Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hope, But Not Change: President Obama Meets Pope Francis.

        Six years ago I, like many people in their twenties at the time, was swept up in the election of Barack Obama. Despite having some major misgivings as a Catholic about some of his policies, the idea of a leader running on a virtue itself, that of hope, was more than just intriguing, it was inspiring. Now six years later the 44th president of the United States will arrive here in Rome to meet with the 266th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis, a man who has captured the imaginations of so many in the world and has brought back that word to our minds, hope.
Is there anything so infectious as hope? It is sadly possible that a person could go their whole lives without ever experiencing the love of another person, and it may well be that one never assents to faith, but hope is that well which springs up within us and impels us forward towards a future which is inexplicably already understood to be better than our present. Hope is that promise of the future which is not yet our own, yet which we desire to possess. Hope is also that fire that spreads quickly not just in our own hearts, but in the hearts of those around us.
I remember the morning of Obama’s first inauguration when I made my way with three good friends to the National Mall. It was so packed that we watched the whole thing from a jumbotron screen by the Washington Monument, over a mile away. Yet everyone in the crowd was joyful, and joy always seems to accompany hope. Everyone was kind, and kindness seems to always  accompany hope. Although Washington was overcrowded and cold, hope lit a fire in our hearts.
I remember March 13th of last year, when on a damp, cold, night I stood in St. Peter’s Square with a cheap, leaking, umbrella that I had bought at a gift shop on the Via della Conciliazione. I was cheering on a seagull sitting atop a smokestack along with all of the other people gathered in the square where, once again, I was watching things unfold on a jumbotron. At 7:05 in the evening a puff of grey, then white, smoke went up from that smokestack and the crowd went wild with joy, people helped each other up to the front of the square to be under the balcony, forming a canopy of umbrellas to keep each other dry in thousands of acts of kindness, and suddenly the cold wasn’t so cold, and the rain just a bit less damp when, an hour later, the skies parted to reveal the moon and stars above just as the curtains parted to reveal Pope Francis.

It is no secret that Pope Francis and President Obama disagree fundamentally on some important issues, from Francis’s calls for peace in Syria when the President seemed ready to start air strikes to Obama’s insistence on the HHS mandate which the Church has consistently come out strongly against. What these two men disagree on is well known, but what doesn’t change is that word which has so often been used to describe them both, and the word that lives and breathes in each of us, hope. That may be what makes this Thursday important in the end, not the conversations between them, not the inevitable invitation on President Obama’s part for Pope Francis to visit the US in 2015, but that we might take a minute to remember the thing which unites them rather than divides them, and which unites us all along with them, hope.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Fr. Jorge’s First Year as the Pastor of St. Martha’s.

Daily Mass is at 7 am. Most Catholic parishes that have a weekday Mass at this hour have it for people who are going to work. The chapel of St. Martha’s is no different; many of the members of the congregation have jobs that need to be attended to first thing in the morning, and they often come for miles around to be there before they begin their day. At 6:40 am people are already lined up outside the door waiting to enter. In the winter months its still dark at that hour and the glow coming from inside lights the sidewalk and promises the warmth within. When the congregation enters just before 7, the staff in side welcome them warmly, give them a place to hang their coats, and show them to the chapel. Inside, one of the priests welcomes those gathered with a warm smile and a genuine happiness which is unmistakably real. This is the chapel at St. Martha’s, and they are happy that you are there. 

Precisely at 7am, if not a few seconds before, Fr. Jorge enters, makes the sign of the cross, and begins the mass. His prayerfulness and focus are clear. He listens to the word of God being proclaimed in the readings with a deep intensity and it is clear that he, himself, feels as convicted by the words of scripture as anyone else at mass. He rises from his seat after the Gospel to preach, and without notes offers a 6 or 7 minute reflection, during which everyone in the room somehow feels as if he may have been speaking directly to them. He then moves onto the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and it is almost as if you can see the weight and seriousness of what he is doing weighing on his shoulders. Make no mistakes, this is a priest who, as the rite of ordination for Catholic priests demands, knows what he is doing. When the Mass is ended, and he has removed his vestments, he comes and sits in the back of the chapel with the people in a few moments prayer and reflection, then his day has begun. 

