I know it seems a bit early for such enthusiastic endorsements of a pontiff who has only been in the office of Bishop of Rome for less-than-a-week, and I do have my own cautionary concerns, but I have to say that there is something immediately and recognizably affable about Pope Francis. His presence has indicated as much, certainly to the chagrin of the security guards entrusted with his care, as he has shirked the traditionally requisite boundaries and protections that ordinarily separates — if only for the ostensible sake of security — the pope from the rest of the People of God. This guy doesn’t seem to care about his own safety, but rather recognizes that, as the Jesuits say, “the greater glory of God” requires relationship, embrace, love, support, and care. He comes across as a pastor and good one at that.
Pope Francis’s homily for the “Inaugural Mass of Petrine Ministry,” drew on the readings from scripture for the Solemnity of St. Joseph. The connecting thematic thread throughout his accessible and down-to-earth reflections was that of Joseph-as-protector.
This is a particularly fecund image for a man who, as the visible leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, understands his ministry as especially directed toward the protection of the poor and marginalized of our planet. What was especially striking, and something that I found particularly exciting, was the centrality of the rest of other-than-human creation in the pope’s considerations on what it means to follow the example of St. Joseph as protector.
How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand…
Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!
The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!
As a Franciscan friar and one particularly interested in the construction of a more authentic Christian theology of creation, the fact that Pope Francis does seem to be filling the shoes of his saintly namesake is quite moving. What he describes, correctly and prophetically, is not the responsibility of just the pope or of a few individuals, but the vocation of all. This is something that is not often recognized and the consequences are dire: “Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.”
He continued to reiterate the central place of creation in the human vocation to follow Christ and to be models of protection, care, tenderness, and love after the example of St. Joseph.
Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be “protectors”, we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives! Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!
Pope Francis acknowledged the reality of power in the leadership position with which he has been entrusted: “we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power.”
Power plays a central theme in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis’s whole program of vita evangelica, the “Gospel Life,” was about the renunciation of power that placed barriers between him and others, him and God, and him and the rest of creation.
Pope Francis seems to understand the significance of his name and its implications for exercise of power. It is about loving, humble service!
Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!
Toward the end of his homily, Pope Francis lays out what he understands the responsibility of the Bishop of Rome to entail, and it includes creation first and foremost! “To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!”