This has been an amazing year for the Church.
The year of a new Bishop for Buffalo
The year of two popes for the Church
The year of two more saints for New York -- Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope
With so many worrying about the church’s future, some lamenting the lost past of the church, let’s take time tonight to celebrate the church in the present tense. And the present tense now includes these graduates of Christ the King Seminary—ready, especially able, and graciously willing to enter fully into ministry.
Part of the church’s present tense came home to me on Wednesday evening at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Olean. Bishop Malone came to confirm 81 young men and women. It was a wonderful night. What impressed me deeply as we waited to begin the liturgy was the very energetic buzz and hum of excitement filling the church. Last minute music rehearsal was in full swing. Fr. Greg Dobson was calling out eleventh hour directives (“No gum, no cell phones...The bishop has arrived! Look sharp, folks!) Before you laugh consider that someday you, too, will be tacking such important pastoral moments. People were arriving from two vicariates. There were sponsors, parents, grand-parents….The happiness and pride of everyone connected to the night was tangible.
How wonderful, I thought, as I sat trying to collect my wits about being a good sponsor. How wonderful that these young teens are seeing the sense of honor and awe and delight that welcomes them into this maturation in their faith. And, of course, our bishop’s sermon to them captured that reality with great thoughtfulness and power. I thought about you then and realized that this is the church you long to serve.
Is ours an institution grappling with heart-wrenching difficulties? It sure is. Can we make a long list of problems facing contemporary Catholics that sounds like a catalog from the Book of Job? Yes, we can. But tonight let’s catch ourselves in the act of happiness in our belonging here. Dare we imagine that we are called not only to be baptized into Christ’s death, but that even now, we ascend into his joy as we live our creed, practice our commitments? And how might the desire for new faith and hope be galvanized by a Pope who decided to be a new Francis? This is the theme I would like to dwell upon for a few minutes tonight.
Part I: A Church with a Pope named Francis
The response to our new pontiff’s choice of name was immediate. Commentators spoke of the joy of Italians for whom Francis is not only a patron but a beloved and heroic figure of history.
Many immediately seized upon popular descriptions of what this might mean since Francis is known for simplicity, humility, joy, peace. Pope Francis himself described it as an inspiration coming with the admonition to “not forget the poor.” The world at large seemed to delight in a name which is recognized and has great meaning well beyond the Catholic world and in inter-faith circles. Remember that the World Day of Prayer for Peace takes place in Assisi—not Rome. Environmental groups and peace activists feel right at home there. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, credits the serene peace of Assisi with helping him unlock one of the biggest problems he faced in his research. His visit there calmed his spirit and made the breakthrough possible. I remind you that Jonas Salk was Jewish.
It is amazing and comforting to see Pope Francis continue to surprise us with actions that echo the saint of Assisi:
Washing the feet of young addicts on Holy Thursday
Living in a simple apartment at Casa Santa Marta
Making his own phone calls and paying his bills
Is he — a “new kind of fool” for the Gospel — as Francis called himself quite often? Is he deliberately keeping us on the edge of our seats wondering what he will do next? Is he “mixing it up” so that when he calls upon us for dramatic response, we will be ready? And… can you imagine the poor Swiss Guards trying to protect this man who will not stay put?
There is a bit of springtime wafting through the church. Not that our previous papacies were winter events. But our previous pontiffs had grown old and frail and seemingly removed from the robust physical presence we remember from the early years of John Paul II. But, we stand in some danger here. To you who graduate this evening—who have spent years becoming officially credentialed for important church ministry—I want to impart a way of thinking about the significance of our new pontiff’s name.
As much as I am touched by the popularity of Francis among the multitudes of our saints, I also see that often it is a caricature of Francis of Assisi that first attracts people, I imagine that a Gallup poll would find that many, if asked about the popularity of Il Poverello would respond that he is loved because of his simplicity, his love for animals, his fraternal love for all men and women. I do not believe that most people really love him for his dedication to “Lady Poverty.” I think that scares and confuses most folks, but few want to admit that. Failure to admire his spirit of detachment might indicate that you are greedy, self-centered and do not want to be challenged by his example. Thus I worry when secular and some religious commentators start to wax eloquent about Pope Francis wanting to emulate the Poor Man of Assisi. The poverty of Francis is radical on every level. Taking him seriously—trying to walk with him—is not for the faint of heart.
The great German historian, Joseph Lortz described the problem like this:
“Francis effected a profound renewal of Christianity. But it must be admitted, he also posed a threat. Dynamite always means danger, and Francis was dynamite.”
So, what do I propose as an antidote to this temptation to reduce Francis of Assisi to a list of virtues that can be rattled off in a sound bite or turned into a bumper sticker? Allow me to lay bare, if I may be so bold, the notion of the poverty of St. Francis.
Part II: The Poverty of God and the Poverty of Francis
Two stories emerge as pivotal in the religious conversion of Francis of Assisi. You know them. The first was his meeting and eventual embrace of a leper. The second was his encounter with the Byzantine cross in the sanctuary of San Damiano and the voice he heard calling him to rebuild a ruined church. Too often even smart Franciscans separate these two and put them in opposition to each other.
