Time, the influential American weekly magazine, has just named Pope Francis “Person of the year”. He was elected just nine months ago. “It is a positive sign to see that one of the most prestigious awards in the field of the international press has been attributed to someone who speaks competently for peace”, commented Father Lombardi, Director of the Press office of the Holy See.
After the death of Nelson Mandela, acclaimed for helping to build a `rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,` Pope Francis appears as the only world leader capable of causing a profound change in human relations, with unexpected global repercussions, including in terms of international politics. As Nancy Gibbs, Executive Editor of Time says: `When he kisses a man disfigured by disease or when he washes the feet of a Muslim woman, the image resonates far beyond the confines of the Catholic Church`.Francis is 77 years old on 17 December, and he recently celebrated the 44th anniversary of his priestly ordination. The `reform of the spirit” on which he is working will have long-term consequences in the Church, but also beyond, as explained last Friday by Mgr Piero Parolin , his new Secretary of State, his `number two`, before the diplomatic Corps. He noted that progress towards peace between peoples goes through meeting and sharing, dialogue and reconciliation between people. `Pope Francis wants a Church with open doors, a symbol of light, friendship, freedom and confidence, less concerned with strengthening its borders, than communicating the joy of the Gospel`, said the Secretary of State. Thus, when in early December, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the Pope a book on the Inquisition in Spain, Francis remained cordial and affable, offering his collaboration in finding a just and lasting solution to the problems in the Holy Land where he is due to make a pastoral visit, probably in spring 2014.
The meaning of our journey on this earth
It is the desire of a true and deep peace that motivates this Pope, and in observing and listening to him we might well say to ourselves: `Tell me what you expect, and I’ll tell you who you are`. In this time of Advent, which leads us to Christmas, what do we expect? Are not the preponderant ideologies of individualism, selfishness, materialism and consumerism, making slaves of us, satisfied with a fleeting comfort that has no other outcome than the death of the soul? Or on the contrary, are we aware that we pass a `holy journey` in this world? Are we endeavouring to “heed the voice of the Lord` so that `the cry of the poor will never leave us indifferent` or `untouched by the sufferings of the sick and those in need`? It is with these words that the Pope prayed on Sunday, 8 December before the statue of the Immaculate Conception in Spanish Place, asking Mary `that we never lose the meaning of our earthly journey`.
I think of this lonely mother at the bedside of her daughter Veronica, disabled in later life, who continues to smile and help others, when she would have every reason to despair. I think of this discreet woman who keeps up a telephone relationship in persistent and faithful friendship for years with a disabled boy, Roberto, whom she has never yet seen, just to give him moral support. Where are our selfless actions that could establish peace within us and around us? We always have good reason to postpone them until tomorrow for our own comfort and thereby do nothing, criticizing those that call us into question, as once they refused John the Baptist because he neither ate nor drank, and then Christ because he “ate too much` and was friend of sinners … what we lack in many cases is to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit in prayer, for it frees us from fear to go towards others with selfless love, at the risk of the cross.
`You are the bridge…`
“In the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing for fraternity which draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals,” wrote Pope Francis in his first message for the World day of Peace on 1 January. This “message of hope for all”, signed on 8 December, Feast of the Immaculate Conception – and of divine beauty which saves us – is an ode to universal fraternity which finds its source in the paternity of God. The Pope reminds us that it was through jealousy that Cain eliminated Abel, and that we can destroy one another, at least by words. As there is only one Father, who is God, we are all brothers and sisters, Jesus tells us… (Gospel of Matthew, 23:8-9). The Pope emphasizes that Jesus came to regenerate this friendship in his death and resurrection. “The reconciled person sees in God the Father of all, and, as a consequence, is spurred on to live a life of fraternity open to all”.
Francis, in this long text, which it would be good to own and meditate, evokes the `relational poverty` that strikes our globalized society, and he asks us to promote brotherhood to overcome this poverty, without enclosing ourselves in the past, because `man can convert and must never despair of change of life.` He concludes with a memorable summary sentence: `Service is the soul of that fraternity that builds up peace`. These words reminded me of a moment of eternity lived in distributing hot meals to refugees the other night in a train station in Rome, when one of us spoke to a lay person who is, in a way, the “Mother Teresa” of our group: `You are the bridge` he said, in Italian, awakening in each of us the call to dream the impossible, to become, like this person, solid and joyful gateways of love, never becoming hardened to the sufferings of others.