A pontificate begins

  • March 22, 2013

VATICAN CITY - Perhaps St. Francis — who wrote poetically of Brother Sun praising God — provided the weather for Pope Francis on the day of his inaugural Mass. After two weeks in Rome where the weather was wet, overcast and dreary, the sun shone brightly on St. Peter’s Square as the Holy Father began his Petrine ministry on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, patron and protector of the universal Church.

Francis’ inaugural homily followed two of the most memorable homilies preached in recent times. The inaugural homily of John Paul II in 1978 was the famous “be not afraid” exhortation that became the leitmotif of the entire pontificate. In 2005, Benedict concluded with words that would become frequently quoted, that if we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, but gain everything, despite our fears to the contrary.

Francis subtly took up both themes, echoing the first, saying that “we must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness.” John Paul spoke in 1978 about the “sweet power” of Christ. Francis extended that thought, emphasizing the obligation to care for the poor and the sick, speaking passionately about those who are weak and suffering.

“Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it?” Francis asked. “Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!”

The Holy Father invoked the poor man of Assisi and repeatedly stressed the obligation to care for the natural environment, casting it in the light of St. Joseph’s role as protector of the Holy Family.

“The vocation of being a ‘protector,’ however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone,” the Holy Father said. “It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!”

Here Francis took up an argument often advanced by his predecessor, for whom Francis asked for prayers on Joseph Ratzinger’s patronal feast day.

Benedict XVI often praised the contemporary concern for the environment, but then noted that man too is part of that environment. If nature is to be respected, then human nature must also be respected. It is an approach that seems likely to return in Francis’ teaching.

The Mass had the simplicity and warmth that has come to be expected of Pope Francis in his first days. There were a number of personal touches that accompanied the solemn rites. He invited the Superior General of the Jesuits and the Superior General of the Franciscans to concelebrate the Mass alongside the cardinals.

Of local note, Sebastian Gomes from Perth, Ont., in the archdiocese of Kingston, did the first reading. Sebastian works for Salt + Light TV, and was in Rome assisting Fr. Thomas Rosica in his work in the Holy See Press Office.

After the Mass, Francis greeted almost 150 delegations from various countries, including the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

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