Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo
Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, Rome
“I will bless the Lord at all times.” So we heard in today’s Psalm. Do you know what the word “bless” means? We get the sense in the Latin or Italian – bene … dicere – to “speak well of.” Imagine to “speak well” of God at all times: “I will bless the Lord at all times.” It comes from what Saint Paul tells us: “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28). This is at the heart of the Easter proclamation. It is what Saint Peter proclaims in our First Reading to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem on the Feast of Pentecost: “Though you had killed him by hanging him on a tree, the God of our ancestors raised Jesus. And now, God has exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior. We are witnesses of these things!”
Mother Julian of Norwich is one of England’s most significant mystics. She lived in the 1300’s, the Middle Ages, through difficult times, very similar to our own: divisions in the Church, wars, the Black Plague, which may have killed as many as 200 million people. Mother Julian suffered personal tragedy, too. In May 1373, most likely on the 13th of that month – the very day that Our Lady appeared in Fatima in 1918 – Mother Julian was suddenly stricken with a very serious illness that in three days seemed to be carrying her to the grave. A priest rushed to her bedside and showed her Jesus Crucified. Julian recovered rapidly. During her recovery, she received 16 revelations that she subsequently wrote down and commented on in her book, “Revelations of Divine Love.”
In this amazing book, Julian of Norwich lays out the central message for spiritual life: God is love and it is only if one opens oneself to this love, totally and with total trust, and lets it become one’s sole guide in life, that all things are transfigured, true peace and true joy found and one is able to radiate it.
After three years of challenges, the Papal Foundation comes back to the Eternal City, which, by its very name, is your true, or, at least, second home. Just as with Mother Julian of Norwich, in these years, we have witnessed divisions in the Church and in the Foundation, too; a pandemic; and, in these very weeks, a senseless and brutal war just one thousand miles from where we now sit. What is the response that Christians give to tragedies, personal or otherwise, so often born of evil and sin? The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the words of Julian of Norwich: “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith … and that, at the same time, I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time – that ‘all manner of thing shall be well’” (The Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 32).
“All manner of things shall be well.”
For almost 35 years now, beginning with the great Saint John Paul II, the Papal Foundation has brought together laity, clergy and hierarchy in the United States, in a unique and exemplary way, with a very simple mission: to serve the Holy Father and the Roman Catholic Church. You supported Pope John Paul II in his 27 years as Supreme Pontiff – the charismatic Pastor, the most travelled Pope in the Church’s history, who was key to bringing down the Iron Curtain and communist ideology. But surely the greatest pulpit from which he preached was his struggle with Parkinson’s. I remember standing in Saint Peter’s Square, the last time that he came to his window, shaking and unable to speak. Saint John Paul II did not need to say anything: his perseverance to the very end in the midst of utter weakness showed us that every life is precious from the first moment of conception to its natural end. He never climbed down from the Cross, just as Jesus never climbed down from His cross. He believed what Saint John tells us in today’s Gospel: “God is trustworthy.” And so, with faith and confidence, he could utter as his final words: “Let me go to the house of the Father.”
If Saint John Paul II opened people’s hearts with his charismatic personality and especially through his suffering, the shy Pope Benedict XVI filled those hearts with a teaching, so rich, as few other Pontiffs before him. We can think of some of Benedict’s great documents: the “Panzerkardinal,” God’s “rottweiler,” as his enemies dubbed him, who dedicates his only three Encyclicals exclusively to love and hope. A theme that will continue to run through all of his teachings in his eight years as Pope, even as he firmly defended the faith. Just listen to what Benedict told the world in his very first homily in Saint Peter’s Square: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” But, perhaps for Benedict, too, his greatest moment comes in a breath-taking action, one of suffering for him and the Church: when he freely chooses to relinquish the power and the glory of the papacy: “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” How could Pope Benedict have done what he did, had he not believed the words of Saint John in the Gospel: “God is trustworthy”?
John Paul II opened hearts; Benedict XVI filled hearts; and now we pass to Francis, whom each of us will encounter personally in his home this day. Many of us may find Pope Francis’ ways disturbingly unconventional. Some of his teachings, his choice of Cardinals, groups that he reaches out to, others that he seems to exclude. But just listen to what Pope Francis told the Cardinals who were about to elect him in their closed-door meetings, where they listened to one another: “The Church can no longer remain closed-in on itself … like a fertile mother, who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing, she goes out to find those who most need God’s comfort.” John Paul II opened hearts; Benedict XVI filled hearts. Now Francis says: take what you have received in your hearts to those in need of God’s comfort, spiritually and materially. This is the Papal Foundation.
Today, we shall encounter Francis also in a moment of suffering. After an operation last July that removed half of his colon and excruciating, debilitating sciatica, he will likely soon be confined to a wheelchair. God “prunes” us through sufferings and weakness, so that we can produce even greater fruit, fruit that has the greatest impact. For Francis, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, Jesus speaks the same words as to the first Pope, Saint Peter: “When you were young, you walked where you wanted to go; but when you grow older, you will stretch out your hands, and another will take you, where you would rather not go” (John 21:18).
This is the foundation of the Popes, something that we, too, must learn. Sufferings and difficulties, when lived with faith – “God is trustworthy” – just as we have been through and go through, can lead to even greater fruit. Such that we can “bless the Lord at all times,” believing with Mother Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well.”