by Father John Cush
It’s been quite a year at the Vatican, to say the least! Who would have thought that for the first time in centuries, we would have a pontiff resign his papacy? Who would have thought that we would have the first pope elected from the Americas? Who would have thought that the world would embrace with such interest this new pope?
There are many things that one could point to as the prime message of Pope Francis. Some might posit that the main theme of this pontiff could be simplification, about stripping away some of the formality of the Petrine office and making the pope more accessible to the people of God, whether that be by his willingness to make personal phone calls, his desire to live at the Domus Sanctae Marthae or his openness to grant an impromptu press conference on the flight back to Rome from Rio.
The single most quoted statement of Pope Francis, which comes from that same impromptu press conference, used in so many different contexts by various people and groups, has been: “Who am I to judge?” As has been said by so many since the Holy Father actually had said these words, we need to understand the statement in the context in which he actually said these words. That phrase, “Who am I to judge?,” I think, can be read in the context of the epistle offered to us today from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
If we read Pope Francis’ comment in light of St. Paul’s words, perhaps they make a bit more sense. First, he’s not saying that there is no more objective truth; he’s not declaring that there is no more right and wrong and that natural law, divine law and ecclesiastical law need no longer apply.
The Holy Father is clear in what he actually said: When a person has committed sin and then repented, those sins are truly forgiven. No one then has any right, after that, to judge that person according to those sins. It is the Lord alone who knows the interior life of each person. To take it one step further, I think that the pope is saying what the Apostle is saying: Everything we have and everything we are need to be seen as coming from the Lord. Everything is pure gift.
In his classic 1937 novel, “The Diary of a Country Priest,” author Georges Bernanos, writes, “Does it matter? All is grace.”
All is a gift from God. It is the task of each and every individual then to discover through prayer and discernment exactly who the Lord is calling us to be – ultimately, sons and daughters of the Most High God, members of His Mystical Body, the Church.
Seek First God’s Kingdom
Once we have humbled ourselves, unmasked sin in the sacrament of penance and received absolution, our only judge is Christ the Lord. Then, we begin to know ourselves. Then, we begin to understand the capacity that we have for goodness and the daily combat against sin in our lives. Then, and only then, can we begin to do what the Lord asks us to do in today’s Gospel passage from Mark: to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Once we know our motives and we’re able to purify our intentions – intellectually, morally and spiritually forming a truly Catholic conscience – then we can go from experience to understanding to judgment to action.
Others would say that of all the remarkable things that our Holy Father has done and said, nothing is more important than his emphasis on true Christian action in the world, as seen in the works of mercy. As Pope Francis calls for a Church for the poor, as he marked his 77th birthday by sharing breakfast with homeless men living in the vicinity of St. Peter’s Basilica, as he celebrated Mass for those who perished at Lampedusa, our Holy Father exemplifies the works of mercy.
By definition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that the corporeal works of mercy consist “especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.” (CCC 2447). We can do this in our daily lives by something as simple as giving to the poor boxes in our local churches, donating to local food banks and assisting the works of Catholic Charities on the diocesan level.
The flip-side, if you will, are the spiritual works of mercy. These are: “charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently.” (CCC 2447).
These spiritual works of mercy are also strongly emphasized both by today’s readings and by the example of our Holy Father. His willingness to meet and have true dialogue with people that traditionally have felt marginalized, with his openness to discuss and have outreach on controversial issues while still remaining faithful to the doctrine and tradition of the Church, Pope Francis truly is our Pontifex, our bridge builder, to the world.
If we want to be authentically Christian and authentically human, it requires seeing a person who is in need as precisely a person, with rights and needs and an intrinsic human dignity. It requires one thing above all – seeing each person as created in the image and likeness of God who, despite the presence of sin, sorrow and sadness in the world, and unfortunately at times, in ourselves, is truly, deeply loved by God and is worthy of our attention and care.
[hr] Readings for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49: 14-15
Psalm 62: 2-3, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 4: 1-5
Matthew 6: 24-34[hr] Father John P. Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a doctoral student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.