Monday, June 17, 2013

On "Life Sunday," The Barque Meets the Bikes

...and, there, the "When Worlds Collide" shot everyone's been waiting for – the Pope blessing a couple thousand Harley riders, who came with their bikes for a Vatican pilgrimage as part of a weekend-long meeting in Rome.

The group's presence even got a papal plug at the Angelus:

By the looks of it, the only thing missing was Lou Vallone, so whenever Pittsburgh's legendary biker-priest rides into town next, they'll just have to do it all over again.

Meanwhile, as two Harleys were given to the Pope after Wednesday's General Audience, given Francis' oft-stated priority, perhaps the gifts could end up being part of an initiative recently highlighted for the struggling church in Haiti, where motorcycles were donated to help a diocese's field teachers reach their schools more safely and effectively than their usual means of riding mules.

* * *
Sure, the Hogs took center stage for the press, but as previously noted, yesterday's actual Main Event was the closing liturgy of a two-day Vatican conference commemorating Evangelium Vitae, Blessed John Paul II's 1995 encyclical on "The Gospel of Life."

Unusual as an outdoor papal Mass to close a relatively low-profile symposium might seem – and is – it's worth recalling that such is the new Pope's nature that he doesn't need much prodding to take to the Basilica steps. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio's policy was to celebrate the major diocesan liturgies not in the capital's metropolitan cathedral, but in the plaza outside it – both for the church to give witness in the open, and to avert the building's restrictions on space and seating. (By contrast, though Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI eventually came to accept outdoor rites as part and parcel of the modern papacy, Francis' predecessor reportedly sought to have his inaugural liturgy moved inside St Peter's Basilica, succeeding with time at bringing in several other events previously held outdoors.)

In any event, the weekend's focus on life was underpinned by the presence of a delegation of the sick flanking the altar, who Francis greeted individually following the Mass (above and below). And here, in its Vatican translation, the pontiff's homily:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This celebration has a very beautiful name: the Gospel of Life. In this Eucharist, in the Year of Faith, let us thank the Lord for the gift of life in all its forms, and at the same time let us proclaim the Gospel of Life.

On the basis of the word of God which we have heard, I would like to offer you three simple points of meditation for our faith: first, the Bible reveals to us the Living God, the God who is life and the source of life; second, Jesus Christ bestows life and the Holy Spirit maintains us in life; and third, following God’s way leads to life, whereas following idols leads to death.

1. The first reading, taken from the Second Book of Samuel, speaks to us of life and death. King David wants to hide the act of adultery which he committed with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in his army. To do so, he gives the order that Uriah be placed on the front lines and so be killed in battle. The Bible shows us the human drama in all its reality: good and evil, passion, sin and its consequences. Whenever we want to assert ourselves, when we become wrapped up in our own selfishness and put ourselves in the place of God, we end up spawning death. King David’s adultery is one example of this. Selfishness leads to lies, as we attempt to deceive ourselves and those around us. But God cannot be deceived. We heard how the prophet says to David: "Why have you done evil in the Lord’s sight? (cf. 2 Sam 12:9). The King is forced to face his deeds of death; what he has done is truly a deed of death, not life! He recognizes what he has done and he begs forgiveness: "I have sinned against the Lord!" (v. 13). The God of mercy, who desires life and always forgives us, now forgives David and restores him to life. The prophet tells him: "The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die".

What is the image we have of God? Perhaps he appears to us as a severe judge, as someone who curtails our freedom and the way we live our lives. But the Scriptures everywhere tell us that God is the Living One, the one who bestows life and points the way to fullness of life. I think of the beginning of the Book of Genesis: God fashions man out of the dust of the earth; he breathes in his nostrils the breath of life, and man becomes a living being (cf. 2:7). God is the source of life; thanks to his breath, man has life. God’s breath sustains the entire journey of our life on earth. I also think of the calling of Moses, where the Lord says that he is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of the living. When he sends Moses to Pharaoh to set his people free, he reveals his name: "I am who I am", the God who enters into our history, sets us free from slavery and death, and brings life to his people because he is the Living One. I also think of the gift of the Ten Commandments: a path God points out to us towards a life which is truly free and fulfilling. The commandments are not a litany of prohibitions – you must not do this, you must not do that, you must not do the other; on the contrary, they are a great "Yes!": a yes to God, to Love, to life. Dear friends, our lives are fulfilled in God alone, because only he is the Living One!

