Vatican City — It’s raining again here. For a few days there it seemed like the sun was going to be a permanent feature of the new Franciscus era.
A silly thing to say, for sure, but you’ll understand if you’ve been watching. Sunday morning, before 8 a.m. Masses were over, people were already gathering in St. Peter’s Square to hear the new pope’s brief noon Angelus remarks and to pray with him as he stood at a window from the papal apartments. Around the same time, people gathered in the street by Saint Anne’s Gate off the Via Porta Angelica in the hopes they might catch a glimpse of the man in white as he entered and exited the church right there on the street, where he was celebrating Sunday Mass.
They would, in fact, see him in purple Lenten vestments, greeting congregants as any pastor would, after Mass. Some would shake his hand, as well, he probably testing a Swiss Guard’s patience.
During the homily at the St. Anne’s Mass, he talked about mercy. “It is not easy to trust oneself to the mercy of God, because it is an unfathomable abyss — but we must do it!” Pope Francis said. About God’s divine mercy, he said: God “forgets [our sins], He kisses you, He embraces you, and He says to you, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now, on, sin no more.’ Only that counsel does He give you.”
“We ask for the grace of never tiring of asking pardon, for He never tires of pardoning,” he implored.
Mercy, that was his message Sunday to the people of Rome and the people of God. From my position in St. Peter’s Square, it looked like the whole world was watching. Certainly, the whole world needs to know of the existence of a mercy that knows no limits. I don’t think you have to believe in the Catholic concept of Divine Mercy to know that.
Because of its guilt, often unconscious, but there nonetheless. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, by orders of magnitude. Add the new slaughter of the innocents in abortion to the slaughters of the World Wars, the death camps, the Gulag, and all the rest of the politically induced horrors, and you have a world awash in guilt over the cruelty and inhumanity it has visited upon itself. To whom can the sin that produced that guilt be confessed? By whom can it be expiated? By what authority can it be forgiven? The answers to those three questions cannot be Dr. Freud, Amnesty International, or the United Nations. The answer, I believe and the Church proclaims, is the God of the Bible, who comes into the world and into history — first in the people of Israel, and then in his Son — to offer humanity the embrace of the divine love, which alone can heal the brokenness of our lives, our societies, and our cultures.
This was a remarkable weekend in Rome. First there was the warm embrace of the world’s media by the Holy Father on Saturday morning, complete with a gesture of respect to those who are not believers. Then there were the over 300,000 people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square. It was another enthusiastic, warm welcome. Around 11, I ran down from the Janiculum Hill — Cardinal Dolan was sounding a little homesick, as he prayed for New Yorkers on St. Patrick’s Day with American seminarians at the North American Pontifical College, where he used to be rector — only to find the Via Della Conciliazione already packed, with streams of people rolling across the Tiber to hear Francis at noon.
At midday, Francis spoke of this most generous mercy of God.
“Let us not forget this word: God never tires of forgiving us,” he said, “but we sometimes tire of asking Him to forgive us.” And even after his prayer and blessing, he said: “Let us never tire of asking God’s forgiveness.”
I loved the story of an elderly woman who told Francis, “The Lord forgives everything.” When he asked her how she knows this, the woman replied that if God had not forgiven us, the world would not exist — wisdom the pope said is of the Holy Spirit.
Francis’s appearance was another remarkable demonstration that the world has not been hearing the message of the Catholic Church. For this, you can blame the unfaithfulness and injustice and the ways of the world to which many Catholics have succumbed. This new papacy appears to continue a reboot that Pope Benedict set in motion. One of catechetical renewal and a new personal warmth. The pope in Rome does need a “rock-star” personality — he only needs to hear and be heard. Pope Francis is off to a good start.
The rain is back today, as if a reminder that the work to be done is great and arduous. There are cold winds here and the world over. The Church offers a road to peace and joy, and its mandate is to share it.