Homily for School Mass to Mark the Election of Pope Francis
Clongowes Boys’ Chapel – Thursday 14th March 2013
Readings: Ephesians 4,11-16; John 17,11-23.
We’re gathered on an extraordinary occasion. There are many reasons for calling it that and you’ve probably heard most of them by now. The papacy is, perhaps, the oldest institution in continuous existence in the entire world. Pope Francis is the 266th holder of the office. He is the first pope from outside Europe since Gregory III, who reigned as long ago as 731-41. He’s the first ever pope from the Americas (north or south), the first from the so-called ‘New World’, the first from the southern hemisphere. If we disregard John Paul I, briefly pope in 1978, who based his name on those of his two predecessors, he’s the first pope to choose a completely new name since Pope Lando in 913. And, of course, he’s the first Jesuit.
The Jesuits were founded in 1540. There have been 46 papacies since then but never a Jesuit pope. Jesuits take a special vow of obedience to the pope but they also make a promise not to become bishops, unless the pope insists, and this has usually happened only in missionary situations, where the only priests available in a given place are Jesuits. It was, indeed, the closeness of the order to the pope that led to its suppression world-wide in 1773: hostile political powers forced the pope himself, Clement XIV, a Franciscan, to issue a decree of suppression which was ultimately intended to weaken his own position and even destroy the church itself. Literally overnight, Jesuit houses were closed and property confiscated and Jesuits, old and young, were driven from country after country, taking with them only the few possessions they could carry. The Jesuit General, Fr Lorenzo Ricci, was imprisoned in Castel’ Sant Angelo on the Tiber, a familiar sight in pictures of Rome, and died there in 1775. Only a strange quirk of fate meant that a few Jesuits survived in Protestant Prussia and Orthodox White Russia, where the rulers concerned valued Jesuit schools and did not want to lose them. Otherwise, by papal decree, the order would have died out completely.
Within 40 years, a groundswell of support led to restoration, piece-meal at first, then universal, when Pius VII, a Benedictine, who had earlier faced down Napoleon, issued the decree Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum, ‘care for all the churches’, on 7th August 1814 in Rome. By then a certain school in Co. Kildare had already been founded – Clongowes, which admitted its first pupils in May of that year, is the oldest Jesuit school in the world. It’s remarkable that, as we celebrate our bicentenary next year, the Jesuits will also be celebrating 200 years of restored existence, and now, by God’s providence, the celebrations will happen under a Jesuit pope.
Jorge Maria Bergoglio, Pope Francis, is a 76-year old Argentinian – when you think of Fr Sheil and Fr Murray, you realise that 76 really isn’t very old! He gave up chemistry studies to become a Jesuit when he was 21. He taught in Jesuit schools for several years and, four years after his ordination in 1969, he became provincial of Argentina, when he was only 37. He studied for his doctorate in Germany and became a bishop in 1992 – obviously, the pope insisted! – and then archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. Cardinals are not supposed to reveal what happens in conclaves, much less the voting figures, but somehow things always seem to leak out. It is widely claimed that Cardinal Bergoglio came second to Cardinal Ratzinger, who duly became Pope Benedict XVI, at the last conclave in 2005. His election now has surprised most observers, who imagined he would be seen as too old eight years later.
He has taken his name from St Francis of Assisi, the great medieval figure known as the Poverello, the ‘little poor man’, who was so intensely committed to poverty and simplicity of life. His attraction to Francis has been reflected in his own life: he gave up the archbishop’s palace and lived in a small flat, cooking for himself; he also gave up the archbishop’s big car and used public transport. He has been an outspoken defender of the poor in a country and a part of the world where the divisions between rich and poor are very sharp. Buenos Aires is a beautiful, fashion-conscious city but, when you go to the outskirts and beyond, you are confronted by the abject poverty of the barrios, which I’ve seen myself. His opposition to the government on this and on other issues is at least one of the reasons why there have been efforts to undermine his reputation in the past. I’m sure we’ll hear more of those efforts in the future. President Obama has hailed him as ‘a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us’.
Pope Francis takes on an overwhelming burden as head of a church which, officially, numbers some 1.2 billion members. People, as we know well enough, are members in different ways and at different levels of commitment. Yet, as the events of the last few days and weeks clearly demonstrate, despite the Catholic church’s problems, many millions of people around the globe, within and outside the church, look to it as a kind of beacon, a centre of moral and visionary leadership and hope for the human family as a whole. The pope has to somehow embody that in his own person. For me, the most striking image from last night’s ceremony on the balcony was when he asked the vast crowd in front of him to pray for him and with him and then knelt in silent prayer himself. As he did so, the entire piazza fell silent too and prayed.
Last night, Pope Francis went back in the bus with the other cardinals to the house where they had all been staying during the conclave, instead of remaining alone in the Vatican. He has already been out this morning, visiting the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest church dedicated to Our Lady in the entire world, to pray for her help in what he is now undertaking. Those he met on a visit arranged with ten minutes’ notice spoke of his friendliness and simplicity when they met him. You could see something of that on the balcony last night. There is a great sense that he will be a new kind of pope in a way that offers hope for the church and, through the church, for the world, for which, in the end, the church exists. 42% of the world’s Catholics, but also very many of the world’s poorest people, live in South America. This is a moment of special hope for them. His presence and his role is likely to focus on the rich-poor divide in the world everywhere, which is the source of injustice and suffering in every society, including our own. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem, as the old slogan says. I pray that this pope’s example and teaching will inspire us to be part of the solution in our own lives, in our own time.
Finally, it’s hard to convey the intense consolation Jesuits everywhere – and our friends – are experiencng because of what has happened. Obviously, we did not personally go through the terrible trauma of the suppression in the 18th century, but it has remained in our folk-memory and marked us for a very long time. And many of us do remember with some pain a difficult phase in the relationship of the Society to the Vatican in the early 1980s – some even feared a second suppression, though I think that overstates things. But our vocation has always been to go to the frontiers, to take risks, to experiment, to reach out, often alone, often swimming against the stream. And we have often been in trouble in the course of our history, chiefly because of that. ‘Finding God in all things’, the motto of St Ignatius, means that we embrace the whole gamut of human experience and try to bring people, wherever they are, to an awareness that God is at work in their lives, whatever the circumstances. That can be risky and there have been times when, not least in recent decades, we have felt disapproved of in some of the highest quarters, for where we stood and what we stood for in the church. And now this! I’ve been a Jesuit for 50 years and I have never known such a moment. Last night, in the community, we sat for some hours just taking it in with a kind of quiet joy. It’s no moment for triumphalism of any kind, which would be profoundly unworthy. But we do feel deeply consoled that this has happened. And you, as students in a Jesuit school, and all our friends share in a truly historic moment and are part of a network of people, all over the world, who feel shared pride that, after almost 500 years, a Jesuit pope has been elected to lead the church.
Our part now is to pray for this new pope and with him, as he has so clearly requested, and to renew our own commitment to the Gospel and a life of service, A.M.D.G., ‘for God’s greater glory’, which is the purpose of all our lives. Amen.
Fr. Bruce Bradley S.J.