2. Today’s Gospel brings us another step forward. Jesus allows a woman who was a sinner to approach him during a meal in the house of a Pharisee, scandalizing those present. Not only does he let the woman approach but he even forgives her sins, saying: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Lk 7:47). Jesus is the incarnation of the Living God, the one who brings life amid so many deeds of death, amid sin, selfishness and self-absorption. Jesus accepts, loves, uplifts, encourages, forgives, restores the ability to walk, gives back life. Throughout the Gospels we see how Jesus by his words and actions brings the transforming life of God. This was the experience of the woman who anointed the feet of the Lord with ointment: she felt understood, loved, and she responded by a gesture of love: she let herself be touched by God’s mercy, she obtained forgiveness and she started a new life. God, the Living One, is merciful. Do you agree? Let’s say it together: God, the Living One, is merciful! All together now: God, the Living One, is merciful. Once again: God, the Living One is merciful!

This was also the experience of the Apostle Paul, as we heard in the second reading: "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). What is this life? It is God’s own life. And who brings us this life? It is the Holy Spirit, the gift of the risen Christ. The Spirit leads us into the divine life as true children of God, as sons and daughters in the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Are we open to the Holy Spirit? Do we let ourselves be guided by him? Christians are "spiritual". This does not mean that we are people who live "in the clouds", far removed from real life, as if it were some kind of mirage. No! The Christian is someone who thinks and acts in everyday life according to God’s will, someone who allows his or her life to be guided and nourished by the Holy Spirit, to be a full life, a life worthy of true sons and daughters. And this entails realism and fruitfulness. Those who let themselves be led by the Holy Spirit are realists, they know how to survey and assess reality. They are also fruitful; their lives bring new life to birth all around them.

3. God is the Living One, the Merciful One; Jesus brings us the life of God; the Holy Spirit gives and keeps us in our new life as true sons and daughters of God. But all too often, as we know from experience, people do not choose life, they do not accept the "Gospel of Life" but let themselves be led by ideologies and ways of thinking that block life, that do not respect life, because they are dictated by selfishness, self-interest, profit, power and pleasure, and not by love, by concern for the good of others. It is the eternal dream of wanting to build the city of man without God, without God’s life and love – a new Tower of Babel. It is the idea that rejecting God, the message of Christ, the Gospel of Life, will somehow lead to freedom, to complete human fulfilment. As a result, the Living God is replaced by fleeting human idols which offer the intoxication of a flash of freedom, but in the end bring new forms of slavery and death. The wisdom of the Psalmist says: "The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes" (Ps 19:8). Let us always remember: the Lord is the Living One, he is merciful. The Lord is the Living One, he is merciful.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look to God as the God of Life, let us look to his law, to the Gospel message, as the way to freedom and life. The Living God sets us free! Let us say "Yes" to love and not selfishness. Let us say "Yes" to life and not death. Let us say "Yes" to freedom and not enslavement to the many idols of our time. In a word, let us say "Yes" to the God who is love, life and freedom, and who never disappoints (cf. 1 Jn 4:8; Jn 11:2; Jn 8:32); let us say "Yes" to the God who is the Living One and the Merciful One. Only faith in the Living God saves us: in the God who in Jesus Christ has given us his own life by the gift of the Holy Spirit and has made it possible to live as true sons and daughters of God through his mercy. This faith brings us freedom and happiness. Let us ask Mary, Mother of Life, to help us receive and bear constant witness to the "Gospel of Life". Amen.
* * *
Here, we come to an intriguing twist in the plot-line.

Perhaps it's needless to say, but in the context of the Magisterium, much of the Western discourse has seen the term "life" become either ideologized at worst, or taken piecemeal at best. That's arguably nowhere truer than in the States, and both sides in the American Catholic conversation bear responsibility for it.

