Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On Day One, The "Build" Began

Even if the general scene more easily recalls the new Pope's "Buonasera" and request for the crowd's blessing at his first appearance before a stunned world, in more ways still, what transpired five years ago today more concretely set the stage for a whirlwind which hasn't let up since.

By lunchtime on his first full day as Bishop of Rome, Francis had fled the Vatican, heading first to St Mary Major to pray before the city's patroness, the Salus Populi Romani – an act which didn't just underscore Jorge Bergoglio's intense Marian devotion, but marked the debut of the blue sedan lacking the traditional "SCV 1" license plate reserved for the pontiff, in place of the bulletproof Mercedes-Benz donated to his predecessor. Yet only afterward came the day's keenest sign that business as usual was being upended, as Papa Bergoglio insisted on returning to Via della Scrofa – the clerical hostel that had been his routine lodging in Rome – to settle his bill (above).

From the very outset, it was a cannily-executed "plan of attack" on the culture and trappings surrounding his new office, which scored the intended result as everyone from the papal entourage to the crowds in the streets looked on slack-jawed. But the method behind the exercise is worth recalling: though his election had come as a broad surprise, having had almost eight years to privately mull over the "What if's" as runner-up at the 2005 Conclave, Papa Bergoglio came to the role with a degree of mental preparedness that, even now, tends to be discounted.

Indeed, especially for a Vatican used to a glacial pace and a habit of reserve, those first days were nothing less than a shock to the system... and by that first weekend, the notion of a "pontificate of chaos" had already taken hold.

After five years, that might feel like the new normal. Still, it helps to remember how astonishing it was as it unfolded.

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On the evening of that first day, the traditional post-script of the Conclave took place as the new Pope returned with his electors to the Sistine Chapel for his first Mass in office.

In 2005, Benedict XVI delivered a lengthy, programmatic address in Latin at the end of the liturgy. Yet for his first extended turn at the global pulpit, Francis again charted a distinct path from his predecessors, shirking the celebrant's throne to stand at the ambo, leaving behind his mitre to launch into one of his trademark, unscripted fervorini on the scriptures – one which, in its comparison of a Christ-less church to a sterile "NGO" (non-governmental organization), birthed a genre of papal communication-by-analogy which has arguably become more defining than this reign's major texts.

As that first homily succinctly sketched out a threefold agenda for the church, it's useful to return to as a yardstick for the "movement" since....
In these three readings [Isaiah 2:2-5, 1 Peter 2:4-9, Matthew 16:13-19] I see that there is something in common: it is movement. In the first reading, movement is the journey [itself]; in the second reading, movement is in the up-building of the Church. In the third, in the Gospel, the movement is in [the act of] profession: walking, building, professing.

Walking: the House of Jacob. “O house of Jacob, Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” This is the first thing God said to Abraham: “Walk in my presence and be blameless.” Walking: our life is a journey and when we stop, there is something wrong. Walking always, in the presence of the Lord, in the light of the Lord, seeking to live with that blamelessness, which God asks of Abraham, in his promise.

Building: to build the Church. There is talk of stones: stones have consistency, but [the stones spoken of are] living stones, stones anointed by the Holy Spirit. Build up the Church, the Bride of Christ, the cornerstone of which is the same Lord. With [every] movement in our lives, let us build!

Third, professing: we can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ - I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Walking, building-constructing, professing: the thing, however, is not so easy, because in walking, in building, in professing, there are sometimes shake-ups - there are movements that are not part of the path: there are movements that pull us back.

This Gospel continues with a special situation. The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it.” He says, “I’ll follow you on other ways, that do not include the Cross.” When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

I would like that all of us, after these days of grace, might have the courage - the courage - to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Cross of the Lord: to build the Church on the Blood of the Lord, which is shed on the Cross, and to profess the one glory, Christ Crucified. In this way, the Church will go forward. 

My hope for all of us is that the Holy Spirit, that the prayer of Our Lady, our Mother, might grant us this grace: to walk, to build, to profess Jesus Christ Crucified. So be it.