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Fr Rosica’s commentary on the 5th anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate

Credit: lastampa.it

Much has been written about the first five years of Pope Francis’ Petrine Ministry. Having accompanied him, literally, into the conclave that elected this Argentine Jesuit Bishop of Rome on 13 March 2013, I have followed him closely over the past five years of his remarkable impact on the Church and on the entire world. I have listened to his admirers, his disciples and his critics. I wish to offer these brief reflections, fully aware that so much more can be said.

Since March 2013, our Church has entered a new phase. Pope Francis is pointing each day to how the mind and heart meet in the love of God and the love of neighbor. And most of all, Francis reminds us day in and day out how much we need Jesus, and also how much we need one another along the journey.

Having served as one of the official spokespersons at the Vatican during the historic Papal transition of 2013, I must return to a very programmatic text for the Pontificate now unfolding before our very eyes. It is a Cardinal’s intervention during the pre-conclave meetings of Cardinals on the morning of 7 March  2013. It was entitled: The Sweet and Comforting Joy of Evangelising. The Cardinal began by reminding his brother Cardinals in that upper room, “Evangelisation is the raison d’etre of the Church — “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelising”. It is Jesus Christ himself who impels us from within. The Cardinal offered four simple yet profound points.

– To evangelise implies apostolic zeal. To evangelise implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery.

– When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelise, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick. (cf. The hunchback woman of the Gospel). The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-reference and a sort of theological narcissism. In the book of Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Evidently the text refers to his knocking from outside in order to enter but I think of the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out.

– When the Church is self-referent without realising it, she believes she has her own light. She ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very great evil which is spiritual worldliness. The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another. In simple terms, there are two images of the Church: the evangelising Church that comes out of herself: “Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith” – the first words of the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, and the worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself. This must give light to the possible changes and reforms which must be made for the salvation of souls.

– Thinking of the next Pope, he must be a man that from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelising.

That Cardinal was the Archbishop of Buenos Aries whose name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio. His new name is Francis. He is a Jesuit. His humility has impressed many people around the entire world. His style has truly become substance. It is the most radically evangelical aspect of his spiritual reform of the papacy, and he has invited all Catholics, but especially the clergy, to reject success, wealth and power. Francis’ spiritual father, Ignatius of Loyola, insisted that a Jesuit is never to have an anti-ecclesial spirit, but always be open to how the spirit of God is working. The Jesuit commitment not to seek ecclesiastical office, even in the Society is an outgrowth of that experience. Francis has so interiorised those values that without hesitation he applies it to clerical and curial reform today.

In Ignatius’ eyes, humility is the virtue that brings us closest to Christ, and Pope Francis appears to be guiding the church and educating the clergy in that fundamental truth. Francis teaches us that precisely this humility is essential to make the New Evangelisation real and effective both within the church and in her encounter with the world. Pope Francis models for us each day a Church of humility, tenderness and mercy, an incarnational Church that walks with people on the journey. A Church that listens, discerns, accompanies, forgives, blesses, speaks boldly and courageously; a Church that weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice. A Church that does everything she can to resist the temptation to reduce the faith to moralism; a Church that resists all attempts to disincarnate the message and the person she holds deep within her heart: Jesus Christ. A Church that strives to integrate people back into the community of faith. In the heart and mind of Pope Francis, we need “a church that is again capable of restoring citizenship to so many of its children that walk as if in exodus.”

Nor can I ever forget his parting words to his brother bishops of the United States of America in September 2015, as he took leave of them in St Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC. Francis spoke of the Church and priestly ministry that he envisions for America and for the world:

“…a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters: “Have you something to eat?” We need to recognise the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius (Jn 21:4-12). It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Lk 24:32).”

The playbook and script for Francis’ Petrine Ministry do not emanate from Buenos Aires, nor from Rome, Loyola or Assisi. They come from Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Galilee and Emmaus where the whole story began in the first place! If various groups and individuals in the Church seem to have difficulty with Pope Francis, I wonder if their difficulties are not with Francis, but rather with his script, and the author of that script.

On the late afternoon of  13 March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the call to go, rebuild, repair, renew and heal the church. There are those who delight in describing the new Pope as a bold, brazen revolutionary sent to rock the boat. Others think he has come to cause a massive shipwreck. But the only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness, the very words he used in his recent major letter on “The Joy of the Gospel.” [Evangelii Gaudium #88]

Many are calling Francis the great revolutionary. The only time he uses the word ‘revolution,’ is in Evangelii Gaudium paragraph 88, when he speaks about the revolution of tenderness of the Son of God who took on our flesh. I also think that there is another revolution that Francis is offering us: the revolution of normalcy. What Francis is showing us and modeling for us is normal Christian, pastoral behaviour. Whenever we are confronted by such normal, simple Christian behaviour, it throws some of us for a loop, because it’s more of a reflection on our own abnormal behavior and human cravings for ways of the world rather than the path of Gospel living that leads to holiness here below and in the life to come. Pope Francis’ normal Christian behaviour is for each of us a challenge, a consolation, and a form of tenderness that we’ve desired for, for a long time. He demands a lot while preaching about a God of mercy, by engaging joyfully with nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and those sitting on the fences of life – many who thought that Christianity has nothing left to add to the equations of life. Through the powerful and provocative messages deep within Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Sì and Amoris Laetitia, and daily reflections flowing from simple, Eucharistic celebrations in the chapel of a Vatican Guest House, Francis has connected with and encountered a humanity that hungers and thirsts for a message of hope and consolation.

