Today's Wisdom

Those who do not pass from the experience of the cross to the truth of the resurrection condemn themselves to despair! For we cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power
Pope Francis

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pope Francis: Another Alter Christus?

The word "Alter Christus" in Latin means "Another Christ." Although all priests can each claim that he is an "Alter Christus" by virtue of his service in the Eucharistic celebration in Mass, only one person in Church history was given the title "Alter Christus." This was Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian holy man who in spite of his wealth rejected the glory of the world, begged and traveled to non-Christian nations in order to preach Christ, wrote poems of his love of God and all humans and showed in them respect of natural beings, was the first who carried in his body the wounds of the Crucified One (called stigmata) and, by the grace of God, founded one of the most vibrant, largest and enduring orders known as the Franciscan Friars. Francis of Assisi was inspired by the Crucified at San Damiano Church to rebuild his Church. Although Francis took it first literally and rebuilt the little church with wood, he shortly understood that Christ's call was for Francis to rebuild the ailing entire Church of God - something that Pope Innocent III understood in a vision when Francis requested approval for his Franciscan Order.

In March 2013, the first Pope to carry the name Francis was elected to succeed Benedict XVI as Roman Pontiff. On the night of his election on March 13, 2013 Pope Francis showed an extraordinary opening to people and crowds when from the balcony of St. Peter's Square he asked them to pray for him and bless him. A Jesuit theologian, Pope Francis reminds us of Jesuit theologians who have contributed significantly to the contemporary development of Biblical, theological and scientific studies in the Catholic Church: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in research of a universe deeply connected with Christian faith and salvation in Christ; Henri de Lubac in "Ressourcemment" of the Fathers of the Church and the recognition of God's active Spirit in all humans; Karl Rahner in Transcendental Thomism and his "Anonymous Christian" proposal; Hans Urs von Balthasar in his visionary work on salvation of non-Christians; Jacques Dupuis in his work on the Church and pluralism; Avery Dulles in models of the Church; Carlo Maria Martini and Gerald O'Collins in Biblical scholarship; and George Coyne in astronomy. But how were those Jesuits to influence the thought of the younger Jesuit who became Pope Francis at the age of 76? Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Flores, Buenos Aires the son of an Italian family that had immigrated to Argentina, he studied then worked as a chemical technician before following his vocation to be a priest. Ordained priest in 1969, he was Argentina's Provincial superior of the Society of Jesus from 1973 to 1979. In 1998 he was appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in 2001 he was made a Cardinal by John Paul II. His humility, concern for the poor and thrust for dialogue of the Church with other faiths have been demonstrated in his own down-to-earth daily life (e.g. living in a humble apartment) and in his encouraging steps to work with the marginalized and sick in the slums. While always supporting the Church in her policy on such moral issues as legalized abortion, legalized same-sex marriage, divorce and trafficking in human beings, he nevertheless felt close to persons afflicted with them. Starting his pontificate with his desire to see a poor Church for the poor and his preference for talking to and serving ordinary people whether visiting those in prison and in hospitals, praying with handicapped, or tweeting on Twitter, he immediately attracted the youth and impressed the media when he participated in the World Youth Day held July 23-28 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and had a surprise long press conference on his way back to Rome. In August he was exclusively interviewed and his interview was published by some major Jesuit publications ( His theology seems close to Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac but he is more than a theologian; for he approaches events and people as his mission. All of this could be interpreted as sentimental wishes. The real test of this pontificate lies in a number of issues that the Pope must deal with:

1.  Internally. He was elected on the expectation that he will reign in and end the scandals that ravaged the Vatican in recent years especially the handling of the Vatican's finances, the so-called Vatileaks, and corruption in several clerical appointments in Rome and elsewhere that pointed to favoritism. Pope Francis immediately established a commission to look into the finances and other corruption cases. A few charges have been laid over misconduct. Of the most notable changes are the investigation of a Vatican Bank accountant, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, for allegedly laundering money, the financial report released by the Vatican Bank that showed efforts by the Vatican to be more financially transparent, the retirement or resignation as Secretary of State of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, blamed for many of the gaffes of the papacy of Benedict XVI as well as the suspension in October of the German bishop Franz Peter Tebartz-Van Elst of Limburg who was spending $42 million on building his own residence. The Pope seems determined to clean up the mess he inherited and reroute the Church's finances to help the churches in need.

