Tag Archives: Pope Francis


During the 20 years of my pastorship in the Paterson Diocese, I made regular visits to our homebound parishioners, taking Communion to them and serving them in whatever ways I could. One of the widows on the long list was an elderly woman who lived alone and at whose front door I’d have to wait for several minutes as she methodically and slowly opened three locks and a deadbolt. She was a very sensible, level-headed person, not at all paranoiac. The four security measures were simply necessary to keep her sufficiently safe. That upset me then and still does as I think about it today.

It also bothers me to have to lock my car doors for the night and to endorse checks properly before putting them in my wallet — because we do these things assuming that people are not to be trusted — that we are natural enemies who will take advantage of each other whenever we can. The key, the lock, the deadbolt and the burglar alarm are all signs of what we have become — or, conversely, what we have never become. They are a shame, a disgrace, an embarrassment, a judgment.

Jesus entrusted to Peter and the infant church what he called the “keys to heaven” and with them the power to bind and to absolve. (I believe that “bind” in this context means to command or to impose an obligation with authority.) No notion here of keeping anyone out or of defending the infant church from enemies.

No, what Jesus seems to be doing is placing his spirit in the community, helping the community to judge all things wisely and then to act as Jesus himself would act in the same situation. That is what those keys unlock — the guidance of the Holy Spirit, always available to to those who want to think and and say and do what is right and true and life-giving.

The keys that the church has been given are meant to free its members from ignorance and fear, from crippling conservatism, from suspicion and distrust.

Life-giving is the work of the church. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have to to the full.” To be a member of the church is to share in the power of the keys in one way or another. We are being church when we, in any way, open up to others God’s presence in our midst.

Pope Francis has been given the “master key”, so to speak, to enable him to serve the church throughout the world; but to each of us are also given keys, no two exactly alike, enabling us to be givers of life in the countless circumstances of our daily lives.

As I look out at this very moment, I am awestruck by the power for good that you represent! And I ask you to remain mindful of who and what you are: bearers of the keys to life that Jesus has placed in your hands and in your hearts.



In Francis’ first homily as pope four years ago, he said, “Don’t be afraid to love. Don’t be afraid to be tender.” Can you imagine a simpler, more basic message than that? And from one of the world’s greatest leaders, whose Jesuit education alone marks him as an intellectual of high standing?

But the counsel he gave us in that short homily encourages us to believe that the power to transform our dangerously troubled world lies, not with the leaders of states and kingdoms, but with us. The world will change for the better, not by command of a president, a prince, or a parliament, but by the little acts and the little words of love and tenderness that we, the people, are capable of giving to others all day long, every day. Sounds too basic to be true, I know, but it is true. Jesus said so, Pope Francis said so.

It’s a cellular process – person to person — that Jesus himself very much believed in and practiced. I recall in that connection a funeral I presided over several years ago. It was for two sisters, Eileen and Jayne, siblings and also members of the same religious community, the Sisters of the Presentation. They had died together in a car crash. The younger one, Jayne, had sent me her written reflections on life, love, God, the Church – some of which I used at her funeral Mass. One of her ideas was that Jesus never intended to establish a new religion, a “church”, according to our understanding of the word. No, she wrote, Jesus simply started a person-to-person movement – one person influencing, touching, another with a word or a gesture of love – even a thought or a prayer. I quote from her now. She wrote —

Jesus began his mission with friendship, not only because it is powerful but also because it is hopeful. It is the key, the only key, that can unlock the door to a worthwhile future in love. Jesus saw the truth of that twenty centuries ago. Instead of organizing institutions, he started a movement based on friendship, on love. That is the only solution to the problems of the human heart. People can live together under almost any conditions if they are friends, if they are in love.

In our own time we have seen the murderous destruction that fanatical members of other religions have done, claiming that they were carrying out the will of God. But aren’t they doing what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did — praying and then acting on the direction they feel they have been given?

No, absolutely not. Why? Because Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word.” Jesus situates his teachings about the Spirit in the context of love. In other words, the key — the lens — that reveals the true word of God to anyone is love. It is impossible that those whose hearts are filled with hatred and evil intentions toward others can recognize what God would have them do. Such persons are morally and spiritually blind. It is only when love is the primary driving force that anyone can discern and yield to the “will of God.” And only when love motivates can human beings enter into sincere dialog with one another and together make progress toward better life for all.

Don’t be afraid to love, Pope Francis says. Don’t be afraid to be tender.


I don’t have to look far: I see within my own extended family young adults who are no longer practicing members of the Roman Catholic Church, in which they were faithfully raised. Were this 1947 or 1948, they would have been told by a Catholic priest by the name of Father Leonard Feeney that they were on their way to eternal damnation. Father Feeney was excommunicated from the church for his extreme and heretical views when I was still a teenager intensely interested in this theological warfare that would help to define the church at least for the rest of the century.

