Second Francis to Rebuild Church?
To be Like Jesus is Good News!
Rebuilding a crumbling Church should be modelled on life lived like Jesus in thought, word and deed. Model is non-negotiable. It alone is new evangelization. Assisi’s Francis made a mad dash for it & became 2nd Christ. What about you and me led by Pope Francis (3rd Christ?) to be like Jesus?
Optimism is good, pessimism is bad. What is better then? To my mind, it is Realism, which ought to be a mixture of both. The harsh realities of day and night, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, hope and despair teach us precisely that, day in and day out. One should not therefore be over-elated by success or downcast by defeat, but strive ahead hoping against hope, holding on to the maxim: “Dum Spiro, Spero” – I hope as long as I breathe!
This is how I see Pope Francis amidst all the euphoria surrounding his election as the dawn of a new leadership in the Catholic Church and the rise of a moral force for the whole world. Fault line is to see it more than just a dawn. Well begun is half done! Besides his past credentials auger well for him to soar like a rising sun which may overcome or even pierce through dark clouds to be expected from four quarters. A Malayalam proverb says the same: “What has germinated in fire will never fade in any hot sun.” (Theeyil kuruthatu veyilathu vadathu)
Pope Francis has been through and through scorching political and religious fire in the country of his birth Argentina. He has creditably battled through “Dirty War” years on the political front and “Liberation Theology” confrontations on the religious front. Apparently he has passed the test of Fire. The firing squads, either from the Left or from the Right, have not succeeded to tarnish his image as a Man of the masses, especially as the protector, defender and liberator of the last, least and lost, the vulnerable, oppressed, marginalized and hungry anywhere and everywhere within his reach.
Now that he is catapult from a narrow national and regional setting to a global front, should he or will he succeed to repeat his performance with equal success and shine? This is the moot question. To be realistic none can vouch for certainties of his forthcoming performance, while many will argue for probabilities even when most of us may have easily settled for possibilities. Why? Because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and in the Catholic Church the man at the top, as of now, wields absolute power unheard of in 21st century.
However office makes noble souls to rise up higher and higher commensurate with the demands of the office in question, but not necessarily. It has not helped the block of Italian cardinals not to shoot before the target was in sight. They send congratulatory messages to their hopeful cardinal of Milan immediately after sighting the white smoke but before the actual name got announced. That is how the Holy Spirit worked on them and probably in a lesser degree on various other national blocks with different expectations although all vie with one another saying they are guided solely by the same Holy Spirit, to assuage and placate an unthinking or credulous public gallery.
But in the case of Pope Francis he has proved he is far above such narrow divisive thinking, pulls or pushes. Why? Didn’t he embarrass even his own religious congregation to become the topmost Jesuit to become a Franciscan? To opt for Francis of Assisi rather than Francis Xavier their founder Father? Wasn’t he thus telling without telling that revelling in the uniqueness of one’s own religious order, or one’s own particular church like Latin, Syrian, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara etc. has nothing to do with being an exemplary follower of Jesus? For Christians what is more paramount other than being like Jesus in word and deed? What would Jesus do here and now, alone should guide every Christian? Pope’s humility must have prompted him to see it as too tall an order. That could have forced him to settle for Assisi’s Francis, the “Second Christ”.
To Be Like Jesus?
Yes, to be like Jesus, to reach for that unreachable heights directly or indirectly, to bear witness to Him alone and none other is to be the sole mission of every one of His self-proclaimed followers. It doesn’t matter if one is called Pope or prostitute by the passing parade of public opinion which gloats in glorifying or stigmatizing persons to suit its fancies. For Jesus all are equal in his sight, all brothers and sisters, friends and well wishers. Among them there are no rulers and ruled. Those who want to be first must opt for being the last. Those who want to be Lord and Master must become the servant of all, even to the point of washing their feet.
Inequality among them alone is anathema, the capital sin crying to heaven for retribution. He came to banish from the face of earth all inequalities based on position, possession, power or pelf. The richest and the most blessed in His sight are those who give up all riches like Him. Pope Francis paraphrased it when he called Francis “the poor man” and exclaimed: “How I would like a poor church, and for the poor”, to highlight his longing to live the paradoxical truth of having nothing to posses all “Nilhil habentes, omnia possidentes”.
Jesus lived it. He owned nothing, didn’t have money even to pay tax to Caesar, had no home or address of his own except the heaven above and rugged streets of Palestine below, had to borrow an Ass to ride on, a manger to get himself born, a cave to get himself buried, wrote nothing, ran away from being crowned king, cooked fish for his disciples, washed their feet, ate and drank with drunkards and prostitutes, called the poor heirs of his kingdom, baptized none, offered no sacrifice in any temple, ordained no priests, called the hierarchical priestly class of his times hypocrites, brood of wipers, white washed sepulchres, branded Herd the tyrant “that Fox”, befriended outcastes, sinners and labouring class, in short, He afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. Therefore he was called a know-nothing, an immature youngster in his thirties, a rude guy gone crazy, a rabble rouser shaking the status quo fit only to be done away with although Pilot himself found him innocent and his wife was more convinced of it, and the good thief saw a heavenly soul in Him.