If meeting the needs of a socially marginalized group and advocating for that group’s being treated with dignity is the most fundamental lesson of Franciscan poverty, then it is little wonder that over and over the Order and its members find themselves in a kind of holy war over how that is to be done. Is it a political process? Is it a pastoral practice? Is it a cultural paradigm shift? Is it a call to arms—whether of words or weapons?
The Voice from the Cross
It is critical for us to understand that Francis’ experience of radical poverty was not only the kiss of the leper. It was first seen in the kenosis of our Lord Jesus Christ. The irreducible heart of the Franciscan rule contains three citations from the Gospels:
Mt. 19:21 If you wish to be perfect sell all that you own and give it to the poor
Lk 18:22 And you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow Me
Mt. 16:24 To follow me renounce yourself, take up your Cross and come follow me
The demand to give up all possessions is to make possible the act of taking up a Cross and following Jesus. The insistence of Francis is that the letting go of possession is to permit one’s hands to be free to embrace the Cross. Then one is to be intent on one thing only: following in the footprints of Jesus. It is a concrete, incarnate following. We do not follow a phantasm, a memory, a symbol. We are focused on the footprints left by a human being who shows us the way to our own immortal destiny which is to be led back to the heart of the Triune God.
It is the cross that first thunders the lesson of poverty. Francis is caught up by the wonder of what he reads, perceives in the Scriptures. The motive for poverty and humility is not a social program. It comes from 2Cor.8:9: Though rich beyond measure he chose poverty and emptied himself (Phil.2:7). The figure that he saw depicted in glowing hues on that icon was a Divine Being now surrendered to the will of God in utter abandonment and obedience. And on that Face he saw not tortured suffering, but a radiant peace.
Thus did Francis see poverty as a state of life that would marry his soul to the Divine Bridegroom. (The idea that he was “married to Lady Poverty” was a second generation “riff” on the early oral tradition of the brothers.) The reality of the Incarnation stunned him. God—rich in all power and magnificence—empties Himself and become a “mere mortal. “ Jesus of Nazareth is not only fully human, he must accept the limits of being embodied and the ultimate limit of loss—death.
This divine despoiling is without boundary. So Francis, being given to no-holds-barred discipleship wants to experience—to taste as it were—every form of poverty. Physical poverty is the most obvious: poor garments, few creature comforts, rejection of the security of money. But he insists on a psychological stance of poverty. Are you rich in your own opinions, your own learning, your own superior judgments? Get rid of that, too. Are you rich in your own supposed righteousness so that you can judge others and condemn them in word and deed? Well, that is a form of ego-centric wealth that you need to renounce. The list goes on.
He was an Olympian disciple of Jesus. Whatever he might do to exercise the muscle of his experience of the self-emptying of the Messiah—that he did. To put it into a brief formula: Franciscan poverty begins with Christology. If it does not, it soon deteriorates into ideology and narcissism.
Tonight, you cross a threshold of qualifying for service in the church. You come from all states of life and all ranks of the Church’s faithful. This is one of the great strengths and virtues of the approach of Christ the King Seminary. This is part of its Franciscan inheritance. When Francis summoned the people to prepare to serve God, he did not limit his concern to the clerics—important as they were and revered as they were. Every rank of the faithful was included in his movement.
Pope Francis chose his new name in a moment of grace-filled clarity. He is taking his name seriously. If we are to respond to the full implications of the program that the name Francesco symbolizes, then we must be willing to probe the ancient wisdom that made the man of Assisi totally consumed with the love of Christ. To know Francis of Assisi is to know one who cannot get enough of the Beloved. He cannot find words enough to speak of Him. He cannot imagine enough ways to mirror him day by day. It was precisely this Christ-centered spirit that made Francis probe all possible definitions of poverty.
I believe that it is incredibly important for Christians living in a first world, post-modern, capitalistic /consumer centered culture to “get it” when it comes to the poverty of the Gospel. We are tempted to many paths that I believe lead to folly or failure. Radical material impoverishment may be the call of a chosen few. But it is a dangerous path. Too many, feeling that such a so-called “Franciscan” way is just too hard, miss altogether the truth that Francis used that economic step-down as a visible earthen vessel meant to hold the interior forms of humility, profound reverence for the other—as other, and refusal to place oneself as judge or lord of another’s life. These disciplines are costly. One will be mistaken for being weak-willed, or indecisive, or soft, or lacking in standards at times. But such a stance before the world, before all creatures, is what made Francis so beloved. In that vision of a man wholly inflamed by the humility of Christ, we see a possible world of mutuality and peace. We see the beatitudes’ “impossible dream.”
We live now in a church with a suddenly spoken new name as a kind of spiritual North Star. May you carry forward with your diplomas the conviction of hope and peace that our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, expressed in his magnificent farewell address.
I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have the times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been—and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His—and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, He does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so. This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish. It is for this reason, that today my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for never did He leave me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.
In that spirit, congratulations and Godspeed.