The following address was given to over 500 Catholic journalists and those working in Catholic Media in Canada and the United States at the Presidential Medallion Awards Luncheon of the Catholic Media Convention in Denver, Colorado on June 21, 2013.
Dear Colleagues and Friends,
First of all I wish to thank you for the great work that you all did during the Papal transition. I had the pleasure of dealing with many of you during those momentous days from my position in Rome and was able to witness up close your dedication, zeal and journalistic excellence. I wish to thank in particular our friends from Catholic News Service for their outstanding work and assistance to the secular media, and many television and radio networks. CNS, along with Catholic News Agency helped us to fill in the gaps of solid, Catholic information on many occasions.
For four solid weeks this past Lent, through the momentous transition in the papacy, we had a golden opportunity to teach, catechize and evangelize the nations and put the Synod on the New Evangelization into practice. Pope Benedict’s resignation on 2/11, shifted the plates of the earth for the Church. We had no playbook, script, notes or film footage left behind by that Benedictine monk, Pietro Morrone who would later become Pope Celestine V. Overwhelmed by the demands of the office, Celestine stepped down after five months as pope in 1294.
Almost six hundred years later, acknowledging what he called his "incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict told us that we must be painfully honest with the human condition, that we cannot be enchained by history. A man who has been the champion of tradition and labeled "conservative" left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. This man known for brilliant writing, exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness, humility and clarity of teaching, offered us the epitome of a courageous and humble decision that will forever mark the papacy and the life of the Church.
One of the most poignant moments of my Roman sojourn took place on February 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate. His carefully orchestrated departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world. The touching farewell from his co-workers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as Pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, moved the world. I experienced that moment with the heads of many of the television networks of the world. There were no dry eyes in Rome that evening.
Then began the ‘Sede Vacante.’ We were off to the races! I cannot tell you enough what a great pleasure it was to work closely with Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ throughout the entire transition. He is a good and honest man skilled in communicating. We owe him an immense debt of gratitude. Sitting at his side, spending hours with him on daily scavenger hunts for Vatican information, admiring his patience with journalists taught me many lessons about patience, charity and the necessity of humor through it all!
The Vatican strategy of spreading the multi-lingual banquet table of information during the papal transition bore much fruit this past Lent. As Cardinals gathered in Rome and met in secret sessions (at least we thought they were secret!) to assess the state of the Church and trace a profile of the next pope, many of you saw Fr. Lombardi, Msgr. Gil Tamayo and me answering hundreds of questions on a daily basis from the media around the world. Those daily televised press conferences and briefings topped some of the Italian soap operas for viewership.
Questions coming to us at press conferences and briefings revealed an immense interest (some would say obsession) in things Church! From the Italian fascination with the retired Pope’s abandonment of the red shoes; to the Mexicans’ delight with the emeritus Pope’s predilection for brown loafers from Leon, Mexico; to the Germans’ intense preoccupation with environmental dangers of black and white smoke pollution over the city of Rome; to the French “souci” with just about everything, and again to the Italian preoccupations with the sealing of Papal apartments and the smashing of Papal seals… we had our hands full. The world was watching and listening. I chuckled several times thinking that the Church had made such great strides these past years in the area of social communications. But for such a major event and happening as a conclave, we still relied on smoke signals.
I was asked to handle the media requests in English (and later French) and thus worked 18-hour days with television, print and radio media from every corner of the globe. My young colleague, Sebastian Gomes guided me through the maze of media requests and kept me steady through it all. I lost count after doing 165 television and radio interviews with every possible network you can imagine… first in English, then French, Spanish, Italian, and German.
When the College of Cardinals finally entered into the conclave on Tuesday, March 12, the excitement and expectation were palpable. As much as Italy tried to dominate the whole process, and delight in the so-called Vatileaks that continued to flow during the pre-conclave meetings, they got it all wrong… as did many others throughout the world who stared in utter amazement at the man who appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s basilica the night of March 13.
