Just one week ago, Jesus Christ entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. The crowd cheered Him up by saluting Him with palms and hosannas. The environment was one of optimism. It seemed like the messianic kingdom was at hand! It was, indeed, but not in the way the crowd thought.
Fast forward one week and all that enthusiasm waned. The crowd no longer cries hosannas, but rather “Crucify Him”. All the support Christ had garnered the previous week had metamorphosed into a crushing loneliness. Why? Because His actions were not the ones people were expecting. In fact, far from promising a secular liberation from pagan roman rule, Christ had instead seemingly insulted the Temple, the most sacred expression of religious unity and identity at the time.
In his excellent essay “Jesus of Nazareth”, Benedict XVI postulates that the crowd which cheered Jesus was not the same that sought His condemnation (a point Francis also highlighted this Sunday). This may be true historically, but on a personal level, I like to think those crowds were largely overlapping, to illustrate to unsteadiness of mob thinking.
Likewise, just five years ago, there was a crowd which cheered the Pope, who saw him as an authority to be honored, quoted and invoked to settle disputes with “Cafeteria Catholics”, dissenters and heretics. They would defend him from every malignment or misinterpretation. They behaved like this, for they agreed with the Pope’s teachings at the time, or so they perceived.
Fast forward just five years (it’s not much time, on the big scope of things), and the exact same crowd is now accusing the Pope of being a heretic (either formal, or in covert) and a schismatic. They use every possible argument to undermine the authority of the Pope, so as to justify not assenting to his teachings. They accuse people who defend this Pope (the same way it was proper to defend the previous Pope) of being ultramontanists and papolaters.
It is really interesting how this shift was so quick and blunt, as soon as they perceived the papal teachings to go against their own conceptions, not just the conceptions of others.
So, I would like to try something new. It is a part of Catholic piety to meditate on the Via Crucis which Our Lord endured for us, and to know how all the stations may reflect in our lives. And it is also part of the Jesuitical spiritual exercises to imagine ourselves as one of the spectators or actors in those events, for us to understand our flaws and try to improve ourselves. There is nothing new in these strategies, but the newness of the challenges which have come forth in the last five years invites original reflections, for we have new problems that demand for solutions.
As such, I would like to reflect on how we treat the Vicar of Christ in light of the events of Good Friday. Because it is a fact that Pope Francis has been subjected to a kind of crucifixion. Not a real one, of course, but a crucifixion of his character in the public sphere, an asphyxiation of his message and teachings.
This is not an exercise in papolatry, for I know perfectly well that Pope Francis has not died for my sins, nor is he perfect and blameless like Our Lord. However, the attacks he has endured were not directed at his personal holiness as an individual, but at his teachings and acts in his office as the Vicar of Christ. And, if it is biblically legitimate to see Christ in imperfect creatures, like the poor, the downtrodden and our neighbor, why would it be wrong to see Christ in His Vicar, the person who represents Him here on Earth?
Now, I would ask the reader, especially if he has trouble understanding or following Francis, to read these reflections until the very end, even if it seems hard. There is nothing wrong in answering “yes” to these questions. I myself have betrayed, insulted, scourged and crucified Jesus in my heart many times. Everyone has. There’s no shame in admitting it, for we are all sinners. What wreaks havoc to our soul is to persist in those behaviors, or at least not to acknowledge them. So I would urge people to read this not on a centrifugal way (“this doesn’t apply, because he [The Pope] acts so and so; he should change his behavior”), but in a centripetal way (“does this really apply to me? Should I change”).
However, if these words become stumbling blocks for you, I ask you to ignore them and proceed in your way.
Also, I would like to not limit these questions to those who are troubled by Francis, but extend them also to those who were troubled by Benedict XVI or John Paul II, since they too were Vicars of Christ.
Jesus’ incarnation and dwelling amongst us was a great blessing, for it allowed us poor sinners to stop wandering in darkness and to come and see the light and the Way. However, Jesus was sold for the meager price of thirty pieces of silver. Now, there is nothing wrong with having wealth… thirty pieces of silver could be used for good purposes, like helping the poor. But to sell the Son of God for such a paltry price, it’s really a bad deal, and done for a bad purpose.
The fact that Jesus also left us a Vicar to guide us from the darkness and into the light is also a great blessing. Do I sell this blessing to attain things which, though not bad in themselves, pale in comparison with the blessing I’m forfeiting? Do I sell the Vicar of Christ for any particular theological, liturgical, political or ideological leaning? Do I do it to force the Vicar of Christ to comply with such a leaning? Or do I attain any kind of financial compensation from sowing division in the Church against the Pope?
Do I practice this selling while exhibiting a pious demeanor, asking for prayers for the Pope and ascribing a charitable behavior to my actions while at the same time doing everything to undermine his authority? In short, do I kiss him while I hand him over?
Do I put the Vicar of Christ on trial, while I have no authority to do so, like the Sanhedrin did with the Son of God Himself? Do I ask him questions which are not meant to try to understand his teachings, but to trap him on his own words? How do I react when he answers my “honest questions” with mere silence? Do I cry “papolatry”, the same way it was cried “blasphemy” when Jesus said something which was true, but seemed on the surface to contradict the Law?
Do I say: “I have no king but Caesar” whenever the Vicar of Christ contradicts a politician I hold in high esteem? Do I, when presented with the choice of following the Vicar or following a secular messiah which promises political success in the Culture Wars, prefer the secular messiah over the Vicar? Do I prefer someone who promises me a Church which identifies with my liturgical, theological and political preferences, instead of someone who says that it is I who must change my own ways before pointing fingers to others?
Do I understand that, by doing the above, I am in fact falling into the same temptation of others who I may decry all the time, those that have Caesaro-centric ideologies, those who want secular messiahs to establish an earthly paradise and those who want the Church to change for their sake instead of changing themselves? Do I understand that I’m in fact in the same choir as them, even though we may be in opposite wings, one on the left and other on the right? Does acknowledging this helps me grow in empathy with those in the other side of the political aisle?
Do I scorn the Vicar of Christ in public? Do I spit on him? Do I use hard rhetoric to hit him, like a stick? Do I crown him with a miter of thorns? Do I put him to the test? Do I assassinate his character in public?
This is a Dark Hour. A dark hour for the Church, but not in the sense of human prejudices that only grasp the external, visible, institutional part of the Church. It is a dark hour for the Church, because the Church is composed of sinners and our heart has grown dark for hate of the light. It’s a dark hour for me, and for everyone else. But we do have a choice. We either accept our sinfulness and our powerlessness before the Goodness of God… and when the Easter morning comes, we welcome the salvation that came with the illuminating of our misdeeds… or we hang forever on this darkness, dangling eternally from a tree on a knot made by our own hands, because our self-centeredness doesn’t allow us to accept this simple truth: that we are sinners, and that we may have gotten Him wrong.
I hope these reflections may help other people to chose the path of repentance and light. If they hardened your heart, then disregard them.
[Photo credit: “Christ carrying the Cross“; Hyeronimus Bosch; 1535; Source: Wikimedia Commons]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.