March 19, 2013
Habemus Papam! With these traditional words, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Protodeacon of the Sacred College of Cardinals, announced to the world, “
We have a Pope!” And, do we have a Pope! He wasted no time in taking the world by surprise.
Stepping out on the balcony of St. Peter’s, he wore
only the simple white cassock of the Pope. He spoke spontaneously from the heart. He asked for prayers for our beloved Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. And, then as the more than 150,000 people in the square below welcomed him with cheers and tears of joy, he surprised everyone again. Humbly bowing his head, he asked for a prayer for himself. A hushed silence fell on the throng below and earnest prayer rose to heaven above from the hearts of the joy-filled faithful.
Indeed, the unexpected election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266
th Vicar of Christ has taken the world by surprise. The first Jesuit ever to be Pope. The first non-European in 1,000 years. The first Pope from Latin America. And the first Pope to choose the name “Francis.” One surprise after another.
Not least among the surprises has been the overwhelming positive coverage by the media. More than 600 reporters and media people descended on Rome for this historic election. And their response has been one of unfeigned welcome. Something refreshing and very encouraging. One TV news show even ran across its programming the subtitle, “New Pope Dazzles the Media.”
Indeed, he has dazzled us all. As newly-elected Pope, not taking a limousine, but riding on a bus with the cardinals. Going to the hotel where he stayed before the conclave to personally pay his bill. Stepping into the crowd on his first Sunday morning to greet the people. We have been given a glimpse that our new Holy Father is humble. He has a concern for all, not just for the leaders of state, but for the ordinary people. All the reports of his simple lifestyle during his ministry as Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, have made this first impression.
When our Holy Father explained why he made the surprising choice of “Francis” as his name, he gave a clear indication of the way that he understands, not just his ministry as Pope, but the very mission of the Church. On March 16, he met with reporters, writers, crews and media staff. He said that he chose the name of Italy’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, because of his concern for the poor. He further stated that he wanted “
a poor Church for the poor.”
At first, this wish for “
a poor Church for the poor” may sound somewhat strange and perplexing. But, at closer examination, Pope Francis has it right. He is returning us to our roots. He is reminding us of the teaching of Jesus himself.
The day that Jesus ascended the hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee and proclaimed the Sermon on the Mount as the foundational program for his followers, he caught his listeners off guard. He begins, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20). He does not condemn outright material poverty. Rather, he calls it “blessed.”
The hunger for the very necessities of life has a way of opening us up to our deeper yearning for God himself. When we are not self-sufficient, we are more readily prone to acknowledge our dependence on God. Poverty is not, in itself, a blessing, but can lead to the greatest blessing, the right relationship with God. When Matthew records the first beatitude, he captures this deeper meaning. He writes, “Blessed are the poor
in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Mt 5:3).
Pope Francis is right when he says “
a poor Church.” He is speaking about the community of faith that lives in total dependence on God. As Church, we are not self-sufficient. We exist by the grace of God. And, so when we live from the gift of truth and grace given to us by Christ, when we do not depend on the world, but on God, we are a
poor Church. And, it is then that the Church is most effective as “the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men” (
Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 780).
And our new Holy Father is also right when he desires “
a Church for the poor.” What we have been given, we have been given to share. “Within the community of believers, there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life” (Pope Benedict XVI,
Deus Caritas Est, n. 21).
However, this duty to care for the poor is not confined solely to believers who suffer poverty. We must care for all who are poor. In fact, “the more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity...”
(Pope Benedict XVI,
Caritas in Veritate, n.7). So important is this caring for all the poor that “the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word” (
Deus Caritas Est, n. 22).
But there is another reason why Pope Francis is right about “
a Church for the poor.” In some areas of the world, where there is material prosperity, there is another kind of poverty. A spiritual poverty. Among those who may be blessed with the goods of this world, we witness, at times, a deep, spiritual impoverishment. The faith is no longer practiced. God is absent from their lives. As Pope Benedict XVI taught, many of our contemporaries suffer from this spiritual poverty. They “no longer perceive the absence of God in their lives as a form of deprivation…” (
Address to the Members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, November 15, 2012). To those thus impoverished, the Church must reach out in the New Evangelization.
A poor Church for the poor.” This first statement of Pope Francis need not surprise us. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of Jesus’ first statement of his own ministry. In his hometown synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus surprised his listeners by announcing: “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk 4:16). Jesus, who is the beginning and the end of the Church, Jesus, who was truly poor, came for the poor.
With the charisma of simplicity, our new Holy Father has placed before us what it means to follow Jesus. We are called to bring the wealth of the gospel, the saving message that God loves all of us in Christ, to all, for all are poor. We are to make that love real in the works of charity. For when the Church preaches and practices the love of God, she is most faithful to her Lord and most effective in her mission.
May God bless and protect our New Pope!