The very presence of Pope Francis makes a mockery of pride, and calls for a most vital Catholic reform: a reform of our hearts to atone for the worst of our vices.
“It is a terrible thing that the worst of all vices can smuggle itself into our religious life . . . But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual. Consequently it is far more subtle and deadly . . . Pride is a spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952)
For nineteen years in a row, I have been separated by prison walls from the Church’s remembrance of Holy Week. Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Good Friday Veneration of the Cross, and the Easter Vigil are all reduced to a remembrance from inside a prison cell. In preparation for Holy Week this year, I have been reading the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, a trilogy of books by Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus. Volume II is subtitled Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.
I wanted to write something brilliant and uplifting for Holy Week so of course I turned to Benedict the Beloved. But as I read his inspired pages, I kept coming back to my Holy Week post of 2012. Something Benedict wrote causes me to point once again this Holy Week to “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.” Here are Benedict’s words:
“Of the two men crucified with Jesus, only one joins in the mockery; the other grasps the mystery of Jesus. He knows and he sees that the nature of Jesus’ ‘offense’ was quite different. . . and now he sees that this man crucified beside him truly makes the face of God visible; he is truly God’s son. So he asks him, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power.’ ” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 212)
The other criminal, crucified to the left, takes his pride to the grave and runs his mouth in mockery in sympathy with the very Roman officials and the crowds who condemned him. In a most bizarre display of so-called “Stockholm Syndrome,” that crucified man emulates their pride and takes up their prejudice to mock Christ.
His mockery bears witness to C.S. Lewis’ quote above about the true source of our pride, “the worst of all vices.” That other man echoes Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. He sneers, even from his own cross: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us then!” The arrogance of his agenda was exactly what C.S. Lewis predicted of pride’s true nature. It deprived the condemned man of an awareness of the reality of his life and death. It stole his common sense. It left him with the worst combination of human traits: a closed mind, and an open mouth.
THE MOCKERY OF PRIDE
The world is mocking us. It mocks the Church, our faith, our Redeemer, and the Cross itself. Like the man crucified to the left of Christ, the world mocks us even from the cross of its own condemnation. It is nothing new. Noah was mocked, even as the rains came. The Jews rescued from slavery and led out of Egypt mocked Moses at Sinai. John the Baptist was mocked, and thrown into prison. Christ has always been mocked, every step of the way, from Calvary to the present day, and we must be mocked from our position on that other cross – the cross of Dismas – as we too challenge the world by grasping the mystery of Christ. The more we grasp it, the more we seek to be with Him in Paradise, the more we are mocked by people whose pride makes their prejudice too enticing to pass up, even from the cross of their own sin.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis also wrote that when you meet a truly humble man, “He will not be thinking about [his] humility. He will not be thinking about himself at all.” The world met one just two weeks ago. The surprising appearance this month of Pope Francis on that balcony of Saint Peter’s has me taking a hard look this Holy Week at a mockery of my own pride.
And a good example is a description of how last year’s Holy Week post came into being. When I wrote it, I assumed that everyone beyond my prison walls would be too preoccupied with Holy Week and the Easter Triduum to pay much attention to anything I wrote, so I spent very little time writing it.
I was surprised to learn later that in the four days before Easter last year, that post had almost 10,000 readers on TSW alone and was reproduced in whole or in part on dozens of other Catholic blogs and websites. The only post of mine that ever surpassed it was “Father Benedict Groeschel at EWTN” which had almost 14,000 readers in just a few days on TSW, drew 50 comments, and seemed to show up just about everywhere – something that the people at EWTN might wish to note when weighing the good name of Father Benedict Groeschel.
Does that description of my two posts’ popularity sound as though it comes from my pride? It doesn’t. The multitude of readers of last year’s Holy Week post was actually quite humbling – maybe even a little awkward. Two months earlier, I wrote one of my science posts entitled “E.T. and the Fermi Paradox: Are We Alone in the Cosmos?” That one was a source of pride. I spent many weeks researching the question and fine tuning my knowledge of the science behind that post. It came out of my brain, and not my soul, but I thought it was a scientific masterpiece of Western literature. The only thing missing from that post was readers!
In contrast, when it came to it I had no post for Holy Week last year. It was panic time. I sat in front of this typewriter on what I have come to call “procrastination’s payday,” the last possible day that I can come up with something to get in the mail on time for Wednesday posting on TSW. I didn’t have a clue what to write for Holy Week, so I just typed away. Three hours later, five pages of “Dismas, Crucified to the Right” were in an envelope on the way to Indiana to be scanned. There was no preparation, no research beyond the Gospel itself and my own memory, and I took no pride in what I wrote. Consequently, it was read far and wide.
