On this eve of the Feast of St Patrick we gather to pray for the newly-elected Pope Francis. We pray for the man; we pray for his ministry; we pray for the Church.
Speaking this morning to journalists working in Rome to cover the events of the Conclave, Pope Francis reminded them that covering events of the Church is different to covering political events.
The Church is not just another political or philanthropic organisation.
It is God’s people, with their holiness and their sinfulness, journeying towards a closer relationship with Christ, who is the sole head of the Church.
Just as covering the Church media-wise is different to covering a philanthropic or political organisation, renewal in the Church is different to renewal of any societal institution.
Pope Francis challenges all of us to take up that journey of renewal anew: “My wish”, he said, “is that all of us… will have the courage to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified.
And in this way, the Church will go forward”. Renewal in the Church will only take place when we follow not our own paths but what our first reading called that “road in the wilderness” which God alone prepares.
Anyone who has followed closely the events of these brief days of the ministry of Pope Francis will have been struck by the humility and simplicity of the man and his constant stress on poverty: personal poverty, love for the poor and a Church characterised by poverty.
But it would be very misleading to think that this is the sort of image of simplicity which could be woven by a spin doctor or that it is the simplicity of one who is weak.
This simplicity of Pope Francis reflects something much deeper which makes it simplicity with strength. It is his great awareness of the fact that his ministry only has meaning if it reflects the teaching and the person of and the way of life of Jesus Christ.
We celebrate these events during Lent. On this fifth Sunday of Lent the Gospel reading is about one of the themes to Pope Francis has forcefully drawn our attention: that of mercy.
Our Gospel reading is about the mercy of God which can mend and restore the sinner, which can allow those whose dignity has been sullied to stand once again with their heads held high, and which can open a future to those who have lost hope.
This is the mission of the Church and it is clear that Pope Francis wishes to shape a new image of the Papacy and of his own mission along these lines.
I am a little anxious when I reflect on some of the comments written on these first days of the Pope’s ministry.
All are agreed on the fact that this Pope will bring about change and renewal in the life of the Church, but there is a tendency of many to claim that the change and renewal signified in the Pope’s gestures will reflect and should reflect precisely what the author has always said and thought.
I suppose it is a natural tendency and a temptation into which on all of us, myself included, are tempted to fall. We would all like our interpretation to be the only one.
When we look at these strong gestures of the new Pope there is always the temptation to be fascinated by the mechanics of the gestures and to miss the true meaning of the gestures.
We all like to feel vindicated in some way, but it would be wrong to think that the new Pope has come to support this or that line of Church politics. The call of Pope Francis is rather the typical call of Lent: a call for all of us to conversion.
It is about turning away from every false and self-created vision of what life and humanity and holiness involve and allowing the healing power of Jesus to enrich us to be fully the people we were created to be.
On a number of occasions the Pope has used the word mundane, criticising a spiritualised worldliness which tends to create personalised visions of what the Church is about but which really impede us from true conversion. Where can we look to see what true conversion from the mundane might look like?
We see it in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name Pope Francis chose. Francis turned away from a worldly life and worked with his companions to attain what he had been told in a vision:
“Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins”. He set out to renew the Church through a life of simplicity and poverty and holiness, but fully within the community of the Church he loved.
In today’s Gospel we see how as Jesus is speaking with the crowd, some experts in the law and some Pharisees drag out before him a woman caught in flagrant adultery.
They want to test Jesus by recalling that Moses had said that such a woman should be stoned to death. They want to trap Jesus and put him in contradiction, not with the law, but with their interpretation of the Law of God.
The general interpretation of the law at the time of Jesus was in fact much more restrained. It would seem that those who turn to Jesus were from a group which wanted to return to the fullest and most literal application of the entire Law of Moses, in what we would call today a fundamentalist way.
And as often with those who bear fundamentalist tendencies, they love to trap and compromise and condemn anyone who has even the slightest difference from their view of things.
Jesus says very little. He waits, he writes in the sand. Wisely he does not allow himself to be trapped into answering their loaded question. After a long silence he challenges them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”.
Who is without sin? Most of us are very good at keeping knowledge of our sins to ourselves. We tend to be in denial about our sinfulness. If I were to ask myself “where am I in today’s Gospel story?” I would most probably say that I would hope that I am more like the merciful Jesus. In effect in this Gospel reading we are actually all characterised by the woman caught in blatant adultery.
The sinner caught flagrantly is a symbol for all of us whose sins may be less known; all of us are sinners; all of us are in need of God’s mercy. Jesus alone is the one who is without sin; and thankfully for us all, he is not in the stone throwing business.
Dramatically the accusers move away one after the other, leaving Jesus alone with the sinner; a striking encounter, as Saint Augustine writes, between human misery and God’s mercy. Those who thought that they were the interpreters of God’s ways have fled with their fruitless judgementalism.
On his part, Jesus clearly recognises the sin. The law is necessary to define what is wrong. Jesus does not, however, practice a harsh punitive justice; yet neither is his mercy cheap mercy.
The Church in Ireland has for long time had a very strong judgemental trait. We were taught a great deal about sins; sins were listed and catalogued. Church leaders, and indeed individuals and communities of all sorts, often thought that their own judgementalism was justified by their representing the anger and the wrath of God.
Today we encounter at times a reverse judgementalism of a liberal society which is equally willing to excommunicate others who think differently.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ is above all a merciful God. The Church must reflect that God of mercy. It is interesting to note that the fundamentalists and rigorists of today’s Gospel retreat without bringing a single iota of help to the woman.
It is only when human misery encounters God’s mercy that the life of the woman changes. She is treated as a person; she is treated as a person who, no matter how she had disgraced herself, could still stand face-to-face with the grace and mercy of God.
Jesus’ logic is different to ours. In the face of sin he does not respond with fundamentalist condemnation; neither does he respond with modern-day liberal toleration.
Everything is not right with the woman’s life and behaviour. What Jesus does is to confront the woman face-to-ace and offer her the chance to begin again and sin no more; she goes away then from her unexpected encounter with Jesus as a woman healed, a woman renewed and once again capable of beginning again to live her life to the fullness of its capabilities.
Renewal in the Church means that all of us need to learn more deeply how to think like Christ, how to teach like Christ and care as Christ did. We need to realise that the cold harshness of fundamentalism has nothing to do with the demanding starkness of the call to personal and institutional integrity and renewal.
We thank God for the gift and for the gifts of Pope Francis. No one would deny that in the tasks he faces he needs our prayers and that he needs our support in his call for renewal of the Church. But that renewal will not be attained by comments from the side lines.
The call to renewal is a call to each one of us without exception. On the evening of his election Pope Francis first asked the prayers of the faithful in order that his own blessing would be fruitful. He continues to call each of us to renewal and conversion so that the renewal of the Church will be fruitful.
On this eve of the Feast of St Patrick we pray that the example of Pope Francis will encourage us to pray and to work that in the years ahead of us Church in Ireland will become one which truly reflects that mercy of Jesus which alone can heal our inadequacies.