A reflection on the readings of Sunday, August 27, 2023 — The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Over a decade ago, I was blessed to be present as a young priest in St. Peter’s Square on March 12 as white smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. Then, as now, I was relatively ignorant regarding matters of Church politics in general and papabile in particular, so watching Jorge Bergoglio emerge from St. Peter’s as Pope Francis was an experience of the spiritual power of the Petrine ministry unencumbered by ecclesiastical baggage. Here was the Vicar of Christ introducing himself and asking the People of God to pray for him as he began a daunting new ministry. I will never forget the graces of that moment.
A few weeks ago, I was blessed to be standing outside of Parque Eduardo VII at World Youth Day in Lisbon as Pope Francis arrived to celebrate Stations of the Cross with 1.5 million young people from around the world. I was transported back to that March evening ten years ago, but this time, the primary grace lay in watching others feel what I once felt. I saw teenagers and twenty-somethings from every nation on earth rush to glimpse their spiritual father passing by. I saw tears, heard songs of joy, and felt the absolute joy of a young Church exhilarated by the prospect of praying together with its pope.
In the gospel today, we see the beginnings of the unique ministry St. Peter will eventually assume as the first Bishop of Rome. For Christians worldwide, the Pope is a sign of unity and the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance over the Church of Jesus Christ. For that reason, I’d like to turn your attention to what is, with the exception of Peter’s intervention at Pentecost in Acts of the Apostles, perhaps the most famous speech any pope has ever given — St. John XXIII’s impromptu speech on the evening of October 11, 1962, to celebrate the opening of the Second Vatican Council:
Dear sons and daughters,
I feel your voices! Mine is just one lone voice, but it sums up the voice of the whole world.
And here, in fact, all the world is represented here tonight. It could even be said that even the moon hastens close tonight, that from above, it might watch this spectacle that not even St. Peter’s Basilica, over its four centuries of history, has ever been able to witness.
We ask for a great day of peace. Yes, of peace! ‘Glory to God, and peace to men of goodwill.” If I asked you, if I could ask of each one of you: where are you from? The children of Rome, especially represented here, would respond: ah, we are the closest of children, and you’re our bishop. Well, then, sons and daughters of Rome, always remember that you represent ‘Roma, caput mundi‘ [‘Rome, the capital of the world’] which through the design of Providence it has been called to be across the centuries.
My own person counts for nothing — it’s a brother who speaks to you, become a father by the will of our Lord, but all together, fatherhood and brotherhood and God’s grace, give honor to the impressions of this night, which are always our feelings, which now we express before heaven and earth: faith, hope, love, love of God, love of brother and sister, all aided along the way in the Lord’s holy peace for the work of the good. And so, let us continue to love each other, to look out for each other along the way: to welcome whoever comes close to us, and set aside whatever difficulty it might bring.
When you head home, find your children. Hug and kiss your children and tell them: ‘This is the hug and kiss of the Pope.’ And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them ‘The Pope is with us especially in our times of sadness and bitterness.’ And then, all together, may we always come alive — whether to sing, to breathe, or to cry, but always full of trust in Christ, who helps us and hears us, let us continue along our path.”
A saintly Bishop of Rome praying with his people, sharing the excitement at the unique action of the Holy Spirit in the moment, and offering words of comfort for those frightened by the future. This speech, this event, to me, captures the power of Petrine ministry more eloquently than a thousand theological tomes. This gathering of pope and people is an expression of what makes Rome in general and its bishop in particular the rock upon which Christ built his Church and the guarantee against the prevailing of the gates of Hell. The church of Peter and Paul, which withstood persecution with grace and courage, has held the rudder of the Barque of Peter for millennia. As you listen to a recorded version of this speech or read its translated text, you can feel this historical reality.
We live in a world where every single intervention of a pope, bishop, priest, or lay leader is endlessly parsed, interpreted, and criticized. While I do not want to suggest that we should withhold our analysis or refrain from deeper theological investigation — those things are essential for the Church to reform itself throughout the ages — it is also important to, at times, simply experience the tremendous gift our Lord has given us by instituting a visible head to his people in the gospel today. Experiences like those gathered Romans had sixty years ago listening to their bishop on the evening Vatican II opened, like I had watching Francis emerge from the Conclave, like 1.5 million young people had in Lisbon a few weeks ago, are essential to our spiritual well-being.
By all means, ask questions, offer criticisms where necessary, and dive deeper into the theology and history of Christ’s Church. But don’t forget from time to time to set those things aside and simply experience the reality that the promise made two-thousand years ago to Peter has remained unbroken. Do not simply analyze and critique your pope, your bishop, your pastor, your spiritual guides — pray with them and pray for them. Allow yourself to become swept up in the sorrow, joy, and excitement that comes from the Holy Spirit supporting, guiding, and inspiring we mere mortals. If the moon itself rushes with excitement at what God is doing in his Church and in the world, why shouldn’t we?
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.