Can Pope become 3rd Christ?
Can Pope Francis live that life? Assisi’s Francis lived it and so he was called “second Christ”. Can you and I who profess to be His followers live it? We are called to! As Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the first step in that direction by saying good bye to Episcopal palace for a rented apartment, by opting for a bus ride to a Shaffer driven car, cooking for himself, now as Pope by calling himself Francis and giving up palatial penthouse apartment with more than a dozen rooms in favour of a modest two-room residence, by calling inequality the greatest sin crying to heaven, by branding fellow leaders hypocrites for forgetting Jesus who bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes, by washing the feet of Aids patients in one place and drug addicts in another, and lately making history as the first pope ever to wash the feet of two ladies, one an Italian Catholic and the other, think of it, a Serbian Muslim. Good that none asked: “Has he gone crazy?”
But the litmus test of his papacy will come only when he renounces his claim to be “Pontifex Maximus” to be addressed: “Your Holiness” which is blasphemy pure and simple. Instead he has to call himself: “First Servant of Servants” among equals which embraces the whole of humanity, not just the People of God, meaning Christians only. Some critics point to a “sinking Bark of Peter” as the reason for mass exodus of youth and women from it. At such a time it would be suicidal to hoist two totally negating flags: “His Holiness” and “Servant of Servants”. When Pope Benedict resigned I thought he would become an “Ordinary” in the ordinary sense. Instead, if reports are to be believed, he is still clinging on to some of the Papal perks (will still be called His Holiness, it is reported) which would make his much trumpeted humility just a sham.
Besides Francis should abolish with an executive order the present graded ascending and descending hierarchical status for the clergy like: Cardinals called princes, Archbishops, Bishops, Monsignors and priests, all of Constantenian origin and all of them variously addressed as His Holiness, His Eminence, His Grace, His Excellency, His Lordship, Most Rev., Rt. Rev. and Rev. for the priest just ordained. That leaves the rest of the baptized with no share in Holiness in the Church. If he cannot bring an executive order for all (How can he, a man of peace and pardon punish anyone except himself?), he should at least renounce for himself all these divisive titles that militate against equality, to set an example for others to follow on their own. Nothing short of it can clinch his credibility. How else can Pope Francis be like Jesus or Francis of Assisi who renounced even priesthood for himself?
Next Pope a Jesus Youth?
Two other vexing issues in the Catholic Church are: 1. what should be the age for top Church leaders? And 2. How to handle theologians with conflicting views on moral and social issues? In the context of Benedict’s resignation due to old age debilities, reason demands either to put an age bar for one to become a Pope or reduce Papacy to a fixed term, say 10 years. But here again what is the role model we are in duty bound to follow, if not Jesus? Yes, is it not to be like Jesus?
How old was Jesus when he started his leadership role (just 30) and when did he end it? At 33 after 3 years of public life! Today we have got into the habit of associating all leadership qualities like wisdom and grace before God and man, experience, maturity and know how only with the old, those who are past 60 and in their declining or retiring years. Instead it is those who are in their thirties who are alive and kicking and have the necessary physical, psychological and intellectual stamina besides the necessary get up and go to take risks and lead, even according to Indian Sastras which speak of four Ashrams in life: Brehmachariya, Grahasta, Vanaprasta and Sanayasa.
Won’t it look ridiculous if we thrust leadership roles on those who are in their Sanyasa years? The example of Jesus demands and Indian wisdom commands that we opt for young and energetic leaders like Jesus to take top leadership in the Church. Besides we have examples of many world luminaries who performed brilliantly or peaked their best in their thirties. It is also the crying need to connect with today’s majority of younger generation in their thirties. If we want to be like Jesus, who is the non-negotiable model, this point must be thrashed out thread bear and applied in the selection of a Pope, cardinals or bishops, as long as these imperial, outdated offices are perpetuated and not wiped out from the Catholic Church.
Similar is the case of dealing with controversial theologians. Vatican II was loud and clear, when it said we don’t have instant solutions to all vexing, thorny problems of the day. So we have to search for them together through prayer, study and honest discussion on the pros and cons of unsettled issue. It is here the importance of loyal criticism and critical loyalty looms large in the Church. Hence the clamour today for free speech for the sake of clarity and unity in necessary things, diversity in unsettled issues and charity in all things as St. Augustine advices. Here again the ultimate standard in the Church has to be that of Jesus who never, never asked any critic to shut up. Will Pope Francis, will you and me, dare to rise up to this standard set by Jesus?
