A pope for the bruised
At this time of giving thanks, think of the call for greater justice being delivered from on high.
is a writer in Doylestown
Thanksgiving comes naturally to Christians. We were told to remember our Lord with a meal of thanks. That's what Eucharist means. We celebrate a rabbi who went about healing the sick and roughing up demons. I can easily imagine the gratitude of those poor and suffering who first ventured out to make his acquaintance. There he is looking back at the crowds, grasping desperately at any word of hope that might escape his lips.
He ascends a small hill and turns to face them. He glances over at the chief priests, in the front, in their finery, expecting to be the healer's target audience. Obviously. Except his eyes turn from them back to the miserable rabble.
No one of importance ever spoke this way to them. They are of the powerless, yet he tells them that the Earth is their inheritance. Their children die young, yet he says these mourners will be comforted. They are starved for justice, their throats parched with ill treatment, and he promises they will get their fill.
This man is turning their world upside down. The next thing you know he'll say that the first will be last and the last will be first. Gratitude swells, the only possible response to grace freely given.
Shortly after he became pope, Francis made his way to a youth prison and washed and kissed the feet of teenage inmates, male and female, Christian and Muslim. One of the kids called out to the pope, "Thank you, but why did you come here today?"
Francis then did what we have come to expect from him but not from popes past. He simply answered: "It really just came from my heart."
A teenage inmate in Los Angeles, hearing about the gratuitous act, wrote this: "Dear Pope Francis, Thank you for washing the feet of youth like us in Italy. We also are young and made mistakes. Society has given up on us, thank you that you have not given up on us."
On Thanksgiving, what better place to begin our shout outs of gratitude than to all those who have not given up on us? Not everybody was happy that the pope chose to express his hope in those youth by washing their feet. But then, those chief priests and scribes may not have been happy to be told that the kingdom of God was in the hands of the destitute. The prodigal son's faithful brother was not happy that the fatted pig celebrated not him but his reprobate sibling. Who are the undeserving ones around here, anyway?
Then there was the pregnant single woman who, with great anxiety, wrote Francis; she had discarded her boyfriend when he demanded she abort the child. Now she wonders what priest will baptize this baby. The pope picks up the phone and says, "I will." Maybe the most effective pro-life statement ever, whispered with merciful love, not shouted in righteous anger.
And then one day, at the "Ellis Island of Italy," Francis held a cross made of the bark of a boat that had transported desperate refugees; he pleaded for immigrants at the very port where a similar boat capsized, killing many of them.
"Who is weeping for them?" he asked. "The globalization of indifference has robbed us of the ability to weep."
Later, in Sardinia, the pope recollected the journey of his immigrant father to Buenos Aires, a man "full of illusions about making it in the Americas." His dad suffered a total loss in the Great Depression: "Where there is no work, there is no dignity." And to an island and a country suffering horrendous unemployment, he asked us to examine an economic system that allows this, to be suspicious of money as the object of idolatry, yet never, ever to lose hope.
Last Sunday, Pope Francis issued a stirring Apostolic Exhortation explaining why he does the extraordinary things he does and why he does them with a smile. It is called The Joy of the Gospel. Here is a pope who prefers "a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."
Long ago, the carpenter turned rabbi went out on the streets and called back to those who were removed, taken to the margins. Jesus ministered ceaselessly, to exhaustion; he never stopped, deeply worrying those close to him. He knew it was only a matter of time before the powers that be recognized the topsy-turvy world he preached for the seditious message it embodied.
Likewise, perhaps, Pope Francis senses that there is little time for telling us what we need to hear, challenging us, making us question the deepest meaning of our faith. In a world envious and worshipful of great wealth, he points to the unemployed and says, "Someone is worshiping a false idol." In a world mistrustful of those who are hard to understand, hard to look at, hard to respect, he asks, "What if you just bent down and washed their feet?"
In a world wary of hucksters, tired of dogmatists, sick of violence, and fed up with duplicity, he says, "What is your question?" And then he smiles, looks you in the eye, and gives the answer welling in his heart.
Strung together, the stories mounting about this man Francis are beginning to form a kind of gospel of their own, good news to the broken among us, hope to the hopeless, a place of rest to the heavy laden.
Along with millions of fellow pilgrims making our way on this beleaguered planet, I offer great and gracious thanksgiving that this man has joined us for a time, reminded us that there is something even better than our "thank you" for all we are freely given. It is the heartfelt "you're welcome" for all we freely give.