[The following were reflections formulated by Fr. David for the weekly Ecumenical Prayer & Lunch series of our area utilizing Daytime Prayer and Scripture of Matthew 5:2-12a]
Each one of us—no matter what our religious tradition—has heard of these eight sayings of Jesus known as “the Beatitudes”. Wherever and whenever they’ve been heard, these words of Jesus have proved fascinating, disorienting, deeply transformative, sometimes even confounding and disturbing…but always unforgettable.
On the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus gives His great programmatic sermon, laying out a new mode of life…a new law so to speak…and one of happiness or “beatitudo”.
How do we relate joy to the Law? Freedom doesn’t mean do what I want or be self-determining, instead, we have a freedom for excellence by disciplining our desire.
So what’s he saying here? The rules that will place within our bodies minds spirit the capacity for joy…of beatitudo. Let’s explore them…there are 4 positive formulations:
- “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” – mercy or tender compassion is God’s most distinctive attribute. God is love and so we ourselves are invited to become love itself by sharing mercy so that the divine life increases in us.
- “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” – you’ll be happy when there is no ambiguity in your heart about what is most important. What is a saint – someone whose life is about one thing…they’re ordered toward pleasing God alone…they are pure in their drive and desire…unadulterated, undistracted.
- “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” – we want many things but what do we fundamentally want? What is the primal desire or ultimate concern? If it’s anything other than the will of God…if it’s anything other than righteousness, then we will be unfulfilled.
- “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called ‘children of God’” – since God is creator, He is that power through which all creatures are connected to each other…He’s the connecting force, He is the unifier of all that He has made. Therefore the one who has fundamentally ordered his life to God becomes necessarily a peacemaker, for he channels the metaphysical energy that links all things and all people. One of the most recognizable qualities of those we call saints is their ‘reconciling power’ by which they become almost immediately a child of God…and thus are happy!
Keeping these more positive beatitudes in mind, we can now turn to those other four beatitudes that, at first, might strike us as confounding or unsettling. First, though, we need to acknowledge something that is common within each of our make-up: there is a deep-seated, infinite longing for God and we attempt to fill that longing or that void with something less than God. St. Thomas Aquinas named these lesser things as “wealth”, “power”, “pleasure” and “honor”. We know that we need God but we try to fill the void with something less than God or with a combination of these four things. The problem is: it’s only in emptying ourselves of such desires for wealth, power, pleasure and honor that we can then be filled by God’s presence, by His blessing, “beatitudo”… happiness!
And isn’t this what Jesus is saying in the other 4 beatitudes? We’re hungry for God, but we strive and strive and strive for those things that we think will satisfy us…only to find out that we aren’t satisfied and so we strive for them even more! And we panic: we’re looking for a finite good when only the infinite will satisfy us.
But these other 4 beatitudes share blessing with us when we let go of such things:
- “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, blessed will you be when you detach yourself from material things that are self-serving, and instead, seek to use such things for the common good. It’s in the common good where you can then enter into right relationships with others in the kingdom…thus combating Aquinas’ “wealth” principle.
- Similarly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This might better be seen in another translation: happy are you or blessed are you if you’re not addicted to good feelings and physical pleasures. They’re okay in their moderation, but they aren’t God…and if we look for them to take the place of God, they’ll soon topple us. Just look at drug abuse, pornography and conspicuous consumption…too many are seeking happiness in pleasure and all they find is sorrow, loss and confinement…thus Aquinas’ “pleasure” principle.
Now, we’re not talking about Puritanism, but rather detachment and spiritual freedom…that freedom for excellence and freedom for God!
- Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In other words, how lucky you are if you’re not attached to the finite good of worldly power, but instead, by being detached, you can become a conduit of God’s own divine power.
- And the last of the negative beatitudes is, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If the call to poverty wards off the addiction to material things; and the summons to mourn counters the addiction of good feelings; and the glorification of meekness blocks the addiction to power, then this last beatitude gets in the way of the addicting attachment to honor. If we seek righteousness—right relationships among all—then we will be despised by some. And when we’re despised by some for this reason, then true honor can be ours. Take, for example, in the 19th century, Charles Lwanga who was the chief of pages in the court of King Mowanga who governed the region of what is now Uganda. When the king demanded sexual favors from Charles, the young man refused…even to the cost of his life. Charles and many of his companions were then burned to death at a place where, today, has become the very focal point of African Christianity. Charles’ radical detachment from worldly honor unleashed the divine life in an amazingly powerful way. Thus, a true and humble honor is now his….
Why did I choose these eight beatitudes as our Scriptural point of view today? Well, the topic of my reflections is Pope Francis, and I would propose that we may have a great embodiment of these beatitudes in a new and contemporary figure, that of Pope Francis. It may be that Pope Francis’ appeal for many of us is his radical detachment from wealth, pleasure, power, and honor…and his embrace of poverty, discomfort, humility, righteousness and peace.
