Pope Francis’ seventh year of service at the See of Peter begins today. In the Biblical tradition the number 7 represents holiness and blessing. This symbolic coincidence thus becomes for us, sons of God in the Catholic Church, an invitation to praise the Lord and thank Him for the past six years accompanied by the authoritative and paternal guidance of Pope Francis.
One of the aspects of the Petrine ministry deserving special emphasis is found in the traditional Latin Vulgate of Luke 22.32: conversus, confirma fratres tuos.
This connection, linking the return to God-conversion and Petrine Ministry, re-emerges in a unique manner today.
As reaffirmed by Francis in the meditation addressed to the Roman clergy past March 7, “the Lord is purifying his spouse, he is converting us all to him”, adding: ” It will do us good to take chapter 16 of Ezekiel today. This is the history of the Church. This is my story, everyone can say. And in the end, but through your shame, you will continue to be the shepherd. Our humble repentance, which remains silent between tears in the face of the monstrosity of sin and the unfathomable greatness of God’s forgiveness, this, this humble repentance is the beginning of our holiness.”
While rewardingly reviewing a set of landmark events that marked the past six years of the Roman episcopate of J.M.Bergoglio, we cannot fail to mention the meeting on the “Protection of minors in the Church”, held at the Vatican on February 21-24 2019. This event is the result of a heartfelt wish of the Pope, carried out in compliance with his directives.
Those who have personally attended the meeting cherish in their hearts its impressions, emotions and teachings. For three full days Francis has listened, transmitting with his gaze and his demeanour the spiritual serenity that unquestionably underlie his decisions.
He delivered the closing speech upon the termination of the Eucharistic celebration. Rereading that text enables us to grasp the apostolic passion of the Pope, his parrhesia (as he often defines it to indicate the candid feature characterising the Apostles’ proclamation of the Gospel), the breadth and the perspicacy of his gaze in acknowledging a tragedy that afflicts the Church and not only the Church since – as Francis reminded us in his opening remarks – it is a plague that extends throughout all societies and cultures which today, thanks to a change in the public opinion’s sensitivity, has become the object of systematic studies and ad hoc interventions. Also in this case it remains true that only the context enables the understanding of a given text. And this is what the Pope did. But far from being a sociologist or an expert in other fields, the Pope is a spiritual guide and in these capacities he pointed at the ultimate explanation to human situations marked by a humanly incomprehensible degree of suffering from the perspective of the faith community: “Today we find ourselves before a manifestation of brazen, aggressive and destructive evil. Behind and within, there is the spirit of evil, which in its pride and in its arrogance considers itself the Lord of the world and thinks that it has triumphed. I would like to say this to you with the authority of a brother and a father, certainly a small one and a sinner, but who is the pastor of the Church that presides in charity.” Once more, here we find the Petrine and Gospel-rooted conversus, confirma fratres tuos.
Obviously a lot more has occurred in the past year, such as the ecumenical visits to Geneva past June to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches and in the following month of July, the meeting for peace with the Heads of the Churches and Christian Communities of the Middle East in the city of Bari. Apostolic visits were made to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families, in August 2018 and later, in January 2019, the journey to Panama for the 34th WYD: a world gathering that took place on the wake of the XV Ordinary Assembly of the Bishops’ Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” As announced, the presentation of the Apostolic exhortation related to the Synod will take place in the coming days: in Loreto on March 25 2019, so it may be offered to Virgin Mary.
Yet the most remarkable of this and other events, along with the meeting on “The Protection of Minors” is the Apostolic journey to the United Arab Emirates of February 3-5 that saw the signing of the document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” and the celebration of Holy Mass before a crowd of 180 000 people: an unprecedented event in the Arabian peninsula. In the audience of February 6 Francis highlighted its significance: “In an epoch such as our own, in which there is a strong temptation to see an ongoing conflict between the Christian and Islamic civilizations, and also to consider religions as a source of conflict, we wished to give an ulterior, clear and decisive sign, that it is indeed possible to come together; it is possible to respect one another and to dialogue; and that, even in the diversity of cultures and traditions, the Christian and Islamic worlds appreciate and uphold common values: life, family, religious sense, honour for the elderly, the education of young people, and still others.”
This event is yet another sign of the extent to which the Pope wishes to insert his ministry within the context of the Second Vatican Council.
Unquestionably, Ecumenism and interreligious Dialogue are fundamental, crucial milestones of that Council. Yet these are but examples. I suggest re-reading some passages – whose very import is in many ways linked to their confidential nature – of the conversation between Francis and the Jesuit fathers of Chile and Peru on January 16 2018, during the Apostolic journey to those Nations. In that circumstance Francis spoke of the Council, highlighting its importance also for his personal story and of the related resistances, thereby exclaiming with Christian optimism: “Historians tell us that it takes a century for a Council to put down its roots. We are halfway there.” In that meeting themes that are dear to the Pope resurfaced. These include discernment, critical remarks on spiritual wordliness and clericalism. Themes pertaining to Vatican II evidently include the emphasis on the People of Good, that Francis, in his discipleship of Saint Ignatius, always lovingly refers to as saintly and faithful, along with themes linked to synodality -as emerged in the landmark address of October 17 2015, in which he indicated synodality “as a constitutive element of the Church, [that] offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself.”
Today, March 13 2019, Francis is gathered in prayer. As known, for him these are days of spiritual exercises at the “House of the Divine Master” in the town of Ariccia, in the territory of the diocese of Albano.
As the Holy Father is there praying I deem it important for us to join in his prayers and extend a special intercession for his person and his ministry, enriched by gratitude and propitious wishes
(*) bishop of Albano – Secretary of the Council of Cardinals