Today is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, so obviously we could not let today go by without mentioning the patronal feast for our website!
Pope Francis delivered a wonderful homily today, recalling how today’s First Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, reveals the source of unity for the early Christians when the Church faced a crisis:
“The newly born Church was experiencing a moment of crisis: Herod was furious, a violent persecution had broken out, and the Apostle James had been killed. And now Peter had been arrested. The community seemed headless, everyone fearing for his life. Yet at that tragic moment no one ran away, no one thought about saving his own skin, no one abandoned the others, but all joined in prayer. From prayer they drew strength, from prayer came a unity more powerful than any threat. The text says that, ‘while Peter was kept in prison, the Church prayed fervently to God for him’ (Acts 12:5). Unity is the fruit of prayer, for prayer allows the Holy Spirit to intervene, opening our hearts to hope, shortening distances and holding us together at times of difficulty.”
It’s always interesting when Francis preaches about the papacy. Certainly some will immediately conclude that he is delivering a veiled message about himself and as a response to the criticism he faces. I don’t doubt that there’s likely an element of this behind his message. But when the pope teaches us about the papacy, his words apply to every Successor of Peter. Yes, Pope Francis has experienced unprecedented resistance from within the Church. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the ongoing campaign of ambush-style attacks against him through the media is unlike anything ever faced by a pope. It seems that since release of Amoris Laetitia in 2016, hardly a month has gone by that a petition, appeal, manifesto, open letter, or denunciation hasn’t been disseminated widely through international media. But I do not deny the possibility that future popes could face even worse abuse.
Francis is also instructing the faithful about how to respond to the Successor of Peter when they are unhappy with him in some way:
“Those Christians did not cast blame; rather, they prayed. In that community, no one said: ‘If Peter had been more careful, we would not be in this situation.’ No one. Humanly speaking, there were reasons to criticize Peter, but no one criticized him. They did not complain about Peter; they prayed for him. They did not talk about Peter behind his back; they talked to God. We today can ask: ‘Are we protecting our unity, our unity in the Church, with prayer? Are we praying for one another?’ What would happen if we prayed more and complained less, if we had a more tranquill tongue? The same thing that happened to Peter in prison: now as then, so many closed doors would be opened, so many chains that bind would be broken. We would be amazed, like the maid who saw Peter at the gate and did not open it, but ran inside, astonished by the joy of seeing Peter (cf. Acts 12:10-17).”
This tranquility Pope Francis is describing doesn’t mean that we should resign ourselves to an unhappy or unjust situation. Nor does his admonition against complaining, when he says, “It is pointless, even tedious, for Christians to waste their time complaining about the world, about society, about everything that is not right. Complaints change nothing.” There is a difference between complaining about things that are not within our power and speaking the truth prophetically. He explains:
“Today we need prophecy, but real prophecy: not fast talkers who promise the impossible, but testimonies that the Gospel is possible. What is needed are not miraculous shows. It makes me sad when I hear someone say, ‘We want a prophetic Church.’ All right. But what are you doing, so that the Church can be prophetic? We need lives that show the miracle of God’s love. Not forcefulness, but forthrightness. Not palaver, but prayer. Not speeches, but service. Do you want a prophetic Church? Then start serving and be quiet. Not theory, but testimony. We are not to become rich, but rather to love the poor. We are not to save up for ourselves, but to spend ourselves for others.“
Francis’s detractors might have themselves convinced that they are prophetically speaking the truth about a wayward pope. In reality, however, they belong to a Church that teaches that the pope “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (CCC 882). They are members of a Church whose Code of Canon Law explicitly states, “The First See is judged by no one” (CIC 1404). In other words, the attacks against Francis are little more than attempts to thwart and obstruct the pope in his governance, but they serve no purpose other besides dividing and scandalizing the faithful. They would do much better to heed Francis’s advice:
“Let God judge them; let us pray for those who govern! Let us pray: for they need prayer. This is a task that the Lord has entrusted to us. Are we carrying it out? Or do we simply talk, abuse and do nothing?”
Image: Chains of St. Peter in Rome. David Castor (user:dcastor). Public Domain, CC0, Link.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.