Already—in just fourteen short months—the world has been captivated by this radical creature, hasn’t it? …haven’t we? I recall meeting with Bishop Hubbard—the bishop-emeritus of the Albany Catholic Diocese—back in January of this year with a small group of priests and we were relating the joy and surprise we experienced from the numbers of faithful who celebrated Christmas Masses this past December and Bishop Hubbard’s explanation was “the Francis Effect”: that from his person emanates such an invitation to come and see the Church anew, to experience again—and with others—the presence of God in our midst…that so many were coming to the Church where Francis might be seen and felt.
The Francis Effect
From his earliest days as pope, Francis has re-imagined how he might exercise his role as shepherd. Without condemnation of prior vicars, Francis has laid aside certain, what I call “small ‘t’ traditions”: the papal automobile is now a Ford focus; the mozzetta is no longer royal ermine, but a simple off-white-colored cloth; his faccia is unadorned and his shoes are worn, dark and dusty. But don’t be mistaken: these are not mere token gestures or PR stunts; no, these are genuine expressions flowing from a man who has always been this way. Perhaps from his modest childhood and his humble upbringing, Francis has always been one who is outwardly simple. And this would be the first word we might use to describe Pope Francis. Without the trappings, what’s left? When you peel away the skins of an onion, what remains? And it is this on which Pope Francis will focus…the heart of the matter.
Recall that during the preparatory meetings of the week leading up to the conclave, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was being housed at a small guest house that is one of many throughout the city used by visiting clergy for the various Vatican offices. Anyway, immediately after his election, knowing that his insignificant belongings were still occupying the guest room—and that the bill was yet unpaid—newly elected Pope Francis thought it important to settle his accounts. And so he did—personally. He hopped a ride to the foyer, gathered his belongings and paid his own bill! Such simplicity is refreshing isn’t it?
Another expression of simplicity: just last week as the Argentine President was a bit delayed for a lunchtime meeting with Pope Francis, the Holy Father took the fifteen minutes he was waiting and went outside to speak with folks who had gathered outside the gates hoping to get a glimpse of him. And more than once, he’s never shied away from simply ‘being present to others’.
In the 1990s, I spent six years living and studying in the Vatican. All throughout that time, we seminarians were encouraged to serve the needs of the poor. Well, just like any major metropolitan city, it was very hard to see that anything we might do could be of any significant help to someone, let alone aid in serving the needs of the poor as a significant group in any society. Still we did our best, as little and as insignificant as it might have been.
One of the earliest appointments that Pope Francis made for the city was that of “Papal Almoner”. No longer was this going to be a mostly-symbolic office, nor would it be led by an aged Cardinal. Instead, Pope Francis named a young cleric (with stamina and energy and, I might add, a great sense of honesty and personal integrity!) to leapfrog over so many other high-level positions of honor and power…in order to serve the very practical and daily needs of the poor, the outcast, the ugly of the city. Yes, Francis was going to do his great part in re-establishing justice…for all…especially in service of the poor, the common good…of all!
Collegial & Collaborative
It has been suggested that Pope Benedict XVI knew well the challenges of the Papacy but just didn’t have the strength to repair some of the damages that undoubtedly creep into any ancient institution. Having served in the Vatican for over 30 years, we can presume that Benedict chose wisely, prudently, faithfully and humbly to step down from the Office of Peter in order for another to take up the great tasks that lie ahead. With Pope Francis, we now have an outsider, one who is not at all personally familiar with any of the Vatican workings. We do, however, have a man with so many other gifts that have served every one of his ministries well throughout the past fifty years.
And one of the talents Pope Francis has demonstrated is his desire and ability to gather others around him with whom he can work closely, confidently and collegially. We’ve all seen power go to some people’s heads, but not with Pope Francis. Within a few short weeks, he had announced a Council of Eight Cardinals who would help him govern the Universal Church. And, just in case one might think this is just a smoke-screen, consider that immediately following that announcement, he opened up the long-tainted Vatican Bank for audit and outside scrutiny! Thank God…because it’s high-time we showed our people how to live by not merely talking the talk, but walking the walk.
There are other things that call to mind a blessed life, a happy life of the beatitudes in Pope Francis. It is so refreshing and it causes me great, inestimable joy when our Pope can simply walk out a doorway and run toward people who simply want to love him! In audience after audience, taking selfies with teens and physically embracing a man disfigured since birth with sores and growths and deformities aplenty. But what does Francis do? He simply loves him, embraces him, prays for him and holds him. He’s not afraid of anything: of an assassin’s bullet, of the cringes of the elite, of erroneous criticism such as false-humility or self-serving abasement. Nope, not Francis: he’s unafraid because he has the knowledge and assurance that this is who God is calling him to be in that very moment: a man of true and abiding love. It’s simple, and it’s beautiful.
