Thursday, March 28, 2013

Early signs of renewal sprouting from the Vatican

Francis seems intent on orienting the Church, and all people of goodwill, to the gospel of service.

Less than a week before Easter, a blanket of snow still covers a portion of our front lawn.  It has been a long winter, and I am grateful that the back yard faces the sunny south.  As long as I keep myself oriented to the south, my heart feels the lightness of spring.

My heart leaps up when I behold...
My first inkling of spring, though, comes well before the snow melts with the appearance of a variety of hellebore orientalis, Easter Rose. Every year, my heart leaps up when I behold its stem poking through the leaf mulch.  This pretty, yet humble flower with its droopy head brightens the late winter garden and thrills me with its promise of new life.

The Easter Rose in the late winter garden
Louise McEwan photo

The garden in full summer's bloom
The foliage of the Easter Rose visible between the pink phlox
Louise McEwan photo
Holy Week inspires the same sense of newness within my spirit. This year, I feel it even more intensely because of the hopeful signs of renewal within the Catholic Church.  While the newly elected pontiff, Francis, may or may not usher in a “Vatican Spring” of sweeping institutional reforms, the early signs shooting forth are pointing towards renewal.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his genuine concern for the poor.

The pope signaled his concern for the poor immediately, when he chose the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, a saint loved for his embrace of poverty, devotion to the poor, and respect for creation. 

The little things that Francis does are harbingers that something new is under foot.  It’s things like asking the crowd for a blessing, and kneeling to receive it; passing up a ride in the papal limousine; expecting to pay a hotel bill; and, my personal favorite, hopping off the pope mobile to greet, kiss and bless a disabled man.  It’s the humility and authentic desire to be Christ-like that resonates with me and makes me optimistic.

Taking the words of Jesus seriously
Francis really seems to take seriously the words of Jesus, “whatever you do to the least of my people, you do to me.” He framed this in his homily at the papal installation, saying that the pope must “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.” (Matthew 25. 31-46)

This Thursday, Francis puts his words into action. He will celebrate Holy Thursday with young offenders in a youth detention center, a practice he began in Buenos Aries. Why is this significant?

Washing the feet is a sign of God's extravagant love
Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper. On Holy Thursday, the celebrant of the Mass (priest, bishop, cardinal or pope) kneels before twelve representatives from the community and washes their feet.  Popes take this ritual one step further and kiss the feet that they wash. 

This ritual not only commemorates an act of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples the night before he died, it recalls the cleansing waters of baptism. The pouring of the water over the feet is a visible symbol of the outpouring of God’s grace in our lives, and an expression of God’s extravagant love for every individual. It is a ritual that calls the Church to renew its commitment to the gospel imperative for service, especially to those people society ignores, and whom Francis specifically mentioned in his homily at the papal installation.

In choosing to celebrate with prisoners, Francis brings God’s love to some of the most marginalized people in society. He brings hope into the winter of the lives of those who are imprisoned, and he subtly throws out an example of service for the rest of us to emulate.

Coaxing the Easter Rose out of its winter sleep
While Francis is giving many Roman Catholics reasons to hope that there will be change in the institutional Church, right now, he seems intent on orienting the Church, and all people of goodwill, to the gospel of service. Perhaps this gentle approach, which is like the touch of the sun coaxing the Easter Rose out of its winter sleep, will effectively awaken hearts and create a springtime of renewal.

Scripture readings for Holy Thursday

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