With the “Habemus Papam” came the name of a stranger, and outsider, who instantly won over the crowd in the Piazza and the entire world with the words, “Fratelli e Sorelle, buona sera!” (Brothers and sisters, good evening!) Who would believe a pontificate beginning with those simple, common words? Never in my wildest imaginings did I expect a Pope to be called Francis! Nor could I comprehend the scene of well over one hundred thousand cheering people suddenly becoming still and silent as Papa Franceso bowed and asked them to pray for him and pray over him. It was the most moving moment I have ever experienced at a Vatican celebration. His words “Pray for me…” still resound in my ears.
From the very first moments, Pope Francis stressed his role with the ancient title of “bishop of Rome” who presides in charity, echoing the famous statement of Ignatius of Antioch. Francis has brought to the papacy a knack for significant gestures that immediately convey very powerful messages.
Francis the “defibrillator”
A French journalist recently referred to Francis as a “defibrillator” pope. We need defibrillators when we have serious heart problems. Defibrillation is a common treatment for life-threatening heart rythms, blocked arteries, and problems with pulses. Defibrillation consists of delivering a therapeutic dose of electrical energy to the affected heart. This depolarizes a critical mass of the heart muscle, terminates the dysrhythmia, and allows rhythm to be reestablished by the body’s natural pacemaker. Francesco is a badly needed ecclesial defibrillator for our times!
Let’s look at a few of Francis’ electroshocks over the past three months: He started changing the tune of the papacy from day one, when he returned to the Casa Paolo VI to pack his bags and pay his bills! He has made it pretty clear to us that he is not fascinated with a certain form of unhealthy traditionalism and pomp which seemed to be on the rise.
He jolted some liturgists and canonists on Holy Thursday night when, in a Roman prison, he washed the feet of outcasts, including two women and two Muslims in a gesture of profound service.
He has established a new form of magisterium at Domus Sanctae Marthae, by celebrating mass with various groups of Vatican employees each morning and giving a homily which has become a staple in spiritual nourishment for millions around the world – Chrstian and non-Christian. The colorful, provocative and off-the-cuff homilies he delivers have become one of the distinctive features of his pontificate. Perhaps some curial types are wringing hands and quietly singing a new version of one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s masterpieces: “How do we solve a problem like Francesco? How do we hold a moonbeam in our hands?”
He has railed against the scandal of poverty and stressed the importance of personal involvement with the poor. Money must “serve” man, not “rule” over him. The pope’s condemnation of runaway capitalism and an exclusive focus on profit are ideologically in line with Pope Benedict, but the energy and frequency with which Francis strikes these chords are definitely new.
He has decried the "self-referential" mentality of Catholics. He has challenged the mentality of ecclesial framework managers and been critical of a Church that loses its dynamic spiritual principles.
He has challenged priests and bishops in the exercise of their ministry and their stewardship of material goods. This morning, in a long, heartfelt address to a rare meeting of the Nuncios of the world gathered in Rome, Francis told them that pastors “must know how to be ahead of the herd to point the way, in the midst of the flock to keep it united, behind the flock to prevent someone being left behind, so that the same flock… has the sense of smell to find its way.”
Christianity, for Francis, is not a “salon Christianity” where we sit around at high tea and discuss religious or theological things that do not have a direct impact on our lives.
He has cried out against hypocrisy, clericalism, duplicity, narcissism, consumerism and hedonism in all their ugly forms.
To representatives of communities and movements gathered in Rome on Pentecost weekend, Francis asked them if they were open to surprises of God? Are we brave enough to go through the new paths that the novelty of God offers us, or do we defend ourselves, trapped in obsolete structures that have lost the purpose?
Pope Francis’ daily mantra can be summed up in one expression: “Go out to the peripheries.” He calls us out of our cocoons to go to "the existential peripheries." Think outisde the box. Go to uncharted places on the fringes. You will be surprised who you find there! For the Pope, the Church is Missionary or she will die. Do we really want to go to these "existential peripheries"? How many times do we feel assaulted and challenged by them?