My Mother and I outside of St. Martha's
Like many pastors he greets the people outside the chapel as they are leaving morning mass, but with more than just a handshake and a “have a nice day.” He spends a few moments with each person, he asks about their lives, he cracks jokes with them, he is playful with the children who are there with their parents, and he usually gives the culturally appropriate good bye of a kiss on each cheek to the women who were there. This is the moment that so many have waited for and it is more than just a brief moment, because in that moment Fr. Jorge is once again the pastor of St. Martha’s. That he is also Pope Francis, the Supreme Pontiff, Christ’s Vicar on earth, seems far less important to him than simply being a pastor at that moment. 

I have been asked often, as a priest living in Rome,  just what it is that has allowed Pope Francis to capture the hearts, minds, and imaginations of so many in his first year as Pope. I think it is summed up by the experience that I just described, when on one morning a few weeks ago I took my parents to Mass with Pope Francis in the Domus Sanctae Martha, the hotel where he lives inside the Vatican. It is neither in his erudition nor is it in his ability to play the crowd, and although comparisons are always odious, one could argue that Benedict XVI and John Paul II, respectively, were more talented than him in those areas. It may just be precisely because his gift is in being a pastor and because, as a pastor, he exercises a remarkable care for the individual before him, if only for a few minutes. It may be because, as a pastor, he genuinely wants to invite people into that experience of God’s mercy and love that he himself experiences. It is perhaps because, before he was Pope Francis and before he was Cardinal Bergoglio, he was and still is, Fr. Jorge, a pastor with his people, waking up early like so many other priests, to say daily mass at 7am. 

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Remember that you are Dust!

“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” It always seemed morbid to me to say those words on Ash Wednesday. As a child they seemed foreboding, and reminded me of the haunted house at Disney World. As a teenager, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so easily convinced that I was made of dust. When I moved to Italy in my 20’s, I went to the famous "bone church" on the Via Veneto here in Rome, where in the crypt actual human skeletons welcome you with the words “as you are now, we were once, as we are now, so you shall be,” and I walked into the Capuchin Crypt in Palermo and was a bit overwhelmed by the decomposing corpses, still hanging from the walls wearing the clothing of the day. “remember that you are dust…” indeed.

Mine is not the same aesthetic sensibility as my Italian brethren as regards death, but those words, those simple words, “remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” are the best words that we could hear this time of the year. I remember one Ash Wednesday here in Italy when, while attending mass as a seminarian, I looked down at the marble floor of the Church that I was in and there above the skull and crossbones which marked the entrance to a crypt were the Latin words which are perhaps far too popular in contemporary culture, “Carpe Diem.” That is, of course the point, however. Reminders of our own mortality, like those words echoed as ashes are spread across our foreheads, are the challenge to seize the day, not with simple the capriciousness of the just passed “YOLO” (you only live once) fad, but rather to embrace today the genuine possibility of life fully alive and richly lived.

That we are dust is a reminder that our lives are fragile, and that the lives and hearts of those around us are as well. So we must tread lightly and walk joyously, spreading love for hate, peace for rancor, and healing for a world which is all too wounded. That we are dust is a reminder that in our material existence there is a limitedness, a boundedness which leaves the reality of who we are all too often far from the people that we wish to be, and that we are, ourselves, all too often far too vulnerable before the lesser angels of our nature and left needing the help of our friends, family, and indeed our God to press forward. Yet the reminder that we are dust, by reminding us of just this simple yet profound common reality of our existence, is the call to freedom and to patience, peace, and a humility within ourselves which can reconcile who we are in reality with whom we ideally wish to be.

That unto dust we will return, though, is the challenge. In a world in which springtime is (hopefully) about to be unleashed, in a world which is about to be teeming with life, and joy, and the hope which is reborn with the first full moon of the spring for people of the Judeo-Christian tradition, our returning to dust is a gauntlet thrown at our feet. Now is the time to cast off the darkness of our own hearts, as it leaves the world literally for the warmth and joy of summer. Now is the time to rid ourselves of the chains, addictions, and habits which hold us bound. Now is the time to repair those wounded friendships, and to remember once again the joy that we had in them. The time is now because we are returning to dust, and there is no other time.

This is a call that goes to people of all faiths and of no faith. This is a human call, it speaks not simply to Christian beliefs, but to all of humanity which understands that life is far too short, our time to love far to brief, our joy always far too limited. Now is the time, there is no other moment. The spring, which can never be held back, is coming. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.