Pope Francis has been a ‘hot topic’ in the news lately, with his visit to the United States being reported extensively and followed on many different media platforms. It was also reported that during his visit to Washington, he had met up with an old student of his back in the mid-sixties when he was teaching literature and psychology in Argentina. It’s nothing unusual when old students and teachers meet up with each other after a long lapse. Even I had a primary class reunion this year to mark our shared 50th birthday. But what was interesting was that it was revealed that this former student brought along his same sex partner to meet his former teacher who is now the Bishop of Rome.
One would think that this kind of meeting would be something surreptitious, given the Church’s firm stand on marriage as something that is to be only between a man and a woman. But the article was very clear to quote the Vatican spokesman saying that the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue.
This kind of balance is something that is akin to wisdom that is forged through years of training. One doesn’t achieve this kind of equanimity overnight, and I can attest to this by my own personal experience. To be able to hold firm to the Church’s clear and unequivocal teachings of sexuality and marriage, and at the same time to display a keen sense of kindness and charity in loving and patient dialogue when encountering people with clearly strident beliefs is a skill only few master in life. Too much of one will always lead to the closing out of the other. It will always be way easier to fly one flag high and unfurled than to try to enter into dialogue with an opposing viewpoint.
To balance things out, it was also reported that the Pope had also met with now-famed county clerk Kim Davis who was lambasted for being anti-gay in refusing to obey a federal court order that she was to issue marriage licenses to both same-sex and opposite sex couples. Was the Pope, in meeting up with these two opposing personalities and beliefs playing a political game? Did he have a hidden agenda?
To say that the Pope had an agenda is to say that he had something to hide. But I think what Pope Francis displayed was not hidden. It was bold and loud, and it was the living out of something lifted from Scripture. Psalm 85:10 is something that I think many of us struggle with. That “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; and righteousness and peace will kiss each other” is something our often narrow minds cannot begin to wrap around. It is the prophetic act of non-dualism.
Steadfast love and faithfulness – these seeming opposites are not easy to reconcile, let alone having them meet. It does seem that if we are truly faithful to God’s love and his teaching, that there are going to be many things that either are taboo or outside of the OB markers of life as God would have it. Yet, love that is steadfast seems to need to even go to those extremities.
Did the Pope risk being misread and judged? Certainly. Did he open himself to the castigating finger-wagging from the conservatives? Without a doubt. Perhaps he went to places that opened him up to being read either way because I think he knew that if he was to be the true Vicar of Christ, someone who represented Christ to the best of his abilities, he also had to live the Scripture especially where it is hardest. We don’t do this with enough courage most of the time. At least, I don’t think I do. Sometimes I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place when I see myself as a deputized guardian, caretaker and teacher of the Sacraments and at the same time a face that many want to see the compassion and charity of Christ in. In most circumstances, only one aspect of this is asked of me, and it is rather easy to deliver, and to deliver it well. But it is when things are flying at us fast and furious, and we as priests are forced to, as it were, think on our feet, that I sometimes find myself walking on eggshells and even breaking some of them in my well-intentioned endeavours.
I have come to see that we only do this well when we step outside of convention. That the second person of the Trinity stepped outside of heaven and entered willingly into the chaos of humanity tells us that becoming the Good News to people sometimes entails of us a willingness to do the same – to enter into the messiness of life itself. Pope Francis seems to have flair to do this, and does this with what I would call a “Christian classiness”. He has a sense that there are right moments to teach and carry out moral formation, and there are times when it is not opportune nor prudent to do so. In my almost 15 years of priesthood, I know I have lacked this wisdom to sense which cap I needed to wear at which appropriate moment. His Holiness would have been a priest for 46 years this December. Maybe it will take all of another 31 years of experience to be able to learn how to allow righteousness and peace to kiss through my own Calvary encounters.
But this is what I have learnt in ministry and through the mistakes I may have made when I was over enthusiastic to get things right (both in myself and with others) – and this is a quote from St Augustine who lived in the fifth century. The Latin is “necesariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas”, and it translates into “Unity in necessary (things), liberty in doubtful (things) and charity in all things.” Thomas Aquinas too has always been a champion of charity. Yet, it is precisely when things are most difficult, when there is no calm and when one is lacking objectivity that charity is often the first thing out of the window. But we all know that charity is often the very thing that brings love into a place that true healing can take place.
It reminds me of something that I came across recently, which I shared with some of my parishioners at the ambo on a weekday Mass, and with some dear friends in my correspondences. It is a story told by a volunteer who works with terminally ill children. That willingness to enter so closely into the pain and turmoil and to sit with them embodies incarnational theology in a life situation, and charity made so clear in action.
My idea was pretty simple at the beginning. I started to volunteer in wards with terminally ill children or burn victims – just to go in there to cheer them up a little, (and to) spread around some giggles. Gradually, it developed that I was going to come in as a clown.
First, somebody gave me a red rubber nose, and I put that to work. Then I started doing some elementary makeup. Then I got a yellow, red and green clown suit. Finally, some tremendous and dandy wing-tip shoes, two and half feet long with green tips and heels, and white spats.
It’s rather tricky coming in to see these kids. Some kids are even fearful of clowns, thinking that the clown is going to eat them up. And kids in hospitals and burn units are often shaky and traumatised.
Looking around, you see burnt skin and bald heads. Not something that kids should be having. But what can one do in these wards, other than to face them courageously? When kids are really hurting so bad, they are so afraid, maybe even dying, and everybody’s heart seems to be breaking. But we face it and see what happens after that, without a clear plan of what to do next.
Then I got the idea of traveling with popcorn. When a kid is crying, I dab up the tears with the popcorn and pop it into my mouth or into his or hers. We sit around together and eat the tears. (Excerpt from Ernest and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, pg 226).
In Jesus' incarnation, God sits with us and eats our tears with us. Many see the Pope as a rather full figure of a man. I wonder if his rotund frame is a result of having eaten bagfuls of tear-soaked popcorn.