, risen from the dead, calls all of us “my brothers” (cf. Mt 28:10; Jn 20:17). [...]

We know that much distance still needs to be travelled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire; yet our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyze our progress. We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed. This will be a grace of resurrection, of which we can have a foretaste even today. Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection! Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen! Every time we reflect on the future of the Church in the light of her vocation to unity, the dawn of Easter breaks forth!”
On the final day (26th May), Pope Francis addressed the Gran Mufti of Jerusalem, where he concluded with a call to brotherhood:
“Dear brothers, dear friends, from this holy place I make a heartfelt plea to all people and to all communities who look to Abraham: may we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters! May we learn to understand the sufferings of others! May no one abuse the name of God through violence! May we work together for justice and peace! Salaam!”
Then, Francis changed his plans and instead of having lunch at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, he turned up at a Franciscan friary instead, insisting that nothing be changed in either the refectory customs or the day’s menu.

Francis holocaust survivor hand

For me the most important moment of the trip was Francis’ visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial, from where I’d like to quote almost his entire address, without commentary:
““Adam, where are you?” (cf. Gen 3:9). Where are you, o man? What have you come to? In this place, this memorial of the Shoah, we hear God’s question echo once more: “Adam, where are you?” This question is charged with all the sorrow of a Father who has lost his child. The Father knew the risk of freedom; he knew that his children could be lost... yet perhaps not even the Father could imagine so great a fall, so profound an abyss! Here, before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, That cry – “Where are you?” – echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss...

Adam, who are you? I no longer recognize you. Who are you, o man? What have you become? Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths?

Certainly it is not the dust of the earth from which you were made. The dust of the earth is some- thing good, the work of my hands. Certainly it is not the breath of life which I breathed into you. That breath comes from me, and it is something good (cf. Gen 2:7).

No, this abyss is not merely the work of your own hands, your own heart... Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you? Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.

Today, in this place, we hear once more the voice of God: “Adam, where are you?”

From the ground there rises up a soft cry: “Have mercy on us, O Lord!” To you, O Lord our God, be- longs righteousness; but to us confusion of face and shame (cf. Bar 1:15).

A great evil has befallen us, such as never happened under the heavens (cf. Bar 2:2). Now, Lord, hear our prayer, hear our plea, save us in your mercy. Save us from this horror.”
Finally, Francis also celebrated mass at the Upper Room, where he spoke about what its meaning is for us (note the emphasis on friendship, service and family - both the importance of families in the Church, and the Church being a family):
“The Upper Room speaks to us of service, of Jesus giving the disciples an example by washing their feet. Washing one another’s feet signifies welcoming, accepting, loving and serving one another. It means serving the poor, the sick and the outcast, those whom I find difficult, those who annoy me. [...]

The Upper Room also reminds us of friendship. “No longer do I call you servants – Jesus said to the Twelve – but I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). The Lord makes us his friends, he reveals God’s will to us and he gives us his very self. This is the most beautiful part of being a Christian and, especially, of being a priest: becoming a friend of the Lord Jesus, and discovering in our hearts that he is our friend. [...]

[T]he Upper Room reminds us of the birth of the new family, the Church, our holy Mother the hierarchical Church established by the risen Jesus; a family that has a Mother, the Virgin Mary. Christian families belong to this great family, and in it they find the light and strength to press on and be renewed, amid the challenges and difficulties of life. All God’s children, of every people and language, are invited and called to be part of this great family, as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of the one Father in heaven.”