Personally, I needed to experience these “Franciscan” electroshocks. I think the Church needed to experience them. They are never pleasant, but they often reverse death-dealing powers, unblock arteries of life, give us back our pulse, depolarize our atrophied muscles and help us to live again and love again. They invite us into a deep conversion of mind and heart.
Benedict and Francis
My favorite biography of St. Francis of Assisi is that of the great British writer, G.K. Chesterton. I have read that work many times throughout my life, and one passage has taken on new meaning for me over the past months. Listen to Chesterton’s words:
“St. Francis must be imagined as moving swiftly through the world with a
sort of impetuous politeness; almost like the movement of a man who
stumbles on one knee half in haste and half in obeisance. The eager
face under the brown hood was that of a man always going somewhere, as
if he followed as well as watched the flight of the birds. And this
sense of motion is indeed the meaning of the whole revolution that he
made; for the work that has now to be described was of the nature of an
earthquake or a volcano, an explosion that drove outwards with dynamic
energy the forces stored up by ten centuries in the monastic fortress or
arsenal and scattered all its riches recklessly to the ends of the
In a better sense than the antithesis commonly conveys, it is
true to say that what St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered; but
in the world of spiritual things what had been stored into the barns
like grain was scattered over the world as seed. The servants of God
who had been a besieged garrison became a marching army; the ways of the
world were filled as with thunder with the trampling of their feet and
far ahead of that ever swelling host went a man singing; as simply he
had sung that morning in the winter woods, where he walked alone.”
“What Benedict had stored, Francis scattered…” Yesterday Pope Francis marked his first 100 days in office next week, but what is that in light of an institution that thinks in centuries? These days offer us a time to look back, to give thanks, and to look forward. Many of us in both religious and secular media have been a bit too quick to interpret Francis’ gestures as a sign of discontinuity with the work of his predecessor. What we forget is that more than any of the choices made by Francis, it was Benedict XVI’s resignation that represented the greatest change of the papal office. Benedict’s decision does not in any way undermine the papacy. It really does make little difference what vestments the Pope choses to wear or not to wear, or whether he wears a fanon at a canonization mass or prefers fancy thrones or heavy golden crosses.
There is no question that all of these external things place proper emphasis on the sacredness, uniqueness and universality of the papal ministry. Benedict, the great teacher also taught us something else: that the Petrine ministry is not about externals, power, prestige and privilege. Pope Benedict brilliantly emphasized the need for intense theological life, constant prayer and quiet contemplation which would naturally give way to good moral living, a commitment to others, and a life of charity and justice. With Francis, it seems that the perspective is the other way around – it is concrete, charitable actions and visible human affection that redefine the theological life, giving it depth and breath. And such actions attract others to Christ and the Church and serve as privileged instruments of evangelization.
What Benedict stored, Francis scatters…
Francis has not yet promulgated any encyclicals or “moto proprios.” But his striking symbolism is becoming substance. Francesco seeks a simpler church, more closely identified with the poor. He is undoubtedly aware of the scandals, the corruption, the hypocrisy, the challenges, the leaks and the lobbies, and the things that need to be fixed inside the Vatican. But many around the world, inside and outside the Church, from the left, right and centre of the Church are witnessing something new happening. Smallness of mind and meanness of spirit are slowly transformed into wideness of thought and generosity of spirit. We have heard that many people are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation because of what is happening in Rome. Could this not be a gift of the Spirit and a sign that the New Evangelization has begun in some unexpected places?
What Benedict stored, Francis scatters… “In the world of spiritual things what had been stored into the barns like grain was scattered over the world as seed… .” Let us never forget the deep continuity between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome. It is manifested in their outlook on faith and their awareness that it is the Lord who leads the Church, not the Pope. Francis teaches the doctrine identical to that of his predecessors. He reminds us of the words of his predecessor Blessed John over 50 years ago at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council: "The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another." With Francis, it’s the same Petrine brand but the packaging has changed!
And now, in the frequent words of the reigning Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of The Apostles; Patriarch of The West; Servant of the Servants of God; Primate of Italy; Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province; and Sovereign of Vatican City State and Bishop of Rome:
Have a good day and a good lunch!