By Philip Jude Acidre
IN THIS DAY AND AGE, modern man appears to be in no need for prophets. In a time of ever increasing technological sophistication, where social media has become the dominant instrument of connectivity and communication – in a world that grows smaller by the day – prophets have become a thing of the ancient past. Besides, who would have need of prophets in a time when contemporary society is obsessed with reason and logic, in our age; when all that most men seem to care is the comfort and convenience, if not the greed, for personal profit? Why the need for prophets, when power – political, social and economic – provide contentment to the convenient, not necessarily the righteous, conscience? Why the need for prophets when people would rather listen to the idols of the own idiosyncrasies, of gods fashioned by the whims and wants of man. Why listen to prophets when nations, societies and even families are more obsessed searching for what is expedient, acceptable or fashionable? Who would listen to prophets in a time when modernity has engulfed our society in a self-consumed understanding of everything around us, blinded by a self-referential standard of what is right, truthful and fair?
But listening to Pope Francis, the 266th successor to Peter the fisherman, one cannot be but surprised, inspired and even captivated by the freshness, the vitality and the relevance of a prophetic message. Just like a prophet, he presents the message of his mission without frills or pretenses, but with absolute honesty, sincerity and frankness. By just listening to his words (or reading them), one can clearly see through the clarity and courage of his conviction, a man who is consumed by the commitment he has for God and the Church.
Almost six months have gone by since his election, and by now, there is no doubt that a period of renewal has come with the Bergoglio papacy. He taken a simpler and less formal approach to the papal office, being the first pope in many years not to reside in the papal apartments in the Vatican but instead chose to live close to his staff at the Domus Sancta Martha, in a desire to avoid isolation that comes with the high office. Like a shepherd, he came to the papacy wanting to be with the lowly, the least and lost in his flock – his first trip outside Rome, to the Mediterranean island of Lempedusa to meet illegal immigrants, many of them Muslims, who risked life and limb in search for a better life in Italy. During his first trip, he celebrated the Eucharist using a wooden chalice and with a wooden pastoral staff in hand – during which he called for a “reawakening of consciences” to counteract “global indifference.”
Many stories have already been told on the media about this “Franciscan revolution” which very well echoes Blessed Pope John XXIII’s vision of a new springtime for the Church. We have heard stories of his down to earth approach in meeting his flock, his very open attitude to dialogue even with people of different faiths or even those who profess none. There are news accounts of him personally calling through telephone the people who write to him about their problems and sufferings. He has also called for a renewal in the Roman Curia, the central administration of the universal Church and has expressed his preference for a greater participation of the local church, that is, the dioceses in the life, mission and activity of the entire Church.
But more than just the gestures, it is the very words of Pope Francis that encapsulates his prophetic mission. In a world that nowadays think evil is but an abstraction, on more than one occasion he strongly affirms that evil is real. In a world where people find an adverse obsession with power, he has captivated the world not only with his appearances of humility and simplicity, but his sincere and honest expression of his own “sinfulness” and his reliance in God’s mercy. In fact, in a world that is often cold and unforgiving, he never fails to remind people of the reality of God’s compassion and love.
He has challenged bishops to live out as pastors among their flock and the laity to respond more fully to their calling as baptized Christians. In a more concrete sense, he said that good Catholics should even meddle in politics – a challenge to the today’s widely accepted doctrine of the separation of Church and State. While expressing fidelity to the Church’s unchanging doctrine, he has called for creative ways of evangelization – reaching out for greater dialogue with Christians of other denominations and even those who belong to other faiths. He invited the Church to live more closely as “the bride of the Lord” and not just like a mere non-government organization. In the crowds of millions who followed him to Brazil, he showed the world that religion was not an outdated reality but one that is very much alive in the world today. To those who preached conformity and uniformity in the ageless traditions of the Church, he preached that the Catholic youth make noise in their dioceses and communities. To those who once portrayed the Church as a rigorist institution, he preached a Christian morality shaped by a sincere conviction in the mercy of God – a morality “triggered by the mercy of God”. To those who would want to build walls to keep the Church from the creeping secularism from the outside world, he has shown open-mindedness to divergence ideas and attitudes, never failing to extend to them the message of God’s forgiveness. In the face of prevalent material poverty, he reminds the world not to forget the reality of a spiritual poverty, where is characterized by man’s rejection of God and objective standards of morality. The power of his words and the sincerity of his gestures are even reinforced by the strength of the witness of his life and mission.
Francis is the first Jesuit pope, the first Latin American one, the first pope from the Third World. He is the first pope to be ordained after the Second Vatican Council. The many “firsts” that his papacy represents give a lot of reasons for today’s Catholics to look at a renewed and reinvigorated Church in the future – as a witness to what Saint Augustine refers to as “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” Here is a pope who is not afraid to face the world with so much optimism amidst the pain, suffering and violence that is happening around the world. Even in light of the Syrian crisis, he did not consign himself to some diplomatic realpolitik that seem to confound even the world’s top superpowers but instead asked the entire world to join him in prayer and fasting. He has shown surprising conviction to bring reforms to the Church, reforms that could renew the self-understanding of one of the world’s oldest surviving absolute monarchies. For someone who is pope of a two-thousand year old Church in the twenty-first century, Francis the pope, the prophet is but a breath of fresh air – a sign of God’s enduring providence for our times.
Francis the pope takes inspiration from an even earlier prophet – Francis of Assisi. A son of an Italian merchant, he gave up the comfort of a wealthy life to live among the poor in radical fidelity of the Gospel. Francis of Assisi preached a message of peace, in a time in history, when peace was thought to be the ability of one secular power to control and subjugate the rest. He challenged the witness of the Church by living out radical poverty which the so-called princes of the Church lived an extravagant lifestyle. He preached the brotherhood of men, in a time when nations and cities rose against each other in an almost unending cycle of political and social strife. The historical realities must have changed, from Francis of Assisi to Francis the pope, but the message of their lives and their witness to the Gospel remains even more relevant for us today.
But the sad part is that prophets are often misunderstood by the people of their time. Some years after his death, the followers of Francis of Assisi argued among themselves the extent of embracing a life of poverty that Francis of Assisi himself taught, resulting in divisions and misunderstanding among the very people who claim to be his spiritual children. In the Scriptures, we read of countless prophets who were despised, rejected, persecuted and even martyred by their own people. I am sure the same will be true for Francis the pope. Even now, some people think the present pope needs to speak more strongly against the moral evils of our time. But still there are those that he is merely trying to put on a good face – in a way, a good public image for an embattled Church. Evil will work to confuse us with our discontent. But, in the end, we are more than confident that the Holy Spirit never fails to come to the help of his Church. The Spirit blows as it wills. Even in our times, God continues to raise prophets to arouse our often lukewarm hearts so as to strengthen our minds to respond more fully to our Christian calling.
Have you ever thought how could the message of a pope who has never spoken the world’s lingua franca, English, in public – reach out and appeal to people of diverse cultures, nations and languages? It must be the Holy Spirit working with the gifts of tongues.
I am confident that with Francis the prophet as pope, we are on the threshold towards a new Pentecost in the Catholic Church.
Just thinking out, and praying, loud.
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