Everyone is speculating about what Pope Francis will say when he speaks to a joint meeting of Congress, or at the United Nations. Progressives are hoping he will deliver his trademark trenchant criticism of capitalism and re-affirm his robust commitment to combating environmental degradation. Conservatives are hoping he will reiterate the Church’s opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. But, I have it on very good authority that in all three cities, Washington, New York and Philadelphia, the most important words the pope will say are well known to all of us. “This is my body ... This is my blood.”
The pope is coming not to confound the commentators at Fox News although they will be confounded. There will be political ramifications to all that he has to say, to be sure. The Catholic blogosphere, and this blog is no exception, have focused on the points of controversy likely to emerge. It is easy to forget that Pope Francis is coming as a pastor and, in fact, none of us would pay any attention to what he had to say, and would likely not know much about him at all, if he was not the universal pastor of the Church. And, as such, he will lead us in worship and confirm us in the faith. That is the primary mission of the Petrine ministry, to confirm the people of God in the faith, and we can’t let all the talking points and arguments distract us from that fact.
It is a remarkable fact, too, when you think about it. Most Americans got their first glimpse of a Catholic Mass at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. One wishes they had received a different introduction to our sacred liturgy: It was a low Mass, presided over by Cardinal Richard Cushing whose Latin was unintelligible! But, in our noisy, secular, technocratic age, millions of Catholics gather each Sunday to hear ancient words, not only to recall but to participate in the passion, death and resurrection of a first century itinerant rabbi in one of the lesser provinces of the Roman Empire. We celebrate the Mass when we baptize our children, when we mark the passage of age, when we get married and when we bury our dead. It is what we do. It is who we are.
People often complain about low mass attendance. And, sometimes, our Catholic parishes are compared unfavorably with these new megachurches where 12,000 people come to worship on a Sunday morning. But, I recall an interview Archbishop Cupich gave soon after arriving in Chicago when he pointed out that if, as studies show, only a percentage, maybe even only one-quarter, of Catholics come to mass each Sunday, it is still more than half a million Catholics in Chicago! I wish all 2.2 million came ever Sunday, and I am sure the archbishop does too. I wish Sunday was still a day of rest, with stores closed. But, still, every Sunday, with all the other demands on time, many of us Catholics take time out to celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, to listen to His Word proclaimed, to become the people of God with one another.
I heard someone comment the other day that, until the television age, most Catholics did not know anything about who their pope was. This is mistaken. In the nineteenth century, many Catholic homes had pictures of Pio Nono. In the eighteenth century, when the Emperor demanded that Pope Pius VI come to Vienna to be humiliated, the Emperor was in for a surprise as people lined the entire route, hoping to get a blessing from the pontiff as he passed by. Still, there is no doubt that in our own time, we are more aware of the pope than in previous times. This is not necessarily all to the good as it tends to let other church leaders think of themselves as branch managers rather than as leaders in their local church. And, cults of personality are always a cause of suspicion. But, with Pope Francis, who has a knack for deflecting the spotlight from himself and onto the poor and the marginalized he is encountering, I think the upside outweighs the dangers.
A friend and I joke that this whole papacy feels like we are living in a Morris West novel. In The Shoes of the Fisherman there is a climactic scene in which the new pope, Kiril, threatens to abdicate. One of the cardinals, Rinaldi, who had been opposing the pope’s proposals vehemently, steps forward and says, “No! You are Peter!” Francis is Peter, Peter in our midst, now as in the early church, the guarantor of apostolicity and of unity. And, the primary way he will exercise that ministry is by leading us in the prayers we all know, the prayers of the mass.
In the long arc of U.S. history, this is stunning. Among our many questionable inheritances from our English roots, Americans have a long history of anti-Catholicism. There are vestiges of it in our language -- “hocus pocus” was a Reformation jibe at the words of institution in the Mass, “hoc est corpus meum.” There were riots in the antebellum era. The KKK hated Catholics and Jews as well as blacks. Paul Blanshard’s anti-Catholic screeds were best sellers in the 1950s. And, in Washington even today, it is not uncommon to tell someone you are a believing Catholic and you can discern a look of incredulity come over their face. But, boy, doesn’t everybody want a piece of Francis!
I have written before that Pope Francis challenges everybody, and indeed he does. Today, I assert that his primary objective in this trip is to confirm us in the faith. The two sentiments are not at odds because the faith is itself challenging. We in the West have robbed the cross of its scandal, domesticated the Christian ethical vision, turned our radical faith into a sign of propriety and upper middle class sensibilities. Pope Francis overturns all of that just as Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. So, as this week unfolds, the question for each of us is not how he is challenging those with whom we disagree, fun though that is to watch, but how is he challenging me and us? If you do not feel challenged by Francis, you are not paying attention. If you do not feel challenged by Jesus Christ, you are not paying attention. Pay attention.