Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sed melius quod interius. "What is more important is what lies within." (Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book X, 9): Pope Francis and the Case of the Missing Mozzetta (A Brief Reflection for the 5th Sunday of Lent)

Yesterday, one of my former students wrote me a note; he said he was feeling a great deal of sadness and was beginning to feel rather disturbed about some things he's heard and read from people who have reacted rather negatively to some of the 'different' things Pope Francis has done since he was elected. He was, of course referring to the refusal to wear the mozzetta (an ermine-lined shoulder length cape usually worn by popes), the jewel-encrusted gold pectoral cross that had been offered for him to wear after his election, his taking a Volkswagen instead of a Mercedes the following morning, taking the bus together with the cardinals, stopping by the hotel where he had stayed, picking up his luggage, and then paying the bill.

My former students' note reminded me of a question one of my current students asked in class last Thursday. He pointed out that he had heard someone say that "doing away with tradition isn't a sign of humility". "What do you think of that, father?" he asked. (Frankly, I think the statement is a sure sign of a serious lack of humility.)

Yet, I myself have been reflecting on the events of the past couple of days. I was at the gym when the announcement was made that white smoke had finally come out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney. I had wanted to be home when news of a new pope's election came, so that I could share the moment with my other students, watch the momentous occasion as it unfolded, on TV, and share the excitement and joy. But I had expected white smoke on Thursday morning, as I figured it would take the cardinals sequestered in conclave a couple more votes before they'd settle on a new pope. Instead, it happened on Wednesday afternoon, 2:00 PM here in Miami, 7:00 PM in Rome.

Since I was worried that if I ended my workout and hurried back to the seminary, I might miss the parting of the curtains on the balcony of St. Peter, I decided to simply wait it out while continuing my workout, my eyes constantly glancing at the TV screens that dotted the gym. I simply didn't want to miss the new pope coming out and greeting everyone at St. Peter's square. Ten minutes, then twenty, then thirty, then fifty.... They said it would be forty-five minutes to an hour before the pope came out. I waited, patiently, all the time wishing I had simply dropped everything as soon as the white smoke came out and just drove back to the seminary as fast as I could. But it was too late; I simply had to content myself with waiting for everything to unfold while trying to concentrate on my reps and sets.

Finally, Cardinal Tauran made the announcement: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and he had chosen the name "Francis". I tried my best to think if there had been a Pope Francis before. I couldn't recall any. And then there he was, Pope Francis, standing on the balcony of St. Peters, looking shy, even a tad awkward, as he waved to the crowd that went into a frenzy. The first thing I noticed was the absence of the mozzetta and, instead of a big gold pectoral cross, a rather small and simple one, hanging by a rather short chain, dangling slightly to the right of his chest. "They should've at least straightened that thing out", I thought. But, even Pope Benedict was still wearing what looked like a black sweater underneath his vestments when he came out on the balcony. I'm sure in the rush to get the newly-elected pope presented to the waiting public, not every little detail can be attended to.

"Oversight", I thought. But then he asked the crowd to bless him, bowed to receive his flock's blessing, and only then took the stole from the Master of Ceremonies and proceeded to give his first papal blessing. "Something's going on", I thought. The absence of the red ermine-lined cape wasn't an oversight, nor was the far more simple pectoral cross hanging slightly askew from his neck. "Something's definitely going on". And true enough, it was one thing after another.

Today, I learned that he had in fact been offered the red shoulder cape, a jewel-encrusted pectoral cross, and a pair of red shoes. He apparently refused, as he did the Mercedes that had been waiting for him the following morning. In fact, the story goes that when he got to St. Mary Major, he told everyone that he had come, just like everyone else who was there to pray, "as a pilgrim", and he didn't want any special attention, meaning he didn't want the place closed on account of his presence. (They closed it anyway, for security purposes.)

So what are we to make of the new pope's actions, gestures, and some of the first words he spoke after his election? He said, in his address to the media, that he wanted "a poor church, that was for the poor". He reminded the cardinals that unless we truly follow Christ, all we have are titles, and they don't mean much; he told everyone that he chose the name "Francis" after Cardinal Hummes from Brazil, a Franciscan, hugged and kissed him after it was clear he was going to be elected, and said to him, "Do not forget the poor".

