Sunday, 1 September 2013

Jesus goes where love has not yet arrived

“I had been in trouble at school so when I reached home, I asked my father to listen and to understand what had happened. When I finished my story, he beat me with a pipe.” The boy, an inmate of a Juvenile Detention Centre in California, was about to make his First Holy Communion. Chatting to the priest before Mass started, he then described his mother, his eyes filling with tears. “My Mom takes seven buses every Sunday when she comes to visit me. She does that for me!”

On a different occasion, the same priest tried hard to encourage another young offender to reveal his real name rather than his several tough guy nicknames. Eventually the youngster said that he had been baptised NapolĂ©on. “But what does your mother call you?” the priest asked. “When she isn’t mad at me, she calls me Napito”, the boy whispered so that nobody else would hear.

A third youth was chased by members of a rival gang when he saw his girlfriend safely home and thereby trespassed into ‘their’ area. A complete stranger rescued him, probably saving his life, because, as she told him, she had seen some of the good things he did that nobody else knew about – and, as proof, listed them. Until that moment, the boy had never had someone recognise any goodness in him. It was a life-changing experience:  he found a job, married, has three children and is an exemplary husband and father.

At a recent General Audience, a young man with Down’s Syndrome asked Pope Francis to give him a ride on the Popemobile. Immediately, the Pope helped him into the vehicle and spun the 17 year-old Alberto di Tullio around on the swivel seat. The boy's father, Celestino had tears in his eyes when Francis approached his son: "The pope saw him, embraced him. Then Alberto pointed to the car, and so he brought him up!"

‘Jesus goes where love has not yet arrived.’ At this present time, several new bishops are needed in Scotland, England and Wales. New priests are on the point of being ordained or are enjoying their first few days of priesthood. The laity are rarely consulted on the type of bishop and priest they need: the decision is made by others and everybody else lives with the result, whether good or bad.

Pope Francis has described the sort of man who is needed as a priest and as a bishop. He should be someone who “smells like a sheep” because of his immersion in the people he is called to serve. Referring to the Gospel passage of the shepherd who has 99 sheep which are safe and sound and who goes out in search of the one which was lost, the Holy Father pointed out that, today, because the minority are church-going, practising Catholics, the situation is reversed. “We have one [sheep]: it's the 99 who we're missing! We have to go out, we must go to them! In this culture – let's face it – we only have one. We are the minority... And do we feel the fervour, the apostolic zeal to go out and find the other 99? It is tempting to stay home, with the one lamb. It's easier to comb its hair, caress it. But the Lord wants pastors, not combers of sheep; pastors!"

Priesthood is more than standing behind the altar and pronouncing the words of consecration. It is more than standing in the pulpit and saying comforting words which uplift hearts for a few moments and are forgotten by the end of Mass. Priesthood is not about becoming a figurehead in the parish community: attractive at first glance but when made of plaster, easily broken and hollow within. If that is true for a priest, how much more should it be so for the bishop, someone who is pre-eminently meant to ‘get his hands dirty’ in the service of the Church?

Again, Pope Francis has described the type of bishop whom we all want to see. Those who appoint them must ensure that they are "Pastors who are close to the people, fathers and brothers; that they are gentle, patient, and merciful; that they love poverty, interior poverty as freedom for the Lord and exterior poverty as simplicity and austerity of life; that they don't have a 'principles' psychology. Be attentive that they aren't ambitious, that they don't seek the episcopate and that they are spouses of a Church without constantly seeking another. That they are capable of 'keeping an eye on' the flock that will be entrusted to them, that is, of caring for everything that keeps it united; of being 'vigilant' over it; of being attentive to dangers that threaten it; but above all that they are capable of 'keeping an eye over' the flock; of keeping watch; of tending hope, that there is sun and light in their hearts; of sustaining with love and patience the plans that God has for his people."

A good picture is better than a thousand words. A recent photograph of a newly-appointed archbishop showed him dressed up like a Christmas tree for his installation. His photo showed him wearing exquisitely embroidered vestments and mitre – and, in the next news item, Pope Francis greeted the world dressed in a white soutane.

Paraphrasing the Pope, perhaps all those responsible for selecting each candidate for the priesthood and each bishop-elect should consider certain questions. Is this man going to be the father who beat his misbehaving son with a pipe, or the mother who used seven buses to travel to visit him in a Juvenile Detention Centre? Is he going to resemble the quick-tempered mother who could also speak lovingly to her son, earning his love and respect in spite of her shortcomings? Will the future priest or bishop see goodness in those who approach them, even if that goodness is hidden from the outside world, offering safety, self-respect, hope and a new future to the discouraged, tormented and, perhaps, seriously flawed individual? Will the future priest or bishop wash the feet of prison inmates, embrace the differently-abled, bless Harley-Davidson cyclists and their motorbikes and miss out on a few celebrity functions because the real needs of real people are more urgent? Can he give a teenager with Down’s Syndrome the thrill of a lifetime and his father an unforgettably sacred moment of shared love? Will the future priest or bishop reach out to the poor and marginalised in the way we have come to expect of Francis?

St Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

‘Jesus goes where love has not yet arrived.’ Are our future priests and bishops prepared to do likewise? Are they shepherds who will seek out ‘the least, the last and the lost’, or will they stay at home combing the fleece of the one in the sheepfold?