Not ashes, but flame

One of the most moving rituals of the Good Friday liturgy is the veneration of the cross. As a teenager, I was embarrassed by it, but as an adult who knows how often I’ve stumbled and fallen, I embrace it. It is a humbling act in which I, a sinner, kiss the instrument of torture on which was won my salvation.

And watching the long lines of people — the whole vast panoply of the faithful that is found in every parish — do the same is a reminder that we are all grateful sinners. Just months away from remembering the shepherds who knelt in worship before the newborn king, we process up to venerate the king who died for us.

The humility of this simple ritual draws our gaze to Jesus in a special way. And the appreciation of the power and beauty of such a simple devotion is key to understanding Pope Francis.

Austin Ivereigh, in his excellent biography of Pope Francis called “The Great Reformer,” sheds light on Jorge Bergoglio’s days as a Jesuit. Ivereigh describes a man who rejected the elitism of the Catholic left and the Catholic right, a man who saw in the “holy faithful people of God” the North Star to measure what is most important in the Church. In their devotions, in their humility and in their love, he found the counterbalance to the great ideological battles then tearing at the Jesuit order and the Argentine Church.

Much of what puzzles people about Francis is less puzzling when this background is appreciated. He is quick to reach out to the wounded, the suffering, the folks crowding the “field hospital” that is his vision of the Church today. He is also quick to scold those who would seem to be his immediate allies: priests and bishops, members of movements, the wealthy donors, the well-connected friends of the hierarchy, the elites.

As he said so many times, he fears a Church turned in on itself, a “self-referential” Church, removed from the lives of the people. I wonder if he is really asking: Do you love the Church more than Jesus? Do you draw more comfort from the rituals and the rules, the smells and the bells, the theological trends and bloodless arguments than the flesh-and-blood reality of the God-man? Or do you love the “people of God” in an abstract and ideological sense, while ignoring their love of saints and devotions, of the humble Jesus who walks with the simple and the suffering?

Earlier this month, Pope Francis spoke to 80,000 members of the movement Communion and Liberation (CL) gathered in St. Peter’s Square on the 10th anniversary of their founder’s death. He used the moment, as he so often does, not so much to commemorate or compliment as to challenge. He cautioned the movement that the “center is not the charism, the center is one alone: It is Jesus, Jesus Christ!” And he warned that the legacy of the founder “cannot be reduced to a museum of records, of decisions taken, of the rules of conduct.” Quoting Gustav Mahler, he said that faithfulness to tradition “is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame.”

What the pope said to CL he could say to every movement. Moreover, he could say it to all of us who are often the most active in our parish, to the leaders and the administrators, from cardinal to music minister. If our focus isn’t Jesus, if we aren’t passing on the flame, then we’ve got it wrong. Dangerously wrong.

The Church isn’t a club, a spiritual watering hole for like-minded people who reinforce each other’s prejudices and define themselves by their superiority to others. The Church is where we embrace our crosses, where we meet the disconcerting love and mercy of God and then go out to share that encounter with others.

We pass on the flame.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.