Potpourri of Popery, Eyewitness Edition

Hangin' w/ my homie


Just when I'd resigned myself to the fact that we're in the try-to-pay-for-college years of life and would not be having any great travel adventures for the next decade or so, my boss sent me to Rome for a conference, with a papal audience and the vigil and Mass of Pentecost as the bookends of the trip. (My travel buddy & I  snuck in 48 hours in Florence just because.)

I studied in Rome for a semester my Sophomore year of college, lived there for a year after I graduated, and returned periodically for visits, so I know it well, but hadn't been there since 1998.

In all the previous visits, much as I loved Italy and the Italians, I always had the bitter feeling that the Italian Church was dying. If you saw a young nun or priest, it was a foreign national. Heck, in Rome if you saw a child it was a foreign national. I worked in a Catholic school outside Rome those many moons ago, and hardly any of the families went to church and pretty much every kid was an only child -- and spoiled rotten by parents making up for the fact they had no time for them. A colleague used to say, "Poor Romans. So close to the Church and so far from God."

In 1998, John Paul the Great called all the "new movements" in the Church to Rome to celebrate Pentecost with him. Mr. W. & I went, a toddler Eldest Weed in tow and Girl Weed in the oven. It was glorious -- a foretaste of heaven because everywhere you went in Rome, there were crowds of the young, zealous, kind, exuberant Christians the new movements churn out. You didn't have to worry about your wallet, everyone was courteous and joyful -- you have to have been there to understand the atmosphere.

At the vigil celebration, and at the Mass the next day, the crowd literally packed St. Peter's and the spillover went down the Via della Conciliazone all the way down to the Tiber and into all the side streets.

It was astonishing. It was also largely a Latin American phenomenon. If you went into a shop or restaurant in the normal touristy places, you heard Spanish, not Italian. I'm not saying there were literally no Italian movements present -- Focolare and C&L & Saint Egidio were there and their founders spoke at the Vigil event. But the preponderance of the participants --the crowd-- was from all over Latin America. I had the feeling that the Church --Europe-- was being renewed and saved by the Global South.

That was the first instance of what has become a Church tradition: gathering all the movements together to pray at Pentecost. The Vatican does it regularly and many bishops do it in their dioceses.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. Same event, almost 15 years and two popes later. At the vigil prayer service and rally, Pope Francis did a wonderful Q & A with the crowd. He knew their questions in advance as he admitted ("always begin with the truth," he said), but he went off script a great deal -- he seemed to have more notes about what he wanted to say than a prepared speech.

I could listen to him all day. He has a pleasant, mellow voice which always seems calm, yet at the same time his face and hands are very animated when he speaks. He radiates joy -- his eyes are merry and he has a mouth predisposed to smile-- and he's funny. He loves simple examples drawn from everyday life and when he speaks to a crowd, you feel like he's talking to just you and a few friends.

You owe yourself a read through all those questions, because here's what the Pope of Rome told some of his most ardent followers, and those highly committed to being agents of the "New Evangelization" when they asked him what he wants from them.

The most edifying thing for me about the experience, however, was that the massive crowd was Italian. C&L, Focolare, Neocats.... Catholic Action Italia flags were everywhere. I didn't hear a word of any other language except in the formal presentations associated with the event. And there were Italian babies: children! (When Eldest Weed was there in '98, the natives fawned over him as if they'd never seen a baby before.) It felt like the Italian church had come alive in the past 15 years.

That wasn't the only evidence, either. Our first evening in Rome we went to vespers at Quattro Coronati with a community of Augustinian nuns. They are young (-ish). And they had young postulants and novices! Afterwards there was mass and this young Italian priest gave a splendid homily about Christian witness. He was zealous and "alive" and didn't seem like he was slogging slowly through another day at the world's most boring job, which is the vibe the Italian clergy gave off back in the day.

I came away from the week hopeful that there is some counter-movement against the "death of Europe."

