Wednesday was an emotionally exhausting, spiritually uplifting day for Pope Francis in Brazil. You could see it in his eyes.
We’ve seen him embrace people who have been made to feel as if they are outcasts, people who are sick — they line up to reach out to him at his every audience and public appearance in Rome. We’ve read his admonishments to the Roman curia — and to all of us – in his morning homilies at the Domus Sanctae Marthae at the Vatican, as he reintrouces virtue and all-encompassing sanctifying grace to a culture that is losing its understanding of real religion and what the Gospel requires of Christians.
But on Wednesday morning in Brazil, we got a beautiful look at a man in prayer. He went to the Shrine of our Lady of Aparecida, and, for a moment, all he wanted to do is pray. A peace overtook him — and that’s saying something for a man who typically seems quite at ease and receptive. Before he headed to Brazil, one of the last things he did was spend some quality time with the pope emeritus. Watching the scene, as clergy, dignitaries, the faithful, the curious, and reporters inside the shrine all wanted their moment with the pontiff, I imagined that Pope Benedict might be praying especially hard that his brother get the veneration time he needs.
As Andrea Tornielli explained:
The shrine is one rich in meaning and memories for Francis. It is significant that Francis wanted to add this trip to the shrine to his World Youth Day schedule. Today he will be here to venerate a little 40 centimetre -tall black statue of the Virgin Mary which was found in three pieces by three fishermen, in October 1717 in the Paraiba river. According to tradition the statue is black because it wants to be close to the oppressed and the fact it was found in pieces symbolises the broken lives of slaves.
The meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007 was the first general assembly to be held in a Marian shrine and the fact bishops had constant contact with faithful there – millions of them every year -, influenced their work, as it helped them to understand the importance of devotion and popular piety. “Celebrating the Eucharist with the people is different to celebrating it separately amongst us bishops. That gave us a live sense of belonging to our people, of the Church that goes forward as People of God, of us bishops as its servants.”
It was the first time one of the bishops’ General Conferences “didn’t start out from a pre-prepared basic text but from open dialogue” “to receive everything that came from below,” the future Pope explained. During that time, Latin America’s bishops got to know Bergoglio’s working style. His ability to listen and take all bishops had to say into account. Some of these bishops voted for him in the Conclave last March. It could be said that the election of the Pope “from the other side of the world” actually started at Aparecida.
The Aparecida document contains the key words and the messages which Francis now communicates to the entire Church, starting with his call to people to be missionaries: “To remain faithful we need to go outside. Remaining faithful one goes out. This is the message Aparecida essentially aims to get across,” Bergoglio said. In the Gospel, the most beautiful encounters between God and humanity take place on the street. Centuries of Christian history tell us this,” the late Franciscan archbishop and cardinal Aloísio Lorscheider used to say.
His day was a walk through tradition and engagement. Expect more of the same today as he visits Rio slums and at last greets the estimated 2 million young people gathered from throughout the Americas, and the world. (Listen to Dominican bishop Anthony Fisher from Australia talk about a sloth that held up a train and at least one recorded spider bite.)
Just the other day, Vatican press spokesman Father Lombardi was observing how energetic Pope Francis is, and in Rio on Tuesday he was a portrait in the deepest endurance.
A theme of this trip, as of his papacy, as of his life, is the great gift God gave us in the spiritual motherhood of Mary. Earlier in the day, EWTN, the international Catholic Channel started by a media trailblazer, Mother Angelica, aired an old interview with former cardinal archbishop of Argentina. Asked about his devotion to Mary, he explained directly that she is simply his mom. As he explained the moment he began his homiliy at Mass there, the morning after being elected pope, he went to St. Mary Major in Rome, which he did again before he went off to Rio. Like so many pilgrims before him, he left flowers at a painting of Mary, known as Salus Populi Romani, long believed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. On the night he was elected pope, Francis said, “I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome.” And so he has. And we see, as he returns there, and to the Blessed Mother, the bishop of Rome is not just the bishop of Rome; he is shepherding all who seek hope home to the rock upon which Christ built his Church.
At Aparecida he began his homily Wednesday: “What joy I feel as I come to the house of the Mother of every Brazilian, the Shrine of our Lady of Aparecida! The day after my election as Bishop of Rome, I visited the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, in order to entrust my ministry to Our Lady. Today I have come here to ask Mary our Mother for the success of World Youth Day and to place at her feet the life of the people of Latin America.”
About Mary, he explained: “When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks: ‘Show us Jesus.’ It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship. That is why the Church always goes out on mission in the footsteps of Mary.”
