The Faces of Faith

This time as I write, I feel helpless. After having written so many millions of words in my life in the Catholic press, and after all the homilies that I have preached, at least to my satisfaction, I cannot fully describe what it was like to be in St. Peter’s piazza on March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis was elected.

Electricity was in the air, and hardly because of the occasional bolt of lightning that split the cloudy, rain-swollen clouds. Emotional, high-voltage electricity flashed in the faces and thundered in the voices of thousands upon thousands who stood there, awaiting not just news, but news about a pope.

The evening unfolded this way. The first announcement of the election, given through the medium of white smoke pouring from a brass chimney atop the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, simply informed the crowd — and the world — that a new pope had been chosen. No name was spoken. No identity revealed. Only the fact of an election was disclosed. Then, confirming the fact, the basilica’s great bells rang an excited, happy peal.

No name, no details, but still the reaction was instant, and it was overwhelming. Cheering and applause, smiles and even tears, spread across the piazza.

Of course, everyone yearned to know who had been elected, and by what name he would be called. The mood, nevertheless, was evident and splendid in its enthusiasm and joy. A pope had been elected!

After what seemed a long time, the doors on the balcony of the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica opened. More cheers sprang forth. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared, the senior of the cardinal deacons, the position traditionally assigned to present the new pope. “Habemus papam,” he said, in the historic wording. “We have a pope.” More cheers, from a crowd that still only knew that an election had occurred.

At long last, the cardinal answered everyone’s question. Elected was “Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio.” My cell phone rang. The four seminarians from my home diocese studying at the North American College had met me in the piazza to await the results of that day’s fourth ballot. After the white smoke, they had left where they had been standing to weave their way through the crowd to a better vantage point. One of them was calling. “Monsignor,” he asked, “who is it?” Thousands were asking the same question — except those waving Argentinian flags for all they were worth.

Cardinal Tauran said that the new pope’s name would be “Francis.” More, even more robust, cheers came. The connection with the beloved povarello of Assisi was realized and so greatly appreciated. As a sidebar, it is interesting that the poor St. Francis, 800 years after his death, is, as he has been called, “Everybody’s Saint,” this man of long ago who spurned earthly comfort and earthly things, loved nature, and gave his all to Christ.

(As an aside, why is St. Francis of Assisi so enduringly beloved? Even Muslims think well of him.)

The gold processional cross was brought through the door, and the crowd cheered again. Then came the Holy Father, instantly recognizable because of his white cassock. Very few knew much about him — other than those ecstatic Argentinians. Only the most observant in Vatican protocol realized that he was not wearing the papal mozetta. No one saw his black, not red, shoes. It made no difference. The pope was there!

This came through at once. Everyone saw his humility. It was evident when he invited everyone to pray for his predecessor. It was so beautifully obvious when he invited everyone to pray for him in his new role of service. At that moment, the people responded as believers, Catholic believers. The cheering stopped. Silence prevailed. Thousands of lips were motionless. Cameras were set aside. Thousands of hearts lifted in prayer. It was extraordinary.

Of course, in a way, a real way, it was about the man on the balcony, Pope Francis, the new bishop of Rome, as he presented himself.

It was something else. More deeply, it was about faith not in Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man, not even about the man who at midday had been an Argentine archbishop but who was now the new pope. Instead, it was about the Church, and even more broadly still, it was about God, alive, genuine, wonderful, and not only accessible, but for the people in that great crowd, somehow, amid so many personal circumstances, there with them — through the Church.

The only explanation for all that appeared in that scene was faith, pure and simple.

In the Old Testament, God was present for people so often, but hidden. Isaiah trusted in his hidden God (see Is 8:17). Abraham, the great paragon of faith, never saw God as Abraham saw other mortals. The Hebrews fleeing Egypt saw pharaoh’s army pursuing them, but they did not see God as they saw the soldiers. Moses, while on Sinai, saw a bush burning but not consumed, but he did not see God, although he knew well that God was with him.

All had seen the works of God, the opening of the sea, for instance, and the plagues to weaken the oppressive Egyptians. So they knew that God was with them.

With the coming of the Son of God as a man, and as the ministry of Jesus unfolded, people saw God, in the person of the Lord, for the Son of God is truly human and truly divine. They saw the miracles. They also experienced what must have been the wondrously appealing personality of Christ. It had to have been a marvelous platform for the birth and growth of faith.

Then, after the death of Jesus and the Resurrection, came the Ascension. Not surprisingly, the people who had known Jesus longed for the Lord’s presence in the way they first had known it. The readings in the liturgies of the Easter season are magnificent in their ability to convey to those who hear them, or read them, the moods of the people who would have known Jesus, but who worried and wondered that the Lord has left this earth and was gone from them.