I know I've said it before, but in spite of their different styles and modes of expression, Pope Francis reminds me a great deal of BXVI (Francis quotes BXVI all the time, for starters, and not just formally, to establish continuity. It's clear that Cardinal Bergoglio took Benedict's project much to heart and has the same concerns on his mind: Christian unity; engagement with atheists and agnostics, search-and-rescue of the fallen away; the family). They have the same way of speaking to a crowd "man-to-man" as it were. "Look, let's think about this together," they both seem to say.

And as for Francis' simplicity, supposedly so much at odds with BXVI, they seem like peas in a pod to me in the sense that each in his way has tried to shrug off any attention to himself or his own person and focus all the attention on Christ and grace. Each in his way has been or is being criticized for shrinking the papacy in some way. Benedict "caught it" from some quarters for the Jesus of Nazareth volumes and for the interview book -- for speaking as a man and not always magisterially, and for inviting disagreement. Francis is catching it from the same quarters for his daily homilies. I heard on Catholic radio today that people want formal texts of them, but the Vatican only wants to give summaries, because a text would require someone making a transcript and then the Holy Father reviewing the text to produce something formal and subject to scrutiny. The Pope doesn't want those daily homilies to be like that; they're more like Benedict granting an interview. Benedict continued living the intellectual life and sought interlocutors to keep himself grounded. Francis' living at Domus Marta is part of his living in community to keep himself grounded.

In neither case is there any carelessness about the office of the papacy. There's just careful distinction between the man and the office and a deliberate effort not to allow people to put the man on a pedestal. "I" am not important; the One I serve is.

I love Francis' Jesuit-style  "three words" homilies. Take his Pentecost homily, for which I was present.  Newness-harmony-mission.

A recurring topic in Francis' preaching already is the need for the Church --and individual Christians-- to allow God to work in us rather than limiting the life of grace to what we think we can accomplish on our own power. He said it to priests at the Chrism mass and to other groups. Here he's preaching primarily to the new movements:
Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, programme and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences. This is also the case when it comes to God. Often we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point. It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision. We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own. Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness - God always brings newness -, and demands our complete trust: Noah, mocked by all, builds an ark and is saved; Abram leaves his land with only a promise in hand; Moses stands up to the might of Pharaoh and leads his people to freedom; the apostles, huddled fearfully in the Upper Room, go forth with courage to proclaim the Gospel. This is not a question of novelty for novelty’s sake, the search for something new to relieve our boredom, as is so often the case in our own day. The newness which God brings into our life is something that actually brings fulfilment, that gives true joy, true serenity, because God loves us and desires only our good. Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to “God’s surprises”? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit?
The surprises of God. Love that!