This is not, as it is often misunderstood to be (particularly on Twitter and in comments sections), divinizing Mary. She is all about Jesus. That was her fiat, her willing surrender to the will of God for her life. She “who loved and raised Jesus,” watched him be rejected and die on a cross. She’s seen it all, and she’s seen our hope. She’s not a bad intercessor to have.
As he tends to, he offered three concrete, practical points; Wednesday it was about “hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy.”
About hope, he said:
It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols. Dear brothers and sisters, let us be lights of hope! Let us maintain a positive outlook on reality. Let us encourage the generosity which is typical of the young and help them to work actively in building a better world. Young people are a powerful engine for the Church and for society. They do not need material things alone; also and above all, they need to have held up to them those non-material values which are the spiritual heart of a people, the memory of a people. In this Shrine, which is part of the memory of Brazil, we can almost read those values: spirituality, generosity, solidarity, perseverance, fraternity, joy; they are values whose deepest root is in the Christian faith.
About openness to God and His plans, he said:
Whoever would have thought that the site of a fruitless fishing expedition would become the place where all Brazilians can feel that they are children of one Mother? God always surprises us, like the new wine in the Gospel we have just heard. God always saves the best for us. But he asks us to let ourselves be surprised by his love, to accept his surprises. Let us trust God! Cut off from him, the wine of joy, the wine of hope, runs out. If we draw near to him, if we stay with him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with him.
And, on the third point he issued, not for the first time, what might be a bit of an indictment of many of us: “If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will ‘light up’ with a joy that spreads to everyone around us.” (Truly.)
“Dear friends,” Pope Francis concluded, “we have come to knock at the door of Mary’s house. She has opened it for us, she has let us in and she shows us her Son. Now she asks us to ‘do whatever he tells you’ (Jn 2:5). Yes, Mother, we are committed to doing whatever Jesus tells us! And we will do it with hope, trusting in God’s surprises and full of joy.”
He had a series of private meetings — including very “Latin American” time with nuns in Aparecida — but his next public event was a remarkably stirring one at a hospital, St. Francis, where people suffering from drug addiction are treated, which Pope Francis, with a heavy heart described as a shrine of human suffering. Men told powerful stories in front of this man now named Francis about bad choices, ruined lives, help and healing, made possible through an encounter with Christ’s love and mercy. And, again in his face, and in his voice, you saw and heard the grieving of a Holy Father, a union with God, as He grieves for human suffering, desiring that we rest in His mercy and be strengthened by His holy grace. It was a demonstration of what he described on the island of Lampedusa earlier this month, an Italian island off Tunisia where Arab Spring refugees have sought refuge, scolding a culture of indifference, praying that we might, yes, serve, but also to weep and suffer with those who cry out in desperation.
Francis gave thanks for the work of those in the hospital and blasted a “selfishness” that drives drug trafficking:
To embrace – we all have to learn to embrace the one in need, as Saint Francis did. There are so many situations in Brazil, and throughout the world, that require attention, care and love, like the fight against chemical dependency. Often, instead, it is selfishness that prevails in our society. How many “dealers of death” there are that follow the logic of power and money at any cost! The scourge of drug-trafficking, that favours violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage. A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America. Rather, it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future. We all need to look upon one another with the loving eyes of Christ, and to learn to embrace those in need, in order to show our closeness, affection and love.
Before the official program began there, he was seen giving a thumbs up to the crowd. And the words to come would be of encouragement:
“We must hold the hand of the one in need, of the one who has fallen into the darkness of dependency perhaps without even knowing how, and we must say to him or her: ‘You can get up, you can stand up. It is difficult, but it is possible if you want to.’
The World Youth Day (really a week) theme for the day, which bishops from around the world addressed in catechetical talks and Masses with pilgrims from their countries and languages, was hope. Francis saw the hospital and its witnesses as beacons of just this. “Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope!” he said, repeating a line from his morning in Aparecida. Adding: “And not only that, but I say to us all: Let us not rob others of hope, let us become bearers of hope!”
This means so much to so many gathered, not because he is a rock star who has surprised the world and opened doors to traditions and truths secularism had written off as irrelevant (though he has), but because they are there in the presence of the first American pope, the successor of Peter. He is a living, walking, window-rolled down, baby-kissing reminder of God’s nearness to us. That’s why they pray with him. That’s why they cheer for him. That’s why they ask for his blessing as they seek to grow in their faith and be missionaries to our increasingly secularized continent (and hearts). It’s all really about renewal in Him.