We’re learning quickly about the features that will soon enough become hallmarks of the Franciscan pontificate. The Holy Father’s first homily, given in the Sistine Chapel on the day after his election, points out exactly what these are. Just as importantly, too, it indicates how he sees his own ministry in light of his immediate predecessors, and what he expects of us, the grande fratellanza of the Church.
If you haven’t experienced Pope Francis preaching, you should do it now. Even if your Italian isn’t up to snuff—or, in fact, isn’t snuffing at all—the preacher’s expression and demeanor tell you exactly what’s most important. If you felt spoiled by the ever-profound pastoral tutelage of Pope Benedict XVI, prepare to be set ablaze by this Ignatian.
Going scriptless, it’s easy to imagine that the Holy Father’s first homily was delivered impromptu. Even his introduction hints at this: “In these three readings,” he says, as if considering them afresh, “I see that there’s something in common: it is movement.” The three types of movement spoken of—to walk (camminare), to build (edificare), and to confess (confessare)—come to define the scripture passages in question. To walk, says the pope, is first, since “our life is a journey, and when we stop so does it.” Second is to build—namely, to build the Church through our own “consistency” as “living stones, stones united by the Holy Spirit.” Last is to confess, that movement of the will that gives substance to our journey and to our structures. Confession saves the Church from the sad fate that awaits “children on the beach who build castles of sand.” More acutely, confession defines the nature of our prayer: “He who doesn’t pray to the Lord,” Francis quotes Léon Bloy, “prays to the devil.”
Like a good Jesuit, Pope Francis delivers quickly and concisely on a three point thematic homily. But to stop just here is too little—indeed, far too little. The first days of a pontificate are packed with meaning, and everyone knows it, above all the new pope. It’s not inconceivable that Francis’s short exegesis on three scriptural movements was an indication also of his intentions on the ubiquitous subject of curial reform; so suggests John Thavis. It was most certainly an allusion, as well, to the type of encounter required between an apostolic Church and an increasingly fragmented, modern world.
I suspect, too, that Francis’s first reflection was carefully devised as a tool to help place his own papacy as part of a ministerial trifecta, shared with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The view that this sort of continuity exists is quickly emerging as a common opinion, and for good reason. Even before Bergoglio’s accession to the Chair of Peter, the close link between Blessed John Paul and his successor was widely regarded as a matter of fact: while the Evangelizer brought the reality of the faith to the four corners of the world, the Teacher elucidated its traditions and secured its place in the contemporary mind. What perhaps only the Holy Spirit saw in store—and what our present Holy Father has begun plainly to let on—was the need for a Confessor to cement together those living stones, painstakingly hewn out of the rock face and carefully polished, into a completed edifice befitting the Bride of Christ.
On this point, we mustn’t forget the conclusion of the pope’s homily to the cardinal electors. He reminds us that Peter’s confession of faith in the Gospel of Matthew is followed by a peculiar encounter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but we won’t speak about the Cross. This doesn’t enter in. I’ll follow you with other possibilities, without the Cross.” Here, the Holy Father reminds us that to journey, to build, to confess without the Cross is possible—as people of the world, and even as priests, bishops, and popes. Yet “when we confess a Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord.” On the other hand, again drawing from his language, we are disciples of the “worldliness of the devil, the worldliness of the demonic.”
To be sure, Francis’s papacy has already proven to be one of radical confession—a confession, we’re learning from his example as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that is fundamentally linked to a visible, personal encounter with the Cross. In his first public preaching as the Successor of Peter, the Holy Father called attention to nothing other than the single greatest failure of his apostolic forerunner. It was a failure that Peter struggled a lifetime to understand and to correct. Yet with the aid of the Holy Spirit, he was able ultimately to face the Cross with such famous affection and humility that he considered it a prize too grand for his lowly station.
The significance of the Franciscan pontificate, we can be sure, will include above all this very participation of the person of Peter himself in “the one glory” of Christ crucified. Our Holy Father Francis—so aptly named—has already told us as much. And we, as members of the flock of Christ, and of the “great brotherhood” of our apostolic poverello, should already be watchful and willing to endure with him as the moment of final confession approaches.