In that light, it was rather striking that the Vatican chose to release the Pope's letter to this week's G8 Summit in Northern Ireland yesterday, in tandem with the Francis' "Gospel of Life" homily, instead of waiting for the gathering's start (and the Press Office's normal workweek) today.

The papal response was prompted by a message sent by the convener of this year's round of talks between the world's industrialized superpowers, the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

As it's apparently intended to be seen as part of the weekend's "life" package, the text of the Pope's letter, dated Saturday, is given below:

To The Right Honourable David Cameron, MP
Prime Minister [of the United Kingdom]

I am pleased to reply to your kind letter of 5 June 2013, with which you were good enough to inform me of your Government's agenda for the British G8 Presidency during the year 2013 and of the forthcoming Summit, due to take place at Lough Erne on 17 and 18 June 2013, entitled A G8 meeting that goes back to first principles.

If this topic is to attain its broadest and deepest resonance, it is necessary to ensure that all political and economic activity, whether national or international, makes reference to man. Indeed, such activity must, on the one hand, enable the maximum expression of freedom and creativity, both individual and collective, while on the other hand it must promote and guarantee their responsible exercise in solidarity, with particular attention to the poorest.

The priorities that the British Presidency has set out for the Lough Erne Summit are concerned above all with the free international market, taxation, and transparency on the part of governments and economic actors. Yet the fundamental reference to man is by no means lacking, specifically in the proposal for concerted action by the Group to eliminate definitively the scourge of hunger and to ensure food security. Similarly, a further sign of attention to the human person is the inclusion as one of the central themes on the agenda of the protection of women and children from sexual violence in conflict situations, even though it must be remembered that the indispensable context for the development of all the afore-mentioned political actions is that of international peace. Sadly, concern over serious international crises is a recurring theme in the deliberations of the G8, and this year it cannot fail to address the situation in the Middle East, especially in Syria.. In this regard, I earnestly hope that the Summit will help to obtain an immediate and lasting cease-fire and to bring all parties in the conflict to the negotiating table. Peace demands a far-sighted renunciation of certain claims, in order to build together a more equitable and just peace. Moreover, peace is an essential pre-requisite for the protection of women, children and other innocent victims, and for making a start towards conquering hunger, especially among the victims of war.

The actions included on the agenda of the British G8 Presidency, which point towards law as the golden thread of development – as well as the consequent commitments to deal with tax avoidance and to ensure transparency and responsibility on the part of governments – are measures that indicate the deep ethical roots of these problems, since, as my predecessor Benedict XVI made clear, the present global crisis shows that ethics is not something external to the economy, but is an integral and unavoidable element of economic thought and action.

The long-term measures that are designed to ensure an adequate legal framework for all economic actions, as well as the associated urgent measures to resolve the global economic crisis, must be guided by the ethics of truth. This includes, first and foremost, respect for the truth of man, who is not simply an additional economic factor, or a disposable good, but is equipped with a nature and a dignity that cannot be reduced to simple economic calculus. Therefore concern for the fundamental material and spiritual welfare of every human person is the starting-point for every political and economic solution and the ultimate measure of its effectiveness and its ethical validity.

Moreover, the goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers' wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one's own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.

In this sense, the various grave economic and political challenges facing today's world require a courageous change of attitude that will restore to the end (the human person) and to the means (economics and politics) their proper place. Money and other political and economic means must serve, not rule, bearing in mind that, in a seemingly paradoxical way, free and disinterested solidarity is the key to the smooth functioning of the global economy.

I wished to share these thoughts with you, Prime Minister, with a view to highlighting what is implicit in all political choices, but can sometimes be forgotten: the primary importance of putting humanity, every single man and woman, at the centre of all political and economic activity, both nationally and internationally, because man is the truest and deepest resource for politics and economics, as well as their ultimate end.

Dear Prime Minister, trusting that these thoughts have made a helpful spiritual contribution to your deliberations, I express my sincere hope for a fruitful outcome to your work and I invoke abundant blessings upon the Lough Erne Summit and upon all the participants, as well as upon the activities of the British G8 Presidency during the year 2013, and I take this opportunity to reiterate my good wishes and to express my sentiments of esteem.

From the Vatican, 15 June 2013