IT WASN’T JUST Time magazine that named Papa Francesco “Man of the Year”. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, did too. And I was so deeply touched by the sight of thirty-five thousand people waiting upon the Pope’s Gospel reflection (“Don’t be afraid”) in St Peter’s Square, one Wednesday morning last October, that I now hope to spend a sabbatical term, in the last quarter of 2014, a 2 minute walk from that same Square, right there in sunny Rome.
Pope Francis has continuously articulated a new vision for a dynamic, “accident-prone”, poor and compassionate Church – especially in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In order to ensure that this takes shape locally, he will have to appoint bishops that share his aspiration.
‘Can Francis of Rome … answer the summons of Christ to rebuild his Church?’
The Tablet, 2 January 2014
Francis is an epiphany – a modern-day manifestation of Christ. Next Sunday, when the Church celebrates the Feast Day of The Baptism of Christ we’ll hear of the Spirit descending upon an anointed and commissioned man “like a dove”. Jesus didn’t set about changing religious doctrine; Francis hasn’t done, to date, either. Instead, Jesus set about changing people’s hearts; Francis too, with the same message – “Don’t be afraid”.
For me, one of the most moving scenes in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, has Winnie Mandela, newly released from sixteen months imprisoned in solitary confinement, in appalling conditions, powerfully telling a crowd of her supporters
I was very young when I married Nelson. I’m not young anymore. And I’m not afraid anymore.
Another Archbishop of Canterbury, the late and great Michael Ramsey, spoke, gleefully, of the then twentieth century Church as “the early Christians”. We’re yet very young and have a lot to learn! The visionary Francis, and the visionary Christ came to mind as I heard Winnie Mandela – television coverage of her former husband’s funeral fresh in my mind: “I’m not young anymore. And I’m not afraid anymore” …
So I’m stirred and challenged and delighted by a modern-day vision for a dynamic, “accident-prone”, poor and compassionate Church. This, indeed, is what “the joy of the Gospel” is supposed to be about. And it’s ordinary people, stirred by the vision, that Papa Francesco knows will make it happen. That’s the revelation and the manifestation. Sure, the maintenance of the Church as a vehicle for Gospel proclamation is important – and it’s the rather doctrinally conservative Church that’s given us another Francis. But rebuilding a vision of the reign of God in people’s lives primarily involves an invitation to poor persons, to watchers over sheep, to the would-be-wise – not just to hear a vision, not just to worship a vision, but to BE the vision – the body of the Anointed – a humankind that’s manifestly “not afraid anymore”, a body that takes the rap from the religiously conservative but carries on, albeit “accident-prone”, anyway. A body that welcomes outcasts and sinners, a body that refuses to judge people because of their colour, creed – or lack thereof, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic origin. A body, a somebody, that sits down to birthday breakfast with the homeless, with outcasts and with (for a million different reasons) refugees.
I read somewhere last week that more than 7.2 million have flocked to Rome to feast their eyes and ears and hearts and minds and souls and bodies upon such a proclamation being LIVED in a twenty-first century apostle. As of old, thousands want to touch the hem of the garment. Yes! – every child and woman and man upon earth, every human person – we’re all walking on a Long Walk to Freedom – all of us accident-prone, all of us, to some degree or another, “poor and needy”, all of us learning the Christ-like business of compassion, forgiveness and grace. Certainly Pope Francis will need to appoint one or two bishops “who share his aspiration” but, thank God, the tide has already turned. We’re younger than we think we are, more life in us yet. And at any rate the ageing process – the eventually having survived our being so very humanly accident-prone – will prove to be, for each of us, the bearer of an eternal invitation to sing: “I’m not afraid anymore”.
So we may LIVE joy then – in, and with, and through, and for, and all around everyone, everywhere. We may LIVE and love in the joy of such a gospel.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ – Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2
WAY TO GO …