by Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S., Provincial Director
During a retreat recently, the mother of a 28-year-old son who is gay and has been away from the Church for a long time told me that her son is seeking out a place at the table once again because of Pope Francis’ famous phrase, “Who am I to judge?” You will recall that on his way back to Rome from World Youth Day last summer, the Holy Father responded to a question from a reporter about priests who are gay. “Who am I to judge?” he said. With those words, Pope Francis opened the door to many who had been on the margins, who have had the door of the Church slammed in their face, who left the table of Eucharist in search of a more welcoming place.
March 13, 2014 marks the first anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as successor of St. Peter. His humility, his emphasis on God’s mercy, his passionate advocacy for the poor and marginalized, and his compassionate presence has captured the world’s imagination. His inclusive style of servant leadership, modeled very early when he washed the feet of inmates—including two women (one of whom was a Muslim)—at a juvenile detention center in Rome on Holy Thursday, has changed the hearts and minds of many.
In reading Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), one of the many lines that leapt off the page and hit me between the eyes was this one: “The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (89). It evokes the passage from Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I quoted on my ordination invitation 32 years ago: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us.” The founder of the Catholic Worker movement went on to say we begin this revolution when we take the lowest place and wash the feet of others.
Pope Francis has begun this revolution of the heart again through his witness and his words. It is a revolution of tender mercy and compassion. We can recall many examples within the past year, images and scenes from his audiences, that have found their way to the front of the world’s newspapers and gone viral on the internet. Children and elderly, the sick and the suffering, the deformed and the denied have found a place in his warm embrace. This is the new evangelization with a broad smile and outstretched arms that reflects a community of believers many want to belong to because it is based on the belief that Jesus is the embodiment of the compassion of God.
This revolution of tenderness recalls how Jesus saved his harshest critique for those religious leaders who rigorously and rigidly enforced laws that broke the spirit of the people rather than giving praise to God. As we heard recently at the Sunday Eucharist in the passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Like Jesus, Pope Francis reflects the belief that we can follow the rules out of a sense of obligation rather than as an opportunity to grow in holiness and love. We can follow Jesus out of fear instead of faith. Jesus desired that revolution of the heart where one’s life is rooted in radical love. Not just love of the rules but of those who make them and those who break them and those who bend them and those who amend them.
This radical love is the challenge to love even those we find most difficult to love. One of the most moving memories from this first year was the Angelus blessing on September 16, 2013. As seventy thousand people were soaked to the bone and huddled in puddles in the pouring rain, Pope Francis said, “If, in our hearts, there is no mercy, no joy of forgiveness, we cannot be in communion with God, even if we observe all his precepts because it is love that saves.” Then he asked each person to take a moment of silent prayer and remember someone in their life with whom they are angry or broken or estranged. Pray for them, he implored, hold them in your heart in mercy and love. “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others,” Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium (86).
One of the Holy Father’s suggestions to not only spark but sustain this revolution of tenderness is the “need to create spaces where pastoral workers can be helped and healed, places where faith itself in the crucified and risen Jesus is renewed, where the most profound questions and daily concerns are shared, where deeper discernment about our experience and life itself is undertaken in the light of the Gospel, for the purpose of directing individual and social decisions towards the good and beautiful” (77). This vision is very similar to one of the provocative propositions promoted by the General Assembly of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood last summer in Rome; and one of the action steps our Provincial Council has proposed in looking at the present and future possibilities for Precious Blood Center. Our Mission Houses—in Liberty, Berkeley, Kansas City, Saint Joseph and Sedalia, Centerville and Albia, Wichita and Warrensburg, Crownpoint and Mead, Baileyville and Tiburon, Odessa and Carthagena, Rockford and Des Moines, Chicago and Los Angeles, Kearney, Joliet and Ho Chi Minh City, wherever Precious Blood people are—they are places where people “can be helped and healed.”
As “missionary disciples” of the Blood of Christ, the vision of Pope Francis that he outlines in Evangelii Gaudium resounds with our spirituality and our charism of reconciliation and renewal. Echoes of St. Gaspar’s vision are found throughout The Gospel of Joy and I would encourage all members, companions, volunteers, indeed, all people of faith to read it, study it, pray with it, gather in groups to dialogue about it, and use it to influence our community life and inform our mission. For as Pope Francis reminds us, the charisms of religious congregations “are not an inheritance, safely secure and entrusted to a small group for safekeeping; rather they are gifts of the Spirit integrated into the body of the Church” (130).