By Father John Cush, STD
I HAVE BEEN BLESSED with the presence of the Popes in my life. In 1996, I had the opportunity while I was a seminarian studying in Rome to serve the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. It was awe-inspiring to be the one who carried the ferula, the pastoral staff, of Pope Saint John Paul II, to receive Holy Communion from him, and then to greet him personally after Holy Mass (the only conversation that I was able to have with one of the greatest saints of the 20th Century was when he asked me “Are you German?”).
Later on, in my time in Rome as a seminarian, I encountered an older priest in a simple black clerical suit on the street who, after a while, I was able to recognize as the future Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, truly a personal hero of mine. A gracious and kind man, Cardinal Ratzinger actually spoke to me at length about my studies (he encouraged me to study fundamental theology), my diocese (he knew Brooklyn and said “Thomas Daily!”), and my vocation (he asked when my ordination to the diaconate would be.) I happened to have a book about Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology with me and he signed my book! This encounter remains one of my fondest memories of my time as a seminarian in Rome.
When I was sent back to study for my doctorate in theology, I recall sitting in my room at the Casa Santa Maria, the graduate house for American priests, when I received a text from a dear friend from St. Helen’s, Howard Beach, the parish to which I was assigned for five happy years.
She wrote: “Just heard the news…things must be crazy there.” I had no idea what this news was, this event that just happened on Feb. 11, 2013. About a minute later, a brother priest burst into my room to announce that Pope Benedict had resigned. To be here in Rome in such a historical time, and to be here in Rome during the election of His Holiness, Pope Francis, to stand in St. Peter’s Square and to experience Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio come out on the Loggia of Saint Peter’s and say, almost sheepishly, “Buonasera!” and to be here currently in Rome in this historical pontificate of Francis is a true blessing.
For me, the Pope is a not a distant theological concept. He is my neighbor. As I write this, I am looking at my window and I see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica right nearby. When I pray the Eucharistic Prayer at Holy Mass, being here in Rome as I am currently, I say “For Francis, our pope and bishop,” for he is the local bishop here in Rome. This is my experience of the papacy, but, to be honest, it isn’t the experience of many.
For most of us, the Pontiff is a figure in the news, someone for whose intentions we pray for as we begin our rosary and whose name we hear in the Eucharistic Prayer. And, for some of us, when we read of developments in the Church, of statements uttered by Pope Francis, we can grow angry or confused and long for the days of Benedict and/or John Paul (or vice-versa, resent the days of Benedict and/or John Paul and view these days as the halcyon days of the Catholic Church).
We can almost view the Papacy as a quasi-political election, treating Holy Fathers as if they are part of a political party, representing one side of the aisle or the other. Of course, we must be honest. These men are human; they are flawed, and the men who elected them, the Cardinals, are flawed too, as we have sadly seen played out in recent years, but we can’t forget who is guiding the Church in all of this: the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity – God the Holy Spirit. He is in charge.
When we look at the Church, who is the spotless Bride of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God, we must recall that she is impeccable, sinless, although we who make up the Church, are sinners. To examine the Church through the lens of the political is to lose sight of who she really is – The Mystical Body of Christ.
Peter is that man whom the Lord knew, inside and out. He knew his weaknesses, his braggadocio, his genuine fear. He knew that it would be Simon Peter who, in his darkest hour, would flee and then deny that he even knew him three times. He also knew that it would be this Cephas, this Rock, upon whom He would build the Church, who would perform mighty deeds and powerfully witness before the Sanhedrin and eventually be led to a place where he did not want to go, being crucified on the Hill of Janus in Rome, upside-down, as Simon, now known as Peter, deemed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord and Master.
The Acts of the Apostles, which we proclaim at Mass as our first reading in the Season of Easter, testify to this remarkable transformation that the Lord has made in the life of the Fisherman of Galilee, this man who knows that he is a sinful man, but who also knows that he is loved by the One Who is Love Himself.
That ministry that is Peter’s is carried out today by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has taken the name Francis. Pray for him daily by name. Let the Pope not just be a distant figure in a faraway country but a real and true Pontiff, which means bridge. The Pope is meant to precisely be that bridge, that patriarch, that true and real Holy Father, that center of unity for all Christians. Pray for his ministry and for his person.
Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:27-32. 40B-41
Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State and as a professor of Theology and Church History at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.