THE PERSON OF POPE FRANCIS
Something just happened in our Church that causes soul-searching about my own pride and is itself a mockery of it. I was spellbound before the small TV in my prison cell on Wednesday, March 13. I came in from work in the prison library at just the right moment. I turned on the news at 2:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time, about 20 minutes after white smoke appeared in Saint Peter’s Square just after 7:00 PM Rome time. Some 100,000 people seemed to suddenly fill the Square. Our friend, Pornchai came into this cell a few minutes later, and we watched and waited along with the rest of the world.
As a priest falsely accused and about to spend Holy Week in prison for the 19th time, there are not many moments when I still feel connected to the life of the Church. This was one of those moments, and it was both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. This faith and this Church are my life, even after all these years behind prison walls. As I watched and waited, I found myself praying silently and spontaneously for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, not for the selection of the Holy Father – for that was already done and just waiting to be revealed – but for the inspiration within my own heart that I may not feel disappointed. Since the day Benedict the Beloved shocked the world with his announcement, so many of us have barricaded ourselves against further discouragement. I prayed that I might accept the successor of Peter the Holy Spirit has chosen.
Throughout this process, I have heard from many priests and other devoted Catholics a growing cynicism that the notion of selection by the Holy Spirit is “quaint” and even “charming” but “this is all about politics.” Proof to the contrary just stood before us on that balcony on March 13. Politics is part of the human equation of this selection, but anyone who would cynically doubt the Holy Spirit’s final say need look only at the result – at the reality and the person of Pope Francis.
Right up to the Conclave, and during the less than two days of voting, the world’s most astute Vatican watchers and insiders published thousands of pages predicting the most politically likely outcome. Names of experts we all heard quoted over and over in the news had lists predicting the most likely candidates, the most likely age, the most likely number of days it would take, the most likely continent from which this pope would come. The predicted politics of it all were thwarted on every score. As Pope Francis emerged on that balcony on that rainy evening in Rome, I was more convinced than ever that my “quaint and charming” naiveté about the Holy Spirit is quite real, and made manifest in this Pope and his multitude of firsts.
My very first utterance was a mockery, and I am sorry for it. “Pope Francis? You’ve GOT to be kidding!” We need another John Paul. We need another Leo. Maybe we even need Pius XIII, but as the reality sunk in, and the world was faced with this humble man, all doubt left me.
Francis is exactly who we need. As a young man who put aside the values of this world, Saint Francis of Assisi was summoned by God to rebuild a Church that the forces of this world threatened to ruin. Francis and the subsequent centuries of his movement transformed the Church from a dark age in which sin and politics had become a mockery of ourselves and our faith. More than any other human being, Saint Francis of Assisi put the mark of reform on the Church of the last millennium. Then Christ put the marks of the Stigmata on Francis.
So we have the first Pope Francis. The last Pope to take a name never before used by another was Pope Landus in the year 913. According to Vatican press spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, however, our new Holy Father isn’t Pope Francis I until we have a Pope Francis II who would need to be distinguished from him. So, for now at least, he is just Pope Francis.
And he is a Jesuit who chose to be called Francis instead of Ignatius. The significance of that is staggering. In the history of religious life, there are no two orders known more for their polarity of charism, purpose, and values than the Jesuits and the Franciscans. The Jesuits are historically seen as the intelligentia, the theologically elite, the university crowd, while the Franciscans are seen as the humble, the reformers in the trenches. They are the Catholic Custodians of the Holy Land. Francis opened his arms to the lepers of this world, a fact that bodes well today, perhaps, for the scapegoats of this world.
Is it any great surprise that so many in the world feel so alarmed and threatened by this man that they immediately set out to mock him, to smear his name, and to detract from his mission? I can’t help but have a little mockery of my own – not of Pope Francis but of the secular, and even some Catholic media, so desperate to find something mockable. I have to laugh at the repeated phrase, uttered with disdain and suspicion in the media that “Pope Francis is likely to uphold the traditional mindset of his predecessors.” It’s an utterly moronic statement, sort of like spreading a sneer that “President Obama is likely to uphold the Constitution” (even though that was less likely than we thought!).
Pride and prejudice are a mockery of the Cross, and a denial that we live redeemed or condemned by it. In Pope Francis, the world witnesses a living mockery of our pride. Viva il Papa! Viva Cristo Rey!
“There are two types of men: those who take care of the pain. And those who pass by.” (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 2003)
Editor’s Note: In case you are wondering about the imagery on the marquee this week, the mockery of pride’s mockery was depicted in the Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson explains the ugly baby scene in his interview with Christianity Today. I can’t help but recall Flannery O’Connor’s observations about freaks and the grotesque:
I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear. . .
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.
― Flannery O’Connor