At our Mass today we rejoice in our new Holy Father, Pope Francis. We thank God for the gift of his election and for the many talents he brings to his ministry to the Apostolic See.
Already we see the early flowering of some of those God-given talents: his presence in the public eye as a firm witness to the joy and hope which a solid relationship with Christ brings into our lives; his ability to convey the love, mercy and tenderness of God in his words and gestures; his radiant humility combined with firmness of action; his utter commitment to the dignity of all human life from the beginnings of that life to its natural end; to the true pattern of marriage and family; to his insistence on our attentiveness to those who are poor and on the margins of society; to his passion for justice between all people. We take to heart his insistence that Christ alone, carrying His Cross, is the centre of the Church, that He is the peace who binds us together.
As we reflect on the immensity of the ministry on which Pope Francis is now embarking, there are three moments in the Gospels which help us to understand the role of the Holy Father in the Church, a role given to him by Christ himself.
The first of these is the Gospel passage we have just heard. The humble fisherman, Peter, finds himself saying words that have echoed down through the centuries: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ In reply he hears words that not only explain his own statement but also define the rest of his life and that of all his successors. Jesus says to Peter: ‘You are a blessed man because it was my Father in heaven who revealed this to you.’ And then the words: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.’
Here we are in the realm of the Holy Spirit. What Peter said was not of his own making. It was the work of the Holy Spirit. The Petrine task he was given is always to be the work of God. The choice of his successors, in a similar way, is fruit of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For these reasons it is our faith that the Bishop of Rome, who in his person is the successor of Peter, presides in love over the entire Church.
The Pope, then, is the focus of our unity. And Pope Francis has made it clear, as did his much beloved predecessor His Holiness Benedict XVI, that this unity is found only in Christ. In one of his early homilies, Pope Francis spoke of the movement of the Church as walking in the light of Christ, building up the Body of Christ and confessing the name of Christ in the world. Then he added that these movements will not be properly effective unless they have at their heart the Cross of Christ. He said: ‘When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross we are not disciples of the Lord; we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes but not disciples of the Lord. Walk with the Lord’s Cross; build the Church on the Lord’s blood poured out on the Cross; profess one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way the Church will go forward.’
Indeed we must do this because the Cross of Christ is God’s response to the evil in the world: a response which is love, mercy and forgiveness. For us, carrying the cross is to 'carrying in our hearts this word of love and forgiveness.' So, Pope Francis says, 'Let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.'
We pray for Pope Francis that he may be a powerful sign and source of our unity in Jesus.
A second important moment, between Jesus and Peter, which shapes the ministry of the Pope, came after a hard, unsuccessful night’s fishing. Jesus, standing on the shore, said to Peter: ‘Put out into the deep.’ Peter did so and then struggled to haul in the huge catch of fish (Lk5.4-11). Peter, seeing what had happened, fell to his knees and said: ‘Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ Jesus said: ‘Do not be afraid’ and gave his commission to go out and bring the Good News of the love of Jesus to all people.
Pope Francis is telling us, more than once, that he sees the Church at its best when it is outward looking, going forth to meet people in the specific circumstances of their lives. Memorably he prompted us priests to go out and come back ‘smelling like our sheep!’
He has said that when the Church fails to look outward, then it is 'self-referential’ preoccupied with itself. Then, he added, ‘inadvertently she believes she has her own light, and is not dependent totally on Christ, for receiving and reflecting his light. If this happens, then the Church (those in the Church) live to give glory only to one another and not to the rest of the world.’
We heard, in the first reading, an example of the Church as outward looking. The minute the first disciples were released from prison by the angel, led by Peter they returned to the Temple and continued to give witness to Jesus, the risen Lord. When challenged, Peter said: ‘Obedience to God comes before obedience to men’ and they continued, in the face of every obstacle, to put forward the message of the Gospel.
Let us pray that we too will become an outward looking Church. Let us pray that Pope Francis will continue to lead us with courage and imagination on this same path.
Then there is a third passage to which we must turn. It comes at the end of the Gospel of John when, after his resurrection, Jesus meets Peter and asks him three times: ‘Do you love me?’ This is such a poignant and powerful moment. It tells us that in following Jesus one thing matters above all else: that we love him. It tells us that in the ‘job description’ of a Pope, this is the one qualification above all others. ‘Do you love me?’
The Church must be a community rooted in the love of the Lord.
Pope Francis understands this in practical terms. He has already identified two kinds of behaviour that destroy love in the Church. They are complaining and gossiping. He is a practical man. He knows that we live in a society in which complaining and gossip is a standard fare. They sell newspapers and attract us to blogs because we love hear complaints and to read gossip.
But Pope Francis is clear: they should have no place in the Church.
He reminded us that the disciples, on the road to Emmaus were sad and complaining. He added: 'and the more they complained, the more they were closed in on themselves. They did not have a horizon before them, only a wall.' Complaining and griping about others, about things in one's own life, is harmful, he said 'because it dashes hope. Don't get into this game of a life of complaints.' Then, in another memorable phrase, he added that some ‘stew their lives in the juice of their own complaining.'
And gossip, too, he says, is a betrayal of Jesus. For when we gossip we see the lives of other people as merchandise, something to be exchanged for our own advantage. He said: 'I don't know why, but there is a dark joy in gossiping. Sometimes we begin by saying nice things about another, but then we slip into gossip, making the object of our chatter merchandise to be bartered. Let us ask forgiveness because when we do this to a friend, we do it to Jesus because Jesus is in this friend.'
We, as Catholics, are always ready to profess our love for the Lord. But now Pope Francis is calling us to show that love in down-to-earth ways. How wonderful it would be if our Church was known to be a place that was free of the sound of complaining and the whisper of gossip! Then the light of Christ would indeed shine brightly.
Today we thank God for our new Holy Father. May the Lord bless him and preserve him, give him health and a long life. And may we support him always with our love and prayers. Amen
10 April 2013