As the Church progresses to Pentecost, the readings at Mass reveal that God comes to the faithful as the Holy Spirit, with all the divine mercy, power and love that so gloriously existed in Jesus.

The Holy Spirit, it might be recalled, came to the community of believers through the channel of the apostles. It is an important point for catechetics and for ecumenical dialogue. The Spirit came on Pentecost, as revealed in Acts, through the apostles. To them, the Spirit had been promised. Because of the Spirit, Jesus comforted the apostles. They would never be orphans. The Lord would be with them.

Institutionalized Religion

With the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, and in their inner security in their faith and in their vocation, the apostles, always incidentally led by Peter, went out into the highways and byways, into the marketplaces and homes, to speak as Christ spoke, to heal as Christ healed. Church history began. The event on March 13 was only a recent entry in this long history.

So, faith is ecclesial.

It is interesting how organized religion serves and enables faith, and how no substitute exists for institutionalized religion — not bureaucracy, not job descriptions, but an organized, teaching, loving body of faith-filled people, willing to depend upon, and truly to follow, the Lord Jesus.

As proof, the past several generations of Western society have seen a most distressing chain of events. The ecclesial feature of faith, and of religion, has sustained a mighty blow. No casual observer of the Western religious scene, not even the most optimistic, can ignore or diminish the stunning decline in institutionalized religion. It is breathtakingly apparent in Europe. It is in Canada. It is very much in the United States, although some data would prompt an argument that American religion is not as troubled as is religion in Europe.

It is true that the slippage among Catholics is not as severe as that among Protestants, surely mainline Protestants, but Catholic numbers are falling. As chilling, or more chilling, is the overall trend among youths. The Church is not holding onto all youths, albeit the fact that many Catholic young people are fervent and deeply connected.

This circumstance is not just a matter of religious arithmetic, something of a worldwide, or at least national, informal ecclesial census. It is not to say that the loss of, or dulling of, faith among those people whose religious habits and lifestyles are weakening somehow is unimportant.

It is to say that something worse is happening. Casting off institutionalized religion is the first step in a treacherous path toward agnosticism and worse. It is precisely what is happening before our very eyes in those cultures and societies in which institutionalized religion has come to mean less than before or has come to mean nothing.

Granted, exceptions occur. Some earnest souls abandon all attachment to institutional religion and find for themselves an inner sense of being with God.

These exceptions admitted, the much wider situation is that discarding all connection with institutional religion sets souls adrift, and the reality now to be seen in Europe and even here is that, in the end, God means little or nothing, so does God exist?

Again, this is no mathematical exercise. It is not about institutional influence in a culture, although when religion has no influence in a culture, very bad things happen. Would Germans in the 1930s and 1940s, or Eastern Europeans in the 1950s to 1980s, agree? They would, if they looked at circumstances with any objectivity.

Understandably, a series of popes has warned Catholics, and at times priests precisely, of the danger that is coming into play with this decline of religious faith.

From this context, Pope Benedict XVI urged the world’s Catholics to observe 2013 as a Year of Faith specifically to focus upon, and to deal with, this phenomenon, beginning with individual persons, and then proceeding to strategies and policies of a pastoral nature.

While faith is ecclesial, it also is deeply personal. In his apostolic letter Porta Fidei, in which he summoned Catholics to a Year of Faith, Pope Benedict said that this should be the occasion for “an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord.” He asked for an individual, personal commitment to Christ so ultimate and so complete that it would be a transformation of the person. This is strong. It also is basic Christianity, and it is basic Christian theology.

Dying with Christ

To borrow St. Paul’s imagery, it expresses very concretely all that happens in dying with Christ so as to live anew, and forever, in Him. It is submission of everything to the Lord, but never in the static, lifeless sense. Living with Christ, living for Christ, and being in Christ all fundamentally mean being consumed in Christ, who is God. And God is love, eternally giving, forgiving and uplifting in grace.

Benedict XVI stated that “faith grows when it is lived in an experience of love received, and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.”

Pope Benedict brings us to the point of witnessing to Christ. Bearing witness to others, to all people whom God loves — and God loves all — is in effect a revelation of the divine life within us through divine grace. In grace, the Holy Trinity is with us, God Who is love.

Where is joy in this equation? The recently retired pope’s use of the term “joy” is interesting. As five months have passed, and as the appeal of Pope Francis has reached an extraordinary level, it must be said that a quality very inviting for people as they see him is his joy.