Not quite at such fever pitch, the struggle goes on. There are those who hold that the goal of the church is to convert everyone to Catholicism. If we Catholics believe that belonging to the church is a good thing, then, of course, we should be eager to share it with others. I can give, as you can, I’m sure, many important reasons why membership in the church is one of the greatest blessings of my life. But whether or not we should be concerned about getting everyone into the church, even if that were possible, is another matter. And whether eternal salvation requires membership in the church remains a question that must be faced and answered in the light available to us today.

St. John said that the Spirit of God blows where it wills, and yet for centuries the Catholic Church has maintained that eternal life awaits only those who, “in some way” belong to it. Jesus spoke of his followers as the leaven in the loaf. I have made bread often — in a machine, I must admit, and I know that the leaven, the yeast, is one of the smallest of the ingredients that make up the dough — but it’s the one that lifts all the others by an age-old process of chemical interaction.

Don’t you agree that that’s the way we should see ourselves as church? Only one of the almost countless religions in the world, but having enormous influence for good? For what reason would we put limiting restrictions on that clear declaration we just heard from the prophet Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the world.”

Every time Pope Francis does or says something that makes the global news media, I think of that promise: one man standing in the person of Jesus and representing millions of us, lifting up the world from its miseries and its troubles and pointing out the light of the Risen Jesus that shines among us even when we are willfully or carelessly blind to it. He does that by his sincere words of faith and hope and love, his awareness of the presence of the good and ever-loving God in our midst. In our own smaller venues, we, each and all of us, are empowered to do the same.

I believe there is no need for us Catholics to claim everyone for Roman Catholicism or even for Christianity; we need only recognize all other persons as creatures of the one God and leave to the Spirit whatever should and may come next. We are to live the Gospel of Jesus as fully and as faithfully as we can: taking stands for justice & peace, acting mercifully, living in reconciliation & forgiveness, sharing generously, and always making decisions dictated by our well-formed consciences. We are to carry our personal crosses with patience and good cheer, no matter how they came to us, hoping, expecting, and celebrating in good times and in bad.

I hope the new year has begun well for you and that it will continue to unfold in that way.


There’s something refreshingly honest and engaging in the behavior of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel excerpt we just heard.  They certainly were not being subtle concerning their ambitions or their self-image.  They were arguing, we are told, over who was the most important one among them in the mission plan that Jesus was revealing to them.  You can just hear one of them telling another about a compliment that Jesus had paid him.  Or another of them listing his strengths and his various life experiences as reasons that he should be regarded as the most valuable to Jesus.  They were acting and talking almost like a bunch of kids fighting about who’s the best at this or that sport or who’s the strongest or the smartest.

Not everyone is that frank or open; many of us, instead, are much more discreet – even crafty – in letting others know how superior we regard ourselves to be.  We do it by insinuation, by gesture, by inflexion.  We make the point so smoothly, that our boastful bid for recognition can even go unnoticed by some of our hearers – who may leave us thinking how humble we are.

I think this is just another symptom of our incomplete adjustment, our inability to lose ourselves in God’s love.  We can go from the peaceful detachment of meditation, when we couldn’t care less about what other people think, to the terrible insecurity in which we need at every chance we get to let others in on the hidden fact of our great worth.

And into that all-too-common human foolishness Jesus introduces an equation that must have taken the disciples a good, long time to comprehend and accept: “If you really want to be first, you have to be the servant of all.”

That can’t mean that we are denied a good self-image; it’s obvious that Jesus thought well of himself – he never belittled or down-graded himself.  His perfect humility was based on perfect truth.  He knew well who and what he was, but his mind and heart were attuned to the goodness in other people and to the infinite goodness of the God whom he called Father.  To bring out the goodness of others and to show forth the goodness of the Father Jesus became the servant of all.

Isn’t that where we are apt to fail?  As the expression goes, we’re “stuck on ourselves,” and that’s a sterile and destructive way to be.  What we may have forgotten, or perhaps never have learned, is that our genuine greatness lies in how well we are serving life in others who cannot be fully alive without us, and how well we can make known, by the way we act, the creative love of God in our midst.

(I got this from an article in the Italian press.) Shortly after Pope Francis’ election, he was walking down the aisle in the Sistine Chapel when he heard an infant cry.  He turned his head to see a young mother somewhat hidden behind a pillar feeding her infant.  Francis said, “Feed him.  He’s hungry.”  The mother, who, I assume was breast-feeding the baby, answered, “But here, in church??”  Francis replied, I’m sure with his characteristic, warm smile, “Of course here in church.  That’s what church is all about – feeding one another.”

By what miracle did this man become pope?  How easy and inspiring it is to see Jesus in him!