2. Increasing violence in the world especially the threat of Islamists to end, or significantly reduce, Christian presence in the Middle East where the first Christians lived and preached and their offspring survived in spite of persecutions for nearly two millennia. In spite of an Apostolic Exhortation by Benedict XVI in 2012 calling on Muslims and Christians to respect each other's lives, militant violence continues to harm ordinary lives. The militant Muslim Brotherhood members are still contesting the legitimacy of the new government in Egypt, burning churches and smuggling weapons through the terrorist organization Hamas. A sectarian war in Syria has ravaged many cities where Christians and Muslims have lived together for many centuries. Extremist Islamic terrorism has also been manifested recently in Mali, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have seen despicable scenes of massacres against innocents. And Lebanon is under division since Hizbullah and other Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims continue to fight each other. Meanwhile the Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, attempted to revive the Ottoman empire and imposed Islamic restrictions while at the same time betting to enter the European Union. At a grand scale, governments of the powerful military nations particularly the U.S. and its allies on the side of the Islamists against Russia and China on the other side continue to provide military support to their partners in the hope of expanding their own empires and markets regardless of losses of lives. One theory that emerged recently claims that the intent of the Western powers is to keep Islamic terrorism in the Middle East provided that Israel remains secure. But it misses the geopolitical visions of Russia and China. It seems that the U.S. is proceeding to contain the ascending economic power of China and Russia. In the absence of political conscience who cares about Christians or Muslims?

3. Increasing materialism in the advanced West that is breeding consumerism, and causing social injustice due to:
a) increased material possession by rich individuals causing more poverty of the masses that need welfare and education;
b) Weakened job opportunities for new generations especially because of the replacement of human workers with computer information systems and robots in most industries;
c) the emergence of the culture of instant pleasure and selfish competition among young adults and teenagers which increased bullying in schools and caused suicide in certain desperate cases;
d) Most importantly the lack of prayer life, church activities, and vocations to the priesthood.

In brief, Pope Francis has many challenges to deal with. He has already challenged excessive capitalism in his final speech in World Youth Day and made it clear that the Catholic Church will defend its moral stance for the poor in Latin America and will protect her children from fundamentalist Pentecostalists who are attempting to lure Catholics in Latin America to their exclusivist Protestant communion on promises of abundant life here on earth and eternal happiness in the next life in superficial interpretation of the Bible. He is expected to challenge Catholic cardinals and bishops that take advantage of the wealth of their parishes to enrich their own residences. He is expected to challenge Catholic charitable organizations stemming from the United States and Canada that spend much money on big investments while most Christians in Africa suffer from hunger. Other Catholic organizations and orders are expected to be purged or reformed. Christ himself said "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10: 34). Yes, the moral fight that brings everlasting peace.

Although the papacy remains essential for safeguarding the unity of the Church, Francis calls himself simply Bishop of Rome. If it is true that the supremacy of the Pontiff of Rome is the only major obstacle to the reunion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches  this position may lead to reunion between them.

Satan instigates us to take sides in any conflict, but there is no escape from the fact that humans are relational by nature as God is relational. It is really wonderful that God called Francis of Assisi to love through all creation and today He calls us through Pope Francis to love through all creation (See Quantum Synthesis) . The only civilization that can last is built on understanding of human needs both spiritual and physical thus risking to ultimately embrace love. "Be moderate in everything except in love" wrote St. Augustine in the 5th century AD. Today Pope Francis is calling all to follow Christ by example as He loved us (John 13, 34).

Today's Quote

"Behold I make all things new." (Revelation 21:5)


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