Holy Week is not so much a time of sorrow, but rather a time to enter into Christ’s way of thinking and acting. It is a time of grace given us by the Lord so that we can move beyond a dull or mechanical way of living our faith, and instead open the doors of our hearts, our lives, our parishes, our movements or associations, going out in search of others so as to bring them the light and the joy of our faith in Christ.
I needed those words, from Pope Francis’s first Wednesday audience in Rome, after hearing the strepitus Wednesday night at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Insofar as a sound can be simultaneously unbearably beautiful and horrific, the strepitus, described as a symbol of “the convulsion of nature at the Crucifixion,” achieves it. It came near the end of a long evening Tenebrae prayer service during which “Christ is seen as the one who weeps over Jerusalem (The Lamentation of Jeremiah); the hoped-for fulfillment of the psalmist (St. Augustine); the true sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51, 17); and the true and eternal High Priest (Letter to the Hebrews).” Much like the Easter Vigil Mass, it is a great connector, a walk through salvation history.
Bitterly she weeps at night, tears upon her cheeks, with not one to console her of all her dear ones; her friends have all betrayed her and become her enemies.
. . .
God listen to my prayer, do not hide from my pleading, attend to me and reply; with my cares I cannot rest.
. . .
In this your bitter Passion, Good Shepherd think of me. With your most sweet compassion, unworthy though I be.
The noise — made with a clapper-like contraption including wood and a book — captured just the right high-pitch and low-decibel mix. You know it when you hear it. It is a wondrously harrowing sound. It is the kind of sound that should not leave you the same. It is the kind of sound that transforms a room, clearing heads and opening hearts. Not a breath could be heard after 9:00 Wednesday night at the cathedral, in a busy part of the nation’s capital, a block from the infamous Mayflower and just blocks from the White House. It’s just the sound, that if heard everyday at 3 p.m. would bring us all to our knees praying the prayer of Divine Mercy: For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
It’s a silence like I haven’t heard since the night of the “Habemus papam” in St. Peter’s Square. A friend in the temporary ABC studio above the Square later told me that their technicians thought they had lost the sound feed. A priest friend who was on the ground somewhere in the thousands with me described it as not mere absence of noise, but evidence of the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit.
Friends of mine — lay people, some of them with the Catholic Voices project I’m involved with — shared the experience of talking about the Holy Spirit on international secular television during those days. Over 5,000 journalists descended upon Rome. For days, the post-resignation story became a horserace, as if the papal conclave were the New Hampshire primary. Straw polling was conducted at restaurants around town — the only real function it served was to remind people that there are, in fact, an array of holy, talented, apostolic men in the hierarchy of the Church. Right down the block from St. Peter’s, young people packed in at Eucharistic Adoration did the real work: praying. Even the frequently animated cardinal of New York was subdued when he walked into the conclave, perhaps a window into the interior life he seeks to draw the world into through his media accessibility; he prayed with his brothers at the tomb of St. Peter that they might all be guided by wisdom much wiser than theirs. The story could not be explained in mere political terms. It had a spiritual element, and it was real. It was noticed.
Too often, particularly when we cover politics, our cynicism, our practicality, and our desire for concise, yes-or-no sound-bite answers keep us from acknowledging the depth and the reality of the supernatural in our daily lives. I often replay in my head a Meet the Press segment that captured our secularist mindset perfectly: The host (on a Sunday morning, of course) insisted that religion is meant to be but a “safe harbor” in times of trial. Actually, it calls us to new life; to lives fully ordered to the eternal and capable of seeing beyond what the world — and our schedules — seem to value most.
Our stubbornness, our pride, and our temptation to succumb to the frenzy instead of confronting it lead us to misunderstandings of all sorts. In our politics, we hear Catholic bishops talking about religious freedom and suing the Department of Health and Human Services, and we assume that they must be agents of the Republican party. A bishop talks about abortion and he is declared a “conservative.” This leaves the world wondering: Where does the Church fit into this worldview when the political moment passes and the argument doesn’t seem to win the day?
Benedict XVI, in his final months as pope, marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and insisted that we must be who we say we are as Christians, by encountering Christ in prayer daily — and not simply by praying a morning and evening prayer. The pope urged us to accept His challenges, and to plead with Him to bring us deeper into the mystery of the Trinity and redemption so that we might better share His love with all those we encounter.
The answers run deeper. They take more than a sound bite. They require a renewal and reintroduction.
Enter Pope Francis. My friend Peggy Noonan captured it well. She can’t keep her eyes off of him. She’s not alone. Boys living in the darkness of a Los Angeles detention center see the light too. He is a man who lives simply and humbly, leading with an authenticity, calling others to the same. Yes, the paying of the hotel bill, the cancelling of the newspaper delivery, where he is living — these things all capture our attention. But read his words. Do not speak ill of others, he says. Never tire of asking God for his forgiveness, he says. Step outside ourselves and love with the love of Christ, he says. There are challenges here that go beyond material poverty.
“John Paul and Benedict were bringers, givers, teachers,” is how Peggy put it. “But Francis seems like a summoner, an inviter. And this seems just right for the world right now.”
The cover image of Fr. Robert Barron’s great evangelical resource, Catholicism, is an open church door. He himself is an invitation to Christ. That’s what shepherds are. That’s who they must be. Our true happiness depends on it.
During the Chrism Mass in Rome on Thursday, Pope Francis said to the priests of Christ:
It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep,” where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction” — not function — and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.
And to the “lay faithful,” he said: “Be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to God’s heart.” As he indicated so clearly when he stepped out on that balcony and asked for the people gathered to not only pray with him but for him, the Church is more than a pope, more than the cardinal electors, more than those who wear collars or habits. The Church is the living Body of Christ, made up of all its members, all in need of the unifying order of the Savior’s merciful redemption.
We talk about the humility of Pope Francis. We talked about the humility of Benedict in resigning. In a Lenten homily, St. Francis de Sales said that
We must indeed keep ourselves humble because of our imperfections, but this humility must be the foundation of a great generosity, for the one without the other degenerates into imperfection. Humility without generosity is only a deception and a cowardice of heart which makes us think that we are good for nothing and that others should never think of using us in anything great.
Pope Benedict’s resignation has set into motion an extraordinary opportunity. Venerating the Cross of Christ as we do on Good Friday, celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord as Christians do on Easter Sunday, the prayers of the faithful must be that we live Gospel truth and share it. So that the world knows who the Catholics are, not because of scandal, but because of radical love. The way we live our lives must be like that strepitus, a both consoling and revolting alarm that brings about a reflective silence that gives birth to yet more love in the face of evil and mediocrity, pride and prejudice, a cultural contentment with the confusion of relativism. So that we, too, might be shepherds, bringing a world looking for answers, in need of healing, to the Good Shepherd.
That’s what Pope Francis talked about during his first Wednesday audience: going out and finding lost sheep. That’s the divine mercy he reminds us of. Pope Benedict wrote of Jesus, and Pope Francis is going to keep the world from looking away already.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.