We need the Francis revolution of tenderness, mercy and normalcy now more than ever before. I can only hope and pray that we learn from him and imitate him.  –  Fr Thomas Rosica csb, Vatican Insider

Former CEO of 2002 WYD Fr Rosica reflects on WYD Cross

wyd cross

At the heart of every World Youth Day is a very simple, powerful, ancient Christian symbol: two large planks of wood, known as the World Youth Day Cross, that many have called the “Olympic Torch” of the huge Catholic festival of young people. The World Youth Day cross has many names: the Jubilee Cross, the Pilgrim Cross, the Youth Cross. In 1984, at the close of the 1983 Holy Year of the Redemption at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II entrusted to the young people of the world a simple, twelve-foot wooden Cross, asking them to carry it across the world as a sign of the love which the Lord Jesus has for humankind and “to proclaim to everyone that only in Christ who died and is risen is there salvation and redemption.” Since that day, carried by generous hands and loving hearts, the Cross has made a long, uninterrupted pilgrimage across the continents, to demonstrate, as Pope John Paul II had said, “the Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross.”

The cross does not journey alone. Since 2003 it has been accompanied by an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a copy of the Icon of our Lady known as the ‘Salus Populi Romani’. The original from which this Icon has been copied is considered by some to be from the eighth century, and is housed in a chapel in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome. Pope John Paul II entrusted to the youth an icon of the Blessed Mother that would accompany the cross. “It will be a sign of Mary’s motherly presence close to young people who are called, like the Apostle John, to welcome her into their lives.”

The World Youth Day Cross and Icon speak to us of the two focal points of the message of Christianity: of the Cradle and of the Cross; of Christ who was born of Mary, and of Christ who was crucified for us; of Christmas and Good Friday; of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery. The Icon and Cross, therefore, are potent symbols of the joy and suffering that we experience in our Christian pilgrimage.

The memories of the World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continue to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories many years after the great pilgrimage began in our land on 11 April 2001. The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited our cities, towns, and rural areas, inviting throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, and moments of reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Such expressions of popular piety had been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape. In the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February 2002, which was not part of the normal World Youth Day preparations in previous host countries. A convoy of buses left Toronto early on a cold Sunday morning, accompanied by representatives of Canadian police, ambulance, and fire fighters, and set out with the WYD Cross in tow for 48 hours in New York City.

After a Sunday evening Mass in Manhattan’s St Patrick’s Cathedral and an early morning Mass with the Vatican’s Permanent Observer at the United Nations, we carried the cross to Ground Zero, into the “pit,” to pray for the victims of the September 11 tragedies at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere throughout the United States. The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity, and peace to the people of America and the entire world, struggling to understand the evil, terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on 11 September 2001.

The journey into Ground Zero was for us a very public act of defiance and courage. Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 National Team carried the large cross up to the special platform built for the families of the victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy. While they processed with the cross, the rest of us sang the Taizé refrain: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” As the cross was placed in its metal stand at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder. It was an act of defiance because there, in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up a wooden cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol of the Christian faith. The significance of the action was lost on no one.

The Cross of Jesus Christ blessed and marked World Youth Day 2002 in an extraordinary fashion. Each catechetical site was graced by a replica of the World Youth Day Cross. It was present at each of the main ceremonies. It led our processions, called us to prayer and reflection, healed us, reconciled us, and touched our hearts. Its memory lingers among us several years later.

Who can ever forget the hauntingly beautiful images of the World Youth Day Cross leading over half a million people – mostly on their knees – in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, 26 July 2002: up Toronto’s majestic University Avenue, passing before its court houses, the American Consulate, Government Buildings, hospitals, the university, Provincial Parliament, and various museums? A principal street of a great city was transformed into a contemporary Via Dolorosa, while over a billion people watched the scenes of this modern-day passion play unfold via satellite and television.

During the closing Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, 28 July 2002, the Holy Father presented to young pilgrims in the crowd of more than 850,000 people gathered with him small wooden crosses, hand made by young people living in the poorest barrios of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia. World Youth Day 2002 chose to have the crosses made in a land that has had its share of cross over the past years.

Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. The Cross teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope, and a continuous call to heroic goodness.

At the conclusion of the closing Eucharistic liturgy, the elderly Pontiff told young people not to be afraid “to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.” He invited his young friends to “learn from that cross.”

When all the commotion and frenzied activity of World Youth Day was over, I was convinced that one of the lasting memories that would remain in our country was that simple, wooden Cross, which was such a huge blessing and source of consolation, healing, strength, and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who embraced it, touched it, kissed it, learned from it, and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the One who died upon it.

To celebrate the Triumph of the Cross is to acknowledge the full, cruciform achievement of Jesus’ career. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life similar to his own. Suffering cannot be avoided nor ignored by those who follow Christ. Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross. The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples.

Fr Rosica was National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada.

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