Brothers and Sisters, I am so blessed by the selection of our new pope, and I want to reflect on what he already means for me:
Pope Francis is a Jesuit. And that means a lot. Because he is a Jesuit, he is a member of one of the largest and oldest communities of PROPHETS in the Catholic Church, men who have been willing and able to go everywhere, to stand forward and do what the Lord wants done, and say what the Lord wants said – they know how to endure being despised and rejected my men in the world, even in the Church. I have heard of Jesuits who did things I thought were wrong, but the ones I have served with were doing things I thought were very right. They are the Society of Jesus, not promoting their own special (saleable) religious devotions, but working with the Gospel, in every circumstance:
Fr. Rick Thomas SJ in El Paso/Juarez was a crazy Charismatic in love with the poor and willing to believe in miracles and appear a fool as he went about evangelizing, casting out demons with blessed water and salt, and proclaiming the power of the Holy Spirit – praising the Lord always with a prophetic zeal, against western materialism, speaking in favor of the poor and seeking practical solutions with them (the Lord’s Ranch, the Food Bank, Our Lady’s Youth Center), all the while exercising his charismatic gifts, dancing about, praising the Lord, singing joyful songs, hand in hand with all the common brothers and sisters. What a great servant of God! The Kingdom of God was at hand around him! Fr. Rick, now in heaven, pray for us and Pope Francis.
And my family and I lived and served with Bishop Francisco Claver SJ and his brother Jesuit priests in the Diocese of Malaybalay, on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, in the last years of the Marcos regime. Communist guerillas and the Marcos military were at war, terrorizing the people. Yet in the midst of it all, Jesuits were striving for justice and preaching nonviolence, at the risk of their lives (some were murdered). The Jesuits invited the Charismatic Renewal into the churches and an enormous work of Evangelization and outpouring of the Holy Spirit was under way. Beneath clouds of violence and social collapse, God’s people were singing praises, filling their churches, gathering as small communities in their homes, with inspired preaching and songs of praise, with signs and wonders – people and families were experiencing New Life in the Spirit, At the height of the crisis, a community of Benedictine monks arrived to build their monastery up in the hills. Boy, was there prayer and praise and brotherly love in Malaybalay! The Kingdom of God was being built and it overcame the darkness. The Marcos dictatorship and communist violence were cast out, and today, the church in the Philippines is the healthiest there is.
The Jesuits I have known did not believe the Gospel could be reduced only to religious rites. For them the Gospel involved all areas of human life and society. Jesus had come to be with the people and to establish God’s Kingdom among them everywhere on earth, as it is in heaven.
Pope Francis is from Latin America. He is not a European, where churches are on the wane, almost empty. The church in Latin America is very much alive, struggling, suffering, battling for justice and the basic rights and needs of the people, struggling to expand its ministries to serve all. The priests and the liturgies boldly proclaim and insist on “La Palabra de Dios” (the WORD of God). So many people and their bishops and priests have been martyred in Latin America in our time.
Latinos follow the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and they work for social justice. They are committed to gathering and growing and working in small Basic Ecclesial Communities. Their bishops, with the Great Pope John Paul II produced their pastoral plan, the Puebla Document. which now inspires the churches throughout the Third World. The church in Latin America has made a “preferential option for the poor” part of its most basic doctrine and practice, with “communion and participation” by all the laity – the churches there cannot fulfill all the works of their mission without the active and mature apostolates of the laity, and especially all the women. The church in Latin America is different from the European church. (Is the Lord saying something here?)
My best memories are of going about with a small team of lay evangelists, visiting small prayer communities in mountain or desert villages, or in city shanty towns, praying together, singing, testifying, preaching from Scripture and the Catechism, laying hands and praying over the sick and suffering, witnessing the coming of the Holy Spirit and so many miracles, signs and wonders; and then bringing the Eucharist to the saints!
Pope Francis has taken St. Francis of Assisi as his model: Can you imagine St. Francis of Assisi amidst the medieval pomp and oppulent splendor and manmade ceremony surrounding the papacy?! What would he do? In a world divided between often lukewarm, rich western church goers and the very poor of Asia, Africa, and the Islands, perhaps awaiting their first chance to hear the Gospel and encounter the love, forgiveness and salvation of Jesus, where would we find St. Francis? What would be the focus of his attention? If it came to choosing between more splendid buildings and ceremony and religious comforts, or feeding the poor and reaching them with the Gospel and ministry of their Father’s Church, what would St. Francis be expected to choose? And if he dedicated himself to the established churches, wouldn’t he be rebuilding them?
St. Francis chose practical poverty because it was holiest and best, it freed him to be a missionary; he chose to live with the poor; he understood he would be persecuted but he chose to preach the full Gospel anyway, all the way! St. Francis is recognized by all Catholics and other Christians, even by the world and atheists and the wild animals, to have been a faithful missionary of God’s Gospel of love and peace. People are drawn into unity around St. Francis of Assisi. He draws us into God’s Kingdom with Jesus and Mary.