One of the first criticisms I began to hear of Pope Francis was that he might be one to do away with some of the glorious riches of our tradition. So, for example, art has always flourished under the patrimony of the Catholic Church. For centuries, the Church supported artists in their quest to find Beauty. While this has been a gift, it’s also proven often to be a double-edged sword. So often we have heard of calls for the Church to divest herself of art—to sell everything in the Vatican museums and feed the world’s poor. While there are significant arguments against such a move—and Francis knows them well—still, he has shunned living in the very posh and comfortably decorated and highly adorned Apostolic Palace. It’s true: the palace is more than remarkable…and some see this as a first step in taking the “poverty thing” too far. But this is not what’s happening with him at all.
Sure, Pope Francis has chosen not to live in the Apostolic Palace, but not because of a statement of value, but rather he chooses to live in Domus Sancta Marta—the Vatican’s guest house—because Francis knows himself extremely well and he admits of his great need for social community. He doesn’t want to eat alone or in a scripted ceremony; he wants to watch the news with others; he wants to be among people and, most of all, he wants to celebrate Mass each morning with a congregation and a homily. Yes, Francis is a very sociable creature and as such, he knows well that he can only flourish with others, and not apart from them. This is a good thing…nothing worth fretting over nor condemning. And so, I for one, am happy that his days are filled with such simple joys, too, mixed in with all the other important universal responsibilities this gentle man has undertaken.
When I was a young boy, my dad tried to teach me the practical workings of a small engine. I guess he was hoping I’d grow up as a mechanic and save our farm a mint on tractor and car repairs! Well, I quickly proved him the fool as I dissected three tractors at once and found myself confusing interchangeable parts among them. It took a seasoned mechanic a few extra days to undo my doing! Apparently my gifts weren’t in the very practical, but are rather found in the theoretical realm of thought, of ideas and of the soul.
Well, from the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has taken his time to remember he is a Jesuit! And as any good member of the Society of Jesus, he must seek to discern, to rediscover the value and beauty of a thing, its participation in what is true, right and good. In other words, he won’t accept something on face value simply because it’s always been accepted or done this way or that; no, he’ll dissect something, check all elements to be sure that everything that is necessary is there and those things that are not, are not. He’ll then re-assemble the thing and once it is known, he will exercise it well. So, for example, when certain dicasteries or groups of offices have always and only been staffed with priests or religious, Pope Francis will first consider their task, then their competence, then their gifts…all in order to discern whether or not the group will be able to accomplish well their tasks…without the benefit of the laity, or of women, or of people of other faiths. You see, Francis isn’t the Shepherd of the Church so that he simply maintains a blind or insensitive continuity for continuity’s sake; no, instead, he is unafraid to seek.
Maybe an example will help: one of the most influential and powerful offices in the Vatican which intimately affects every single diocese throughout the entire world is called the Congregation for Bishops. It is the office that basically proposes new bishops to the Holy Father and matches them to specific areas. While most of its workings are highly sensitive and confidential—as we can imagine is necessary—still, the processes and criteria it uses to ascertain the suitability of bishops need not be. And Pope Francis has begun to publicize such details, for the good of the Church and for our own personal good. As Francis has said time and time again, we need bishops who smell like the sheep, who live with us, understand us, are empathetic toward us, are seeking justice for us, are weighed down with heavy hearts…just like us. Although he’s spent hours re-defining the criteria for new bishops, Pope Francis is seeking shepherds after the heart of the Lord Jesus Himself. And that’s it: no politics, no secret deals, no grandstanding or positioning…just, pure and simple, good holy pastors to shepherd the dioceses of the faithful. And thank the Good Lord…isn’t that what Jesus sought out? When He chose the Twelve, he picked men who could most closely relate with all peoples…and who would be open to hear Him, His message, and follow Him.
We could go on and on with many more reflections…and it would be great fun and of lively interest, but I am aware that lunch is wafting its scent into this Church and the sound of stomachs grumbling is soon to follow, so I’ll end with just one more image…it is that of JOY.
The very first major written work of Pope Francis was recently published with the title, “The Joy of the Gospel”. This document, while outlining many contemporary issues faced by the modern world and significant threats to goodness and right, still the pontiff is able to find reason for rejoicing: that God is still very much in our midst. Most clearly, God can be seen when we look very plainly and simply at the poor, the marginalized, the outcast and the unloved. As much as pundits and economists have scoffed at Pope Francis as unrealistic and purely foolish in his views, still Francis rejoices: in a very real and tangible way, we can witness the presence of God as easily as when we become one with those who are “lesser”, when we can see the other not as ‘other’, but rather as ‘another’ who has been loved into existence by God, redeemed in our need by God, and called into deeper friendship with the God of all humankind.
May this new shepherd remain in our midst as one who calls us out of darkness to live in the blessedness of God’s own life…and may beatitude grow within us this Lent.