26 September 2015

Homily - 27 September 2015 - On the Apostolic Journey of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the U.S.A.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The preacher today is presented with a seemingly impossible task, namely of discussing the Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Pope Francis to these United States of America to, in his words, “celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.”[1] The great number and length of the addresses the Holy Father has given – and will give - further complicate this task (31 single-spaced pages before he left for Philadelphia), not to mention the many topics he addressed and the fact that each address seems to build upon the previous one. But something else significantly contributes to the difficulty posed to the preacher today: the various competing and contradictory ways in which the Holy Father’s words and actions continue to be presented – and even claimed – in much of the media and elsewhere.

Perhaps you saw a cartoon that illustrates this difficulty well. The cartoon I have in mind shows Pope Francis standing between a donkey and an elephant. The animal representation of the Democrat party says, “He’s with me on climate change!” To this claim, the animal representation of the Republican party responds, “No! He’s with me on life!” Meanwhile, we see Jesus standing quietly off to the side, saying, “Excuse me, but I’m pretty sure he’s with me.” These sentiments of those who claim the Pope is on “their” side forget the Pope’s own words, that “harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place.”[2] Because a pastor is to help his sheep grow daily in holiness, harsh and divisive language likewise does not befit the tongue of the flock, or have a place in its heart.

While the cartoon may make us laugh, the attitudes it expresses are all too real in the culture and climate of our day. Rather than listening to the Holy Father’s encouragements and challenges, we may be tempted only to hear him say what we want him to say – to listen to him in terms of our politics, of our preferences and opinions; what we do not want him to say, what contradicts our politics, preferences, or opinions, we are tempted to scoff at or to simply ignore.

As Americans, we too often think of our political affiliation first, and our allegiance to Christ second. This manner of thinking has led to great divisions within our nation, within communities and families, and even within the Church. Noting this increasing divisiveness, that “the world is already so torn and divided” and that “brokenness is now everywhere,”[3] Pope Francis addressed each of us during his address to the Joint Meeting of the Congress when he said,
But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.[4]
Here we would do well to remember these words of Jesus.

“But I say to you,” he said, “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Saint John puts it perhaps a bit more bluntly: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him (I John 3:15). We must, then, learn to open our ears and our hearts first to Jesus and his Church and only afterwards to consider our political affiliation, to shape our preferences, and form our opinions. In this way, the hope of Pope Francis that we might recover “that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States” may be fulfilled.[5]

Without a doubt, the American people have extended a very warm welcome to Pope Francis, and for this we should be deeply grateful. At the same time, however, we might wonder whether the Holy Father has been welcomed not so much as the Successor of Saint Peter, but rather as a famous celebrity, as one whose smile captivates and whose willingness to take selfies is admired. People perceive Pope Francis as somehow different from his predecessors, even though, by and large, he says and does what they said and did. Pope Francis spoke in the halls of the powerful of our nation and the world and he walked among the unknown, but if the Pope is just another celebrity, why should anyone – great or small – care at all what he says about anything or among whom he walks?

The attention of the world is on Pope Francis because his charisma and simplicity attract others, but will his words be given the honest, serious consideration they deserve? He deserves to be listened to as a prophet, because the Lord bestowed his spirit on Pope Francis when he was elevated to the sacred ministry through his reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders and even more so through his election as the Bishop of Rome (see Numbers 11:29). We have to remember that the Pope is not just one teacher among many; he either is he who he says he is – the Vicar of Christ on earth – or he is a liar and a fraud. If he is the Vicar of Christ on earth, we owe deference to his teachings and must give them serious and prayerful consideration when making moral decisions, decisions which necessarily include politics, preferences, and opinions. If he is, on the other hand, just a fraud, there is no reason to pay any attention to him at all.

As Catholics, we know that Christ Jesus established the office of Peter when he entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven to the Prince of the Apostles (see Matthew 16:19). Peter did not take these keys with him to the grave; rather, the Church has entrusted them to each of his successors who teach, sanctify, and govern the flock of Christ in the name of the Good Shepherd. This is why we listen to Pope Francis – and, indeed, to each of the Popes – not as a celebrity, but as a true prophet who speaks in the name of the Lord.

In his call to resist the temptation to a simplistic reductionism and to avoid every form of polarization in his repeated call to a true and sincere dialogue with others, Pope Francis is calling us to see again in the other person the face of God so that “the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing” in each of us.[6] The Holy Father wants us to remember “that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person. He wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help, his love.”[7]

The Pope lamented that “so many faces go by unnoticed … in deafening anonymity;” how can we also not lament this sad reality?[8] To each of these anonymous faces, Pope Francis directed us to
Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness, and brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace. That peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.[9]
But how do we do this? How can we go out and look upon others – on those with whom we might disagree and on those who remain anonymous to us – with the eyes and love of Jesus?

During his meeting with the homeless in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis spoke to us of the way in which we should go forward:
Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side. Dear friends, one of the most effective ways we have to help is that of prayer. Prayer unites us; it makes us brothers and sisters. It opens our hearts and reminds us of a beautiful truth which we might sometimes forget. In prayer, we learn to say “Father”, “Dad”. We learn to see one another as brothers and sisters. In prayer, there are no rich and poor people, there are sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. In prayer, there is no first or second class, there is brotherhood. It is in prayer that our hearts find the strength not to be cold and insensitive in the face of injustice. In prayer, God keeps calling us, opening our hearts to charity.[10]
This must be our mission as sons and daughters of God, not to foster division and discord, but to foster instead peace and unity.

To be sure, this is a noble challenge, but if we confess our sins, our lack of love, and say with the Psalmist, “from wanton sin especially, restrain your servant,” the Lord will pour out his grace upon us, he will fill us with his love, and we will be able to look with love upon everyone we meet. Let us, then, take up the call of Pope Francis to go forward in this mission in mercy and love (Psalm 19:14). Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Address at the Welcoming Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Washington, D.C., 23 September 2015.

[2] Ibid., Address at the Meeting with the Bishops of the United States of America, Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, D.C., 23 September 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., Address to the Joint Meetingof the United States Congress, Washington, D.C., 24 September 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., Meeting with the Bishops of the United States.

[8] Ibid., Homily at Madison SquareGarden, New York City, 25 September 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., Greeting to the Charitable Center of St. Patrick Parish.

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