Sunday, September 20, 2015

Getting Ready to See Pope Francis on the Feast of Saint Matthew

Here are some reflections offered on the Feast of Saint Matthew, as we prepare to see Pope Francis this week.

The Lord must really love us, to send us this Feast of Saint Matthew on the day before we leave to see Pope Francis, who like Saint Paul this morning, calls each of us to live a life worthy of our calling from God.

Paul, writing to the Ephesians counsels that in order to live a worthy life you need only three things: humility, gentleness, and patience.  Why?  Because the worthy life is lived in bearing with one another in love, so as to preserve the unity of the Holy Spirit.

Bearing with one another.  When that other guy so riles me that I want to smack him.  When I am so aggravated by my superior that I could scream.  When I have been so ill-judged, mistreated and abused by them that I am tempted to walk away and apply to be a greeter at Walmart.

And Francis understands that because Father Jorge Bergolio came to understand it first hand when, after completing six years as provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, Father Bergoglio was named Rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel, here he would become, in the words of the biographer Austen Ivereigh, “The Great Reformer.”

You see, in the 1980’s, all Jesuits worldwide, embraced the cause of the poor, the marginalized and the forgotten in an exemplary way.  Latin American Jesuits, many of whom were academics, largely believed these problems could be addressed by remedying the inequalities in political and economic systems.

Fr. Bergoglio begged to differ, suggesting that the problem was not out there, but in here.  His forum of action was the human heart, and specifically the hearts of his seminarians.  So, as Rector, he petitioned the Bishop to erect a new Church for the poor on the grounds of his Jesuit College.  It was called Saint Joseph the Patriarch, and it opened in little more than a shed on a dirt road which wound its way through three barrios of shacks.  Fr Bergoglio and his seminarians grew the parish into a bustling pastoral operation with a children’s kitchen, two schools and jobs skills workshops. Ivereigh writes of those days:

“One day Bergoglio appeared with four cows, four pigs, and six sheep. He had many more mouths to feed at a time of rising prices and squeezed donors, and had twenty-five empty fertile acres around the college. Trees were pulled up behind the college to make way for sheds and barns. The land was fenced off and dug for vegetables, and shelters were built to house livestock: eventually there were 120 pigs, 50 sheep, 180 rabbits, 20 cows, and a number of beehives.”

“‘Only by sharing the lives of the poor,’” he said, could they discover ‘the true possibilities of justice in the world’ as opposed to ‘an abstract justice which fails to give life.”  In addition to six hours of classes a day and studies, the students had manual tasks most weekdays. Inside were the kitchen, the laundry, and the endless corridors and bathrooms that needed cleaning. Outside, they took on tasks under the supervision of the Jesuit brothers who ran the farm day-to-day. Seminarians collected honey, milked cows, and cleaned out the pigsty, where they often met the rector in his plastic boots. “It was a mucky job and many objected,” recalls Guillermo Ortiz…“But they couldn’t complain against Bergoglio because he would put his boots on like the rest of us to get down in with the hogs.”

This radical association with the poor, however, upset many of his brother Jesuits, however, particularly when he began encouraging the novices to participate in the devotional practices of the poor.  This was seen as ‘taking us back to pre-Vatican II practices.’   Thus he was labeled as a conservative by some and a hyper-liberal by others, attracting critics from both sides.

It got so bad, that his enemies got him dismissed as Rector and exiled to Germany to get a Doctorate at the age of 50. So angry were his enemies that they would have tried any tactic to get him as far away from Argentina as possible.  Which is why Ivereigh writes that “The Argentine Jesuits today wryly joke that Bergoglio becoming pope was the obvious solution they never thought of at the time.”

And then they set about undoing all that he accomplished, as one contemporary writes: “Little by little the apostolate was abandoned, and in just a few years the churches were reduced to the bare minimum, among other things because there was a policy of “cleansing” the bergogliano Jesuits. And once there were no more of them, they sacked the lay people who remained faithful to Bergoglio’s project—that was the most painful and scandalous thing of all.”

In fact, Father Bergoglio himself was so hated that once he became a Bishop, he was asked to never reside in a Jesuit house again.

So how did he respond?  Remarkably, no one has ever been able to dig up one single word of bitterness nor resentment.  Rather, he accepted the will of his legitimate superiors as an expression of the will of God, received with obedience, humility and patient endurance. 

And he even tried to understand what he might have done wrong, later saying:  “Perhaps I did not always do the necessary consultation in those days.  Perhaps my authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems.”

And where did Father Bergoglio get the humility, obedience and patient endurance to face such adversity?  From the words we heard today from Saint Paul to the Ephesians, where he sets one goal for all the orders and ministries in the Church: to build up the Body of Christ, “until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ.”

So, when you see that old Bishop in white, walking slowly down the aisle in a couple days, don’t look at him as a remote ecclesiastic from some far off and mysterious place.  See a man like you and like me, who has known hardships and temptations, pains and sorrows, but who has striven only to live a life worthy of his calling, with humility, obedience and patient endurance for our good and the good of all his holy Church.