Make no mistake. Pope Francis can be very blunt about evil, and he has been blunt about evil in the days in which he has occupied the papacy. He has called sin what it is, evil, demonic. He has denounced certain modern practices as evil, such as when he labeled, in a phraseology others may have thought but were too timid to say aloud, the awful disaster at the Bangladesh factory as having happened in a system that is in truth a modern style of slavery.

Still, the image so exciting for so many is that of the joyfulness of Pope Francis. He knows very well, and his past indicates as much, that the world is no perfect place, to put it mildly, but he is joyful, because God lives, and in God’s guidance and grace the last chapter of human history need not be death and despair, but life and confidence.

Catholics can be confident as the days of this pontificate move ahead. Pope Francis will continue to project the joy of living with Christ, of being with God, and, God assisting, many people at least will give faith the benefit of a thought. This is who he is.

He will preach. He will speak. He is persuasive and direct as a speaker. His best lesson will be taught by the signal he sends with what he does, with his outreach, with his acceptance of people.

It all comes easy to him. Something moves him. What is it? What is in faith? Do I need it? people will say. This will be Pope Francis’ gift to evangelization.

As an aside, the still very significant prestige of his office, even for persons not of the Catholic faith, along with the unbelievable possibilities of modern communications, will be an advantage.

Evidence of this prestige of the papal office was the arrival in Rome of over 40 heads of sovereign states around the world. Granted, the king of Belgium and the president of Chile were there, who are practicing Catholics, but present also were the Lutheran chancellor of Germany and the Muslim crown prince of Bahrain.

The Papal Pulpit

It is good for the spread of the Gospel that this pulpit, the papacy, is in the world. It also is good that Pope Francis occupies it.

Enough of powerful people and world communications. In religious education and in preaching, it will be easy for priests to move from the pope’s example to any human life, easy to call people to look at Pope Francis, and to ask, what does his life say to you?

Obliquely, actually, the reaction of the world to Pope Francis, who obviously is an international figure on a very public stage, says something to every Christian. Even the most private among us, the least seen and least influential, can be compelling witnesses, not on the basis of opportunities and chances, but because of the fervor of our belief, and the joy and security hat flow from it.

In Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict referred to modern life as a “desert.” It was well put. If anything pertains to current culture, despite all the noise and color, it is its aridness and its bewilderment. What is life all about? Who cares? What difference does it make? Me, myself and I — all alone, and by my own choice.

An ancient Christian theologian said that “Our hearts, Lord, are restless until they rest in you.” It is a profound testimony to the yearning for God that drives certainly faithful hearts, but that also shows itself so very often in other lives as people wander, search and reach to emptiness, or grasp the venomous serpents of sin, to find something good, perfect and enduring.

Into this desert, facing all those who search and reach their arms desperately into space, the believer comes. The Church comes.

Return to that evening on March 13. Quite possibly, some in the crowd in St. Peter’s piazza when news of the election of Pope Francis was reported were just curious. The law of averages would say so. By no stretch of the imagination was every television viewer a believer. Still, the visible exuberance of the vast majority in that plaza, seen by millions of people around the world through television and its akin media, said very much not about the desert, but about having found the oasis that is the Church and about life in Christ, secured in the Church, enriched by the Church, regardless of all its unworthy members and its leaders who seem for some, and may be, less than admirable. It is a community of humans, but an institution formed by God to bypass human fault, forgive and purify.

God is Present

It was an ecclesial moment, but it was not the Parousia. Christ did not come as Gabriel sounded his trumpet. No burning bush blazed as the bush had burned on Sinai. No one knowledgeable in Catholic teaching would have said otherwise.

But, God was there. The people felt it. He was there guiding and protecting His people once more through the Church, acting in the structure Jesus created for it, under the leadership of Peter and of the present bishop of Rome, Jorge Mario, Pope Francis.

Depending upon the depth of their holiness, the believers in that crowd had found God, and the election of Pope Francis reassured them. Many people were fascinated. Many were searching. He appeals to them, because his religiosity seems to be so genuine — and so rewarding.

God grant that all who profess the name of Jesus project such authenticity. God grant that all Catholics display such an understanding of the role of the Church, and, as Pope Benedict XVI said, of the need for the Church constantly to refresh and to renew itself.

In Rome that March night, a gentle rain falling, God was present not just in the pope. He was there in the faith, the divine grace, given by God to those faces broad with smiles, in those eyes moist with tears of happiness, in those voices raised in cheers. God lives. They knew it. Blessed be God. TP 

Msgr. Campion, a priest of the Nashville diocese, is editor of The Priest magazine and Associate Publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.