What is the raison d’être of a person being a witness, a living testimony? Is it to cause admiration, or is it primarily to inspire others to emulate him or her for a greater good? I most certainly admire, love and rejoice in our new Pope (from Latin: papa; from Greek: ?????? pappas, a child’s word for father), our new Father in the Faith. The focal point I would like to emphasize in this article is that one’s reaction should not stop at esteem. I am confident in my presumption that Pope Francis would not want it to end there. His witness, which I am sure is frequently very costly to him, should inspire me to holiness and service.
The following profound scripture passage refers to the interaction of Jesus with Simon Peter our first Pope. I want to suggest that the reader read and meditate slowly on this passage with a twofold approach. Yes, this passage refers to the mission of our new Vicar of Christ, but it also applies to each of us!
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep. Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
(John 21:15-19, NABRE)[i]
Like Simon Peter we have all denied Jesus through our sins. But, Jesus never rubs these failings into our face. Jesus is Mercy. He gently leads us back to Himself, to Love Incarnate. He asks “Do you love me?” Yes, He asks me, and He asks ….you, the reader, “Do you love me? And may our response be a heartfelt, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
It doesn’t stop there. Jesus says “Feed my sheep.” In other words, love does not stop with thoughts and feelings, but must become active in some way according to our possibilities. Because Pope Francis is so full of love for Jesus this love spills over from his exquisite soul into love for others, and this love is agape, a sacrificial love. I think this is what our Pope wants of us; not to be admired from a distance, but to contribute with his witness to our transformation into Jesus, in the way in which he is being the living image of Jesus, and in the way he acts this out in every facet of his life including service.
And it doesn’t even stop there. We cannot follow Jesus unless we take up our cross and follow Him. Yes, Good Friday culminates in Easter, but the cross comes first. Jesus told Simon Peter that someone else would lead him where he would not want to go. In other words the cross is a crucial part of leadership and discipleship. Perhaps what flashed into Peter’s mind at that moment were the following words which Jesus addressed earlier to Peter and the other disciples after Peter had been rebuked for attempting to forbid the cross of Jesus (see Matthew 16:21-23).
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mathew 16:24, NABRE).
Near the end of his first full day as Pope, Francis said in his homily,
When we journey without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we confess a 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.[ii]
There are many virtues that have already come to light in Pope Francis. One that stands out to me is his deep awe for life from conception (fertilization) until natural death. He clearly possesses a profound understanding of the magnificence of each and every human person including those in the womb, old, young, disabled, sick, and dying…no exceptions. The following case in point brings this assertion to light:
Earlier, in February 2005, he chose to celebrate the Mass for Holy Thursday in a maternity hospital in Buenos Aires, where he washed the feet of 12 expectant and new mothers. Before he washed their feet, he told them that “Some of you are holding your babies in your arms. Others of you are carrying them in your womb. All of you are women who have chosen life. I, as a priest, am going to repeat the act of Jesus, and carry out a concrete act of service for women who have said yes to life. In washing your feet, I am washing those of all mothers, and of my mother, who felt me in her womb.”[iii]
In this example we see not only Pope Francis’s belief in the sanctity of life, but his service in living this belief out in a most awe-inspiring way. Many of his other virtues have surfaced and we can look ahead in joyful expectation for many more that are to soon be revealed. It is plain that Pope Francis holds a special love for the poor and sick. He is most supportive of and appreciates the dignity of marriage and family. He demonstrates a beautiful simplicity in the best definition of the word and a humble confidence. He is showing himself to be a fully amalgamated man of holiness and service, full of conviction, an example for which the world deeply thirsts, yes deeply thirsts! And he has a great sense of humor which is I think is a much more significant and effective virtue than many typically recognize. May we imitate his integrated life of prayer and service.
Permit me to make an objective statement with great confidence; our Holy Father must certainly have a very deep interior life and union with God in order to so brilliantly shine the light of Christ through his countenance and service. This can be a lesson for all of us to increase and persevere in our own sacramental and prayer life. For only in this way will we have possession of a gift, deep and permanent, to offer to God and others.
Yes, it is clear that our beloved Pope Francis is a loyal and courageous Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth who believes and teaches everything, no exceptions, of the depositum fidei (deposit of faith) entrusted to the Catholic Church. It is already plain that in addition to believing, teaching and governing he has been blessed with a special gift of sanctifying each of us through being a living witness of the Gospel that we can see, hear, experience and emulate. This is palpable! Can you feel it? Does this resonate in the interior depths of your soul?
Every Pope is a special gift to the world with his own unique gifts. I thank God for each of them, and I am so very grateful for their sacrificial lives and witness. Naturally, God comes through again with a winner, a keeper in Pope Francis. This is no surprise to the faithful, yet conversely we are also astonished and delighted by the uniqueness and perfect fit of each of our Popes at the particular time and circumstance God chooses to reveal them and to gift them to us.
As in the case of his predecessors I am convinced that we have a Pope in Francis who can authentically and comfortably echo the words of St Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NABRE). May each of us strive with the help of the Holy Spirit to be able to say these words without choking. At this point I would choke, “but nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37); and I expect Pope Francis will be a great help to each of us on this path. God knows very well what each of us are made of, and He already sees the masterpieces we will become by His grace. Viva il Papa!