Planting the Seed
(January 24, 2014 Catholic Calendar)
I give thanks to God for the pontificates of both Pope Francis and, before him, Pope-emeritus Benedict.
2013 was a momentous year. The main reason was the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. Such happenings are rare in Church history. So many questions flooded my mind as events unfolded.
From my perspective, the moment that struck me deeply was the night the resignation of Pope Benedict became effective. The clock struck the hour and the Swiss Guard closed the formidable wooden doors of Castel Gandolfo and the people outside began to shout, “Viva il Papa!” I felt a lump in my throat and still do when I think of the longing farewell and the cries of the crowd in that chill March air. How does one say good-bye to the Holy Father? Pope Benedict had named me a bishop, personally signing, as he did for many others, the official document of appointment. On about four occasions, I had the good fortune to meet him. I admired him long before, however, having read his books and studied his thought. He was and is a remarkable churchman with an astounding intellect and an astute understanding of the modern world and what makes it what it is. He is also humble, and as one commentator remarked when Pope Benedict resigned, he demonstrated more humility than his critics. They just keep talking and writing, but like the prophets of old, Pope Benedict knew when to pass the mantle.
Pope Francis came from the “new” world, as some describe it. In actual fact, we seem to forget that the Americas contain evidence of civilizations that stretch back before the arrival of Cortez and Pizarro. And this is not to discount the contribution since the 16th century of Spain and the diverse ingredients of European influence that flavor the culture of countries like Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis. He is a pope of many “firsts,” but these are obvious to us all and can be interpreted superficially. More important is who he is, what he says and what he does. What moved me deeply, as it did many others, was his embrace of the man with a deformity at a November audience.
Vinicio Riva suffers from neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic disorder that causes tumor-like growths and swelling on the skin from head to toe. He lives in northern Italy with his sister and works at a home for the elderly as a cleaning person. At the home he is well received, but from strangers he usually meets with silence and occasional hostility from those who are fearful of his appearance.
On that November day, Vinicio attended a public audience along with his aunt and tens of thousands of others. The Swiss Guard ushered him to a seat in the middle of the front row. Pope Francis came down to meet him, and it is at this point that the remarkable occurred. The Pope embraced him, held him tight, kissed him and engaged in some conversation. Vinicio later said, “I feel stronger and happier. I feel I can move ahead because the Lord is protecting me.” Then, I thought of the words Pope Francis had tweeted: “True charity requires courage: let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need.” This occasion was truly remarkable, but not for the reasons that might be apparent at first.
Popes have embraced the sick and the poor before. Think recently of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict—that well-documented cure of the Colorado youth, Peter Srsich, with stage-4 cancer after having been touched by Pope Benedict at an audience in May of 2012 (cf. ABC News September 4, 2013 and various other sources). We can be grateful to God for providing us with exceptional popes.
The popes have also had their critics. People who speak the truth do, and critics love to compartmentalize. Critics are fond of saying that this pope is liberal, that pope is conservative. Some have criticized the comments of Pope Francis on capitalism in the recent Apostolic Exhortation, even calling him a “Marxist.” Some see him as a champion of a liberal agenda. Others don’t think him progressive enough. But history is not a minor inconvenience. In fact, Pope Francis, commenting on capitalism, was simply translating into the 21st Century the Church’s social teaching, long ago articulated by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum of 1891. Politicized comparison might work when commenting on politicians, but popes are something else indeed. The Church is not governed by majority vote, and the papacy is not the trophy of “republicans” and “democrats.” Catholics call the pope “Holy Father” for a reason.
All that is happening is part of God’s wise plan. This plan is larger than public opinion about what kind of shoes or vestments the pope wears, whether he smiles a great deal or appears solemn. When we concentrate on these things, we lose perspective. God’s plan involves substance, for God’s ways are truly not ours. The plan—God’s providential will—is what it is all about, and when Pope Francis embraced a man whom others shunned, then he cut through to the heart of the matter. A distressed appearance meant nothing. Neither did words or politics. Something larger was happening here, something from the Gospel and from the Lord Himself.
There is much to be thankful for as we begin a New Year.
Planting the Seed