Then he moves to harmony. If God is always stirring up "newness," isn't he also stirring up trouble?
the Holy Spirit would appear to create disorder in the Church, since he brings the diversity of charisms and gifts; yet all this, by his working, is a great source of wealth, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which does not mean uniformity, but which leads everything back to harmony. In the Church, it is the Holy Spirit who creates harmony. One of Fathers of the Church has an expression which I love: the Holy Spirit himself is harmony – “Ipse harmonia est”. He is indeed harmony. Only the Spirit can awaken diversity, plurality and multiplicity, while at the same time building unity.
Now watch this, and recall it when anyone tries to invoke Francis' love of the poor in defense of the social welfare state.
Here too, when we are the ones who try to create diversity and close ourselves up in what makes us different and other, we bring division. When we are the ones who want to build unity in accordance with our human plans, we end up creating uniformity, standardization.
(Echoes of one of my favorite Toqueville quotations, and a favorite Benedict-an theme.)  He continues:
 ...if instead we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit, richness, variety and diversity never become a source of conflict, because he impels us to experience variety within the communion of the Church. Journeying together in the Church, under the guidance of her pastors who possess a special charism and ministry, is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit. Having a sense of the Church is something fundamental for every Christian, every community and every movement. It is the Church which brings Christ to me, and me to Christ; parallel journeys are very dangerous! When we venture beyond (proagon) the Church’s teaching and community – the Apostle John tells us in his Second Letter - and do not remain in them, we are not one with the God of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Jn v. 9). So let us ask ourselves: Am I open to the harmony of the Holy Spirit, overcoming every form of exclusivity? Do I let myself be guided by him, living in the Church and with the Church?
Then he gets to mission, where he picks up on his urging these movements the previous day not to create blessed enclaves for themselves, but to go out on search and rescue missions. The crisis of today, he said, is neither economic nor cultural. It's a crisis of humanity. Man is in danger, and what he needs is the Gospel. With the previous day's exhortation in the background he says:
The older theologians used to say that the soul is a kind of sailboat, the Holy Spirit is the wind which fills its sails and drives it forward, and the gusts of wind are the gifts of the Spirit. Lacking his impulse and his grace, we do not go forward. The Holy Spirit draws us into the mystery of the living God and saves us from the threat of a Church which is gnostic and self-referential, closed in on herself; he impels us to open the doors and go forth to proclaim and bear witness to the good news of the Gospel, to communicate the joy of faith, the encounter with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the soul of mission.
The events that took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not something far removed from us; they are events which affect us and become a lived experience in each of us. The Pentecost of the Upper Room in Jerusalem is the beginning, a beginning which endures. The Holy Spirit is the supreme gift of the risen Christ to his apostles, yet he wants that gift to reach everyone. As we heard in the Gospel, Jesus says: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to remain with you forever” (Jn 14:16). It is the Paraclete Spirit, the “Comforter”, who grants us the courage to take to the streets of the world, bringing the Gospel! The Holy Spirit makes us look to the horizon and drive us to the very outskirts of existence in order to proclaim life in Jesus Christ. Let us ask ourselves: do we tend to stay closed in on ourselves, on our group, or do we let the Holy Spirit open us to mission?
This homily is so sweet. The Pope celebrated Mass at a Roman parish on Trinity Sunday, and he spoke mainly to a bunch of First Communicants. Here's what he said about Mary:
Our Lady, as soon as she had heard the news that she was to be the Mother of Jesus and the announcement that her cousin Elizabeth was expecting a child — the Gospel says — she went to her in haste, she did not wait. She did not say: “But now I am with child I must take care of my health. My cousin is bound to have friends who can care for her”. Something stirred her and she “went with haste” to Elizabeth (cf. Lk 1:39). It is beautiful to think this of Our Lady, of our Mother, that she hastens, because she intends to help. She goes to help, she doesn't go to boast and tell her cousin: “listen, I’m in charge now, because I am the Mother of God!”. No, she did not do that. She went to help! And Our Lady is always like this. She is our Mother who always hurries to us whenever we are in need.
It would be beautiful to add to the Litany of Our Lady something like this: “O Lady who goes in haste, pray for us!”. It is lovely, isn’t? For she always goes in haste, she does not forget her children. And when her children are in difficulty, when they need something and call on her, she hurries to them. This gives us a security, the security of always having our Mother next to us, beside us. We move forward, we journey more easily in life when our mother is near. Let us think of this grace of Our Lady, this grace that she gives us: of being close to us, but without making us wait for her. Always! She — lets us trust in this — she lives to help us. Our Lady who always hastens, for our sake.
And then he did a typical pastor's Q & A w/ First Communicants. Read it, it's darling.  (Or google for the video so you can see how he interacts w/ the kids. He heard confessions too.)

No Corpus Christi text yet, but you can watch the ceremony w/ English dub here. The Pope walked the one mile from St. John to St. Mary Majors behind the monstrance -- first time in twenty years that's been done. 

A Vatican first:  worldwide Eucharistic adoration took place today at 5 pm Rome time, 11 am EST (text and video at the link).

See also Fr. Schall's commentary on the Pope's address to Italian bishops.

And finally: Mass too long? Pope Francis has a solution.