I've been practically devouring every bit of information I could get about Pope Francis; unfortunately, the information remains scant at this point. I'm sure that more will come in the days and months ahead. In fact, his biographer (when he was cardinal in Buenos Aires) is getting ready to have his biography re-published. I checked the Amazon website; it isn't there yet. I guess I'll have to wait a bit longer. But I must say that aside from being literally moved to tears (Yes, while working out at the gym; good thing I was sweating like crazy, so it was hardly noticed), what I've seen Pope Francis do since he was elected has made me reflect and pray a lot more these past couple of days.

Still, I can understand why some have expressed surprise, consternation, confusion, and have even reacted somewhat negatively to the pope's actions - hence, my former student's note. (Imagine what people must've felt when the first Pope John Paul, did away with the papal tiara or the sedia gestatoria, the seat on which popes had been carried around in procession?) What did I think of all the changes, as well as the reactions, my student asked. Here was my response.

I can see why many express surprise and even consternation. But think about it; first, if one were truly a good Catholic, he would understand that the words and actions of the pope (as the chief shepherd and supreme lawgiver of the Church) are normative for all of us. This pope is teaching simplicity, humility, and perhaps a desire that we focus on what's truly important rather than on peripheral things.

Second, one must be able to distinguish between "style" and "substance". Pope John Paul II had his style, Pope Benedict had his, Pope Francis now has his as well. Are they different in substance? No. And substance is what counts. Style changes, substance does not. Traditions with a small "t" come and go, that which we write with a capital "T" does not. Or to paraphrase Pope John XXIII, "the deposit of faith is one thing, the manner by which it is communicated to men and women of every age, is another". The church which is "forever the same", is also the church which is "forever new"; that has always been the formula for Catholicism's "staying power".

Third, the gospel reading at Mass (for the 5th Sunday of Lent, John 8:1-11) has Jesus once again, rather strongly, criticizing the scribes and pharisees who bring a woman to him accused of adultery, whom they want to stone. Jesus forgives the woman, but throughout the gospel, pronounces woe upon woe on the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, because they are like "whitewashed tombs", persons who had become so focused on, and caught up with externals that they began neglecting the far more important internal matters of faith. "Hypocrites", Jesus called them, "washing the outside of cups", but forgetting the far more important act of cleansing the inside as well.

Fourth, Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) has God reminding us, again and again, "it is justice I desire, not sacrifice". If we read the works of the prophets Amos and Hosea, we'll see that God shows little patience towards those who value externals while neglecting the more important, internal, and essential matters of faith. "I hate all your show and pretense - the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won't even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise. I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream". (Amost 5:21-24)

Fifth, in the "Confessions" (Bk X, n.9), St. Augustine says, melius quod interius; "what is inward is superior to what is exterior". I believe the Church, with all the abuse scandals all over the world, and the power-mongering and intrigue that has sadly crept into the very heart of its bureaucracy (bear in mind that the line calling the church a "community of saints and sinners" is not just a pious platitude; it is real, it is true), requires someone who is going to refocus our energies towards what is truly important, that is, our faith in Christ and our service towards the poor and needy, which is the only litmus test of authentic faith in God that Jesus gave us (Matt. 25:31-46).

Perhaps the greatest illness of society in our time is precisely the fact that people have become too concerned, invested and even obsessed with externals (things that glitter, things that are noticeable, "bling", if you want to call it). Should we Catholics follow society on that path and simply replace secular bling with "ecclesiastical bling"? I think Jesus would prefer that we chose his way, rather than society's. Sadly, most people, even Catholics do not understand that, and many fail to realize that the trappings of our faith, though not unimportant and can in fact aid in our prayer and worship, are not of ultimate importance and can, at times, hinder rather than assist us in focusing on what is necessary and essential.

"Why do your disciples, not fast?" Jesus was asked. "Why do they not wash their hands like the disciples of John and the Pharisees do?" Jesus was consistent in his reply, he who taught that "not one letter of the Law, nor the smallest part of a letter" is to be disregarded - it is the essential that truly matters, and the essential, as St. Augustine teaches us, is "interior", for that is what matters most to God who "searches the mind and probes the heart" (Jer. 17:10)

The cardinals, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, realized that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is precisely the kind of man, the kind of pope, the kind of shepherd, who can reorient and refocus the church's attention to what truly matters. I think we should be grateful for that, support him, pray for him, learn from him, and follow his lead.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)