By Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo
Monsignor Anthony can be seen in this picture at the Synod of Bishops meeting at the Vatican October 2001. In addition to Pope John Paul II, his two successors can also be seen in this picture.
Why did God choose Saint Peter, and not Saint Paul, as the rock on which to build His Church? Some of us might wonder. After all, Paul was far more “qualified”. He was a greater writer, a more gifted preacher, a more experienced missionary. What’s more, Paul was celibate. Peter was married, perhaps with children, and certainly with a mother-in-law in tow. In the law of today’s Church, Peter would not be ordained a priest, unless he claimed convert status. At best, he might be offered the Permanent Diaconate.
There is a lesson for all of us here. God chooses whom he chooses. And his choice falls on very different characters.
Think for a moment of Saint Pope John Paul II – the first Polish Pope and the first non-Italian in 455 years. In his 27 years as Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II proved himself to be the great evangelizer and 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. As he came to his window in the Apostolic Palace for the very last time, shaking from the effects of this debilitating disease and unable to speak, Saint John Paul II did not need to say anything. His perseverance to the very end amid utter weakness proclaimed 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 Peter confessed to Jesus: “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you” (Jn 21, 17). And so, with childlike trust, Pope John Paul II 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. At his election, his critics dubbed the great defender of the faith the “Panzerkardinal” and God’s “rottweiler”. Yet he surprised the world by dedicating his first major teaching to “God is Love” (Encyclical Letter, Deus caritas est, December 25, 2005) – a theme that would continue to run through all his teachings in his eight years as Pope, even as he firmly defended the faith. But, perhaps for Benedict, too, his greatest moment comes in a breath-taking action, one of suffering for Christ and His 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 too not believed in his heart: “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you”? Indeed, his very last words sealed his life and papacy: “Lord, I love you!”
Saint John Paul II opened hearts; Pope Benedict XVI filled hearts; and now we pass to Pope Francis. The short address that the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio gave to his brother Cardinals in the pre-Conclave gatherings offers a key to understanding his vision as Pope: “Thinking of the next Pope: a man who, through the contemplation of Jesus Christ and the adoration of Christ, may help the Church to go out from herself towards the existential peripheries, who may help her to be a fruitful mother who lives by the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing”.
In these few simple words, Pope Francis identifies three essential characteristics of the Church and the mission of every Christian:
Her point of origin is prayer. In his first major teaching, “The Joy of the Gospel” (Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013), Pope Francis tells us: “The joy of evangelizing always arises from a grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore” (n. 13).
Her true nature is to go out. This was the commission entrusted by Pope Francis to the Stewards of Saint Peter in his Address of April 8, 2016: “We are called by Christ to share this mercy with those who are spiritually and materially in need through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, with that spirit of generosity and tenderness that reflects God’s immeasurable goodness … In this way, your charity reverberates throughout the world, offering new initiatives that help to extend the merciful embrace of the Father”.
Her mission is the joy of evangelizing. This was the wish expressed by Pope Francis in his address to the Stewards on May 2, 2014: “I pray that you will be confirmed in the grace of your Baptism and in your commitment to be missionary disciples filled with the joy born of a personal encounter with the Risen Jesus”.
This threefold vision may help to explain Pope Francis’ unconventional ways: his emphasis on mercy and tenderness, some of his teachings, his choice of Cardinals and Bishops, groups that he reaches out to, others that he seems to exclude. But here, too, we find a syntony: Saint John Paul II opened hearts; Pope Benedict XVI filled hearts. Now Francis says: take with maternal tenderness what you have received to those in need of God’s comfort, spiritually and materially. Begin with prayer. Go out from yourselves. And always with the joy of your encounter with the Risen Lord!
As the Successor of Peter, Pope Francis surely trusts also, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you”. In the Church, there is room for a Saint Peter, as well as for a Saint Paul. Let us have hearts of gratitude that there is room for you, as well as for me, too.