Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do You Accept? One year later.

As we approached the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, I knew that I wanted to offer some kind of reflection on him and the phenomena that the first year of his pontificate has been.  I was not interested in offering some kind of analysis of his impact or a presenting a survey of the various ways in which his words or actions have been received.  In my wonderment of what was intriguing me to say anything, I found myself focusing my thoughts on the man himself and what this year has been for him personally. 

When I was growing up I liked games shows with celebrity contestants as well as talk shows because I was intrigued by the fact that these stars were real people and I wanted to know what they were really like.  In Pope Francis, I think we have had the opportunity to know "the real man."  In both his prepared remarks and his unscripted comments, the Holy Father has shown an appreciation for the every challenges of discipleship.  He balances his public appearance with a public glimpse of normal routine life.  And because of all that, I found myself thinking back to a year ago and wondering, what was he thinking as it was clear his life was about to change. What was he thinking as the Dean of the College of Cardinals asked him, "Do you accept?"  I can't know what he was thinking but I do know what he saw during those moments, Michelangelo's great fresco, "The Last Judgement."

I have been blessed to visit the Sistine Chapel twice in my life.  My first experience was like many tourists, not knowing where to look while you are quickly ushered through.  The second time I went, I made a choice that I would spend my brief time focused on the this scene of The Last Judgement. I could not help but be overwhelmed by it.  It was not a static two dimensional painting that I saw, but an image of great movement; people being swept up to heaven with the Lord's right hand and others sliding into the netherworld after confronting the forearm of his left.  "Which direction am I headed?"  I asked myself.  In one united gesture, the resurrected and glorified body of Christ says, "Come inherit the Kingdom, to you did it for me." and "Depart to you who did not do it for me."  With this image before him, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said, "Accepto" in acceptance of his election as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. I believe it is with this image in mind, that Pope Francis has lived this first year of his pontificate.  He has asked us in his preaching, teaching and action if we are willing to accept the standards of this Last Judgement.

"Who am I to judge?" is possibly the most quoted statement of the Holy Father thus far. Many have used it to say that the Holy Father felt that he, and therefore no one else, had the right to make a definitive statement about sin. His answer was not, that there is no judgement, but that he is not the judge.  It is the Son of Man, Matthew's gospel says, that will come in glory and judge on the standard of what we have done for Him.  I don't know what he was thinking when he accepted the call to serve as Pope but I do know that in his year as our Holy Father, Pope Francis has sought to bring us to a favorable final judgement by directing us to the least among us.

"Do you accept?" is the question of discipleship.  Do you accept the mandate to do for me, who did it for you?  Do you accept the challenge to die to self service and selfishness.  Do you accept the admonition to do for the least not because you recognize Christ in them but more importantly when you can't see the good in them?  Do you accept the cross of laying down your life for the will of the Father and the care of His people?

I can only wonder how hard it was for Pope Francis to say "Yes," but I know for certain how hard it is for me to say, "Yes," to this standard of judgement.  I truly believe that our world today has made it harder and harder to say, "Yes," to this standard of judgement.  The threat of terror and a failing economy force us to worry more about ourselves. A plague of objectification afflicts us due to the proliferation of pornography.  Even our technology has developed cameras for our phones that make it easier to take pictures of ourselves and therefore be less focused on remembering our moments with others.  

I think Pope Francis understands how hard it is for us to accept the standard of the Last Judgement.  A year ago I prayed that the new Pope would make me a better person and a priest.  In coming to "know" him, I know that he has accepted the mission to help me understand the measure by which I will be judged and has challenged me to say, "I accept." 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Spark Amidst the Ashes

Some time ago, during a at home Holy Communion call, I struck up a conversation with the elderly woman I was visiting.  I asked her about her children, her late husband's job and the place where she raised her family.  Sadly, she could not remember much about these things.  She could not remember all the names of her children and grandchildren, the name of the town where she raised them or what her husband did to support them.  And she knew it.  She told me how sad she was that she could not remember.  I then asked her if she could remember the street she grew up on.  Her eyes lit up and she told me the name of the street in Brooklyn.  I asked her if she could remember the name of her parish and the light in her eyes was there again as she said the name.  Not only could she remember who she was, her sadness turned to joy as she told me about that place that was not so far away, but very present in her mind.  The spark of her true self still burned.

I thought of this visit as we marked the beginning of the season of Lent, with Ash Wednesday.  I was almost surprised to see our church so full at 7:30 last night, because after the crowds we experienced throughout the day, it was hard to believe that there was anyone left in our town who had not come to receive ashes, but fill the church once more they did.  The response to this day is hard to figure out, the phone calls inquiring about the times for distribution started a week earlier.  What is it that makes them come? Perhaps it is similar to the spark of recognition that I saw in the woman I visited.  For the Ash Wednesday crowds, the spark of faith and true identity is still burning.

Traditionally the ashes used on this day come from the palm branches used at the beginning of Holy Week, a year ago.  A year ago, Holy Week concluded and Easter began with the new fire.  That new fire was used to light the candles held by the congregation at the Easter Vigil. On that night the church was aglow with all of these individual flames of faith.  Throughout the year we all did our best to keep the flame of faith burning.  The passion of our faith carried us through the joys and sorrows of the year, but despite our best efforts it began to dim and the ash began to build.  The spark however is still there.

The Gospel we use on Ash Wednesday seems a bit incongruent for the occasion. Here we are publicly signing ourselves with an outward symbol as we listen to a gospel passage that tells us to keep our penitential acts secret.  Our public act of being signed with ashes is simply a communal recognition of the private work that now begins.  The ashes remind us of our mortality and that despite our attempts to live good lives, we are not yet good enough.  We have work to do.  The spark of faith will becoming a growing flame if we do the private work of prayer, fasting and almsgiving throughout these next 40 days.  The public act of Ash Wednesday reveals to us that the ember of faith is still there.  We do not simply remember what we once were, but we are recommitted to being our true selves made in the image and likeness of God.  Ash Wednesday calls us to fan the ember of faith through acts of penance and spiritual renewal. 

The phone calls and the crowds of Ash Wednesday always bring me hope, because I believe that the experience is a revelation of the spark of faith that still burns among the ashes of our lives.  I know that among the crowds there were many who had not been to church for a very long time. They were there with those who are in church every day and every week -- and each one of us has become ashen over time.  We forget who we are and the light of faith has dimmed - but through this simple sign, we remember who we are and we inspired not to travel back in time, but live today, alive in faith.  

When I was a Boy Scout, I learned to never assume that a campfire was completely out, there could always be an ember still burning that could light a new fire.  As a priest and more importantly as a disciple, I have learned to never assume that the light of faith is completely burned out, there could still be an ember amidst the ashes of ones life.  Somehow the tradition of Ash Wednesday makes that spark come alive so that the soul who desires it may be renewed in the weeks ahead.