One year ago this week Pope Francis was elected chief shepherd of the Catholic Church. A question I have been asked a lot during this past year is, “What do you think of the new Pope?” Like many questions priests get asked, this can be a loaded question; because people who ask it are usually hoping that I’ll answer it in a certain way. So far, everybody has been pleased when I have said, “I think he has been very good for the Church.” Only time will tell what lasting impact Pope Francis will have; but during this past year he has certainly brought a lot of fervor and enthusiasm to his leadership role, has shown pastoral sensitivity in addressing some vexing questions, and has given a strong personal witness to what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Although Pope Francis is in his late seventies, he has brought a youthful energy to the papacy that we have not seen in a long time. Back in 1979 when the newly elected Pope John Paul II came to Chicago, those of us who were in the Servite formation program in St. Louis were given the opportunity to come to Chicago for his Mass in Grant Park. One of our seminarians, who knew some Polish, shouted a greeting at the Pope as he strode by. The Pope heard it through the crowd, turned and waved, and shouted the appropriate response—truly a memorable moment for anyone. Reliable sources tell me that when he was young, Pope John Paul II was quite a practical joker. But over the course of his 26 years as Pope, he was slowed by a variety of ailments; so that people under 35 are likely to remember him only as a frail old man. His successor, Pope Benedict, was by training a professor. He wrote a number of books, including his three-part Jesus of Nazareth, written in a popular style which I highly recommend. As Pope, however, he struggled to communicate the Church’s message to the masses. As he himself would admit, he was much more at home in an academic setting than on the world’s stage.
What I think Pope Francis has done most effectively is to bridge the gap between what is sometimes called “the institutional church” and the Catholic people of the world. In truth, there never is such a gap. The church is all of us together. Yet it has sometimes seemed as if Popes and Bishops and Priests have been focused on one set of concerns and everyone else has been focused on another. Francis has given a human face to the Papacy and has managed to convey by word and gesture that he was really interested in soothing our pains, healing our wounds, and listening to our concerns, while still reminding us of church teaching. We are one Church, and it feels more like it now than it has in a long time.
Throughout the centuries we have maintained ways of remembering that we are one universal church--not only through our structure, but also through our rituals and sacraments. This Sunday afternoon, for example, our ten adult catechumens and candidates will journey to Holy Name Cathedral for a ceremony called The Rite of Election and Continuing Conversion. This is a ceremony that is being repeated five times at Holy Name at the beginning of Lent. Those in RCIA programs throughout the Archdiocese who are preparing for baptism or reception into the Catholic Church and their sponsors are welcomed by the Bishop of Chicago and are called to enter into their final weeks of preparation for the sacraments of initiation at Easter. For many of the adults who go through the RCIA at Assumption, this is one of the most moving moments of the whole process. The huge sanctuary at Holy Name fills with those seeking to become Catholic. We are not just a small group meeting in a circle in a church basement; we are part of something much, much larger. A little over a month from now, during Holy Week, Cardinal George will celebrate the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral. During this Mass the Holy Oils used for baptism, confirmation, ordination and anointing of the sick throughout the course of the year are blessed and then distributed to all the parishes in the Archdiocese. Plus, as has been the case since the early centuries of the church, the Bishop is the ordinary minister for applying the final anointing with chrism oil (which we call today the Sacrament of Confirmation). Finally, we cannot forget that we are one church in our official prayer (pay attention to the words of the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass) and in our financial stewardship. As you continue your Lenten journey, think about the millions and millions of Catholics around the world who are journeying with you, trying to come closer to Jesus through prayer, sacrifice, and works of charity.