Wrote 40 Years ago
These thoughts forced me to write “To be like Jesus” nearly 40 years ago as part of my signing off Editorial in the New Leader on July 14th 1974:
“We have been advocating that every responsible public office (including that of bishops and even the Pope) must be for a term and not for a lifetime. Here is a chance for me to apply it to myself.....
“Christ the one honest man could not survive more than three years of public life ... (so)...those of us who manage to survive more than three years of public life may have to question ourselves on whether we have been as honest, as courageous and as truthful as Christ was....
“They say I am a dreamer, blind and cannot see that life consists of living only to earn money. Well if that’s what I am, Lord, won’t you care for me? I only want to be like the Man from Galilee! Chorus: I want to be like, I want to hear like, and I want to see like the Man from Galilee. I want to walk like, I want to talk like, and I want to be like the Man from Galilee. They say I am an idealist, blind and cannot see, that the principles I cling to won’t stand reality. Well if that’s what I am Lord, won’t you care for me? I only want to be like the Man from Galilee….
“LIBERATION: Finally you may ask: What are you going to do during the one year or so you are going to take off? Today there is a lot of talk about liberation and this concept is highly biblical. Christ started out His mission with a call for and promise of liberation from every kind of bondages – spiritual, physical, social and material. It is this mission of liberation that the Church must continue, that every Christian -- Bishop, priest, religious, layman – should continue.
“Before one can bring liberation to others, one should answer a more fundamental question: What should liberation mean for me? My simple answer, as far as I am concerned is, that it should mean liberating myself from various kinds and categories of unfreedom: from the outdated ecclesiastical structural ghetto, from the clerical ghetto, from the Catholic ghetto thinking, from the Christian ghetto, from the religious ghetto, so that I could be really one with the mass of humanity and say in all truth: OUR FATHER with all its implications.
“For me that is the sum and substance of Christianity which goes far beyond all the talk today of ecumenism. Among other things I would like to reflect and see the consequences and demands of such a concept of liberation for me and for the Church in India.
“The end result of such a theology, I already suspect can only be the identification of the Church with humanity, yes humanity without any distinctions of class, caste or creed, with the real people of God. Today, after the Vatican II, the Church is called the people of God. The Church was that even before the Council, perhaps it then meant only the Pope for all practical purposes. People of God meant Pope of God. After the Council the Episcopal collegiality is being recognized, and so the name ‘people of God’ today for all practical purposes means, Pope and bishops of God; the next council may possibly recognize the presbyterial collegiality (liberation of priests) and then the ‘people of God’ would really mean, Pope, Bishops and Priests of God. Another ecumenical council would probably give religious and laity coresponsibility in the Church (liberation of laity) and then ‘people of God’ would really mean Pope, bishops, priests, religious and laity of God. Well, you may make your own calculations as to how many more ecumenical councils would be needed to really include all of humanity in the ‘people of God’.
“But don’t give up hope. Some day, some time, somehow we shall reach there. We are moving in that direction already with all the promises and prospects of a theology of liberation. Tagore wrote the beautiful hymen: Prayer for India: Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, into that heaven of freedom, my Father let my country awake….Only I wish you sing it with gusto, but substituting “my country” in the refrain with “my Church” awake….
“We started with Christian optimism. For me it means refusing to have any real hope until you pass through that paschal mystery of crushing defeat and sense of hopelessness. We are somewhere there. Therefore take courage and keep on hoping and smiling and hoping and smiling all the way, remembering that the last thing to give up is the sense humour. Wish you miles and miles of HOPEFUL SMILES!!” (To read the full editorial: “Editor Resigns: Wishing N.Leader Well,” visit: https//sites.google.com/site/jameskottoorspeaking/)
That was 40 years ago when we could not have dreamt of a Pope Francis. Therefore deluge our beloved Francis with your instant emails telling him as your honest conscience commands, with ill-will to none and good will to all. What we have today is a melting pot of churches in conflict for self promotion, for careerism as Francis names it. What is needed is to go beyond this tempest in the tea cup of churches or Churchianity, in order to construct a unified humanity for which alone the SON OF MAN came and taught us to pray: OUR FATHER, excluding none and embracing all in its ambit to bring about His “THY KINGDOME COME HERE ON EARTH” in our globalised world. We can be sure of bringing it, provided we all from Pope Francis to you and me strive might and main “to be like Jesus” the Carpenter of Nazareth who so urgently wants to rebuild a new humane humanity of harmony and good will in thought, word and deed here on this God’s earth.
Writer can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org