Lazarus comes to town – Pope Francis: making faith concrete

Raymond Pelly

On Maundy Thursday I was struck by these words from a hymn (133, Common Praise). We strain to glimpse your mercy-seat, and find you kneeling at our feet.

In the action of having our feet washed or in washing the feet of another, we acted out concretely the love and very presence of Christ.

Christ, then, the love of God that is present, hands-on, human, concrete.

What is so striking about the Raising of Lazarus is the wealth of that kind of detail: an actual place, Bethany, two sisters, Martha and Mary, a group of mourners, weeping; Jesus deeply moved and also weeping, and a corpse, Lazarus, already dead and decomposing. At the same time, a powerful countervailing movement that is all about life: Jesus, confessed by Martha to be, ‘the resurrection and the life’; Jesus, commanding the stone to be removed from the tomb; praying to God for strength; calling to Lazarus to ‘come out’; and then, ‘unbind him and let him go’.

In this – graphically portrayed – we see both the power and sheer concreteness of the Gospel.

As I read it, I thought spontaneously of the new Pope, Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal of Buenos Aires. Already we know quite a bit about him: how he studied to be a chemistry technician before going to seminary; had a lung removed after a severe attack of pneumonia; as Cardinal, lived in a small two-room apartment, cooked his own meals; travelled on the Underground , supported a local football club; and now as Pope, has refused to live in the grand papal apartment; has washed the feet (on Maundy Thursday) of some young criminals in a Roman Jail; is interacting warmly and spontaneously with the crowds that throng around St.Peter’s.

More importantly, however, this man of obvious humanity and humility, has, by his words and actions, made one big announcement: that the prime task of the Church in future years will be to care and advocate for the poor and dispossessed of the earth.  To understand this, we have to recall that in 1968, in Medellin, Columbia, the whole Latin American Episcopate agreed on a document that expressed an ‘option for the poor’.  Not only was this an acceptance of the central thesis of the Liberation Theology of the time, it was also a clear policy directive to parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions on that continent, the place where 41% of all Catholics now live.

Pope Francis, I would say, is now set to make this same ‘option for the poor’ the keynote of the mission of the entire Catholic Church in coming years – and this in the light of the widely acknowledged yawning (and growing) gap between rich and poor worldwide.  Can our world live at peace with itself when injustice on this scale threatens to tear the social fabric of societies apart, and this in the name of a profit-driven economic theory?  ‘No’ says the new Pope and this in the name of God and a genuinely felt human compassion.  His power in world politics is of course limited; but by example, by speaking out, and by choosing to travel to the poorer parts of the world – as I’m sure he will – he will make the poor publically visible at a time when the media make them invisible because not newsworthy.

I don’t think the media have really caught up with this.  Rather, we’re hearing ‘will he/won’t he’ stories about reform of the Curia – which really means the de-centralization of the Church; about celibacy of the clergy, abuse scandals, gay marriage – largely the agendas of western liberal societies.  While all these issues are important – and the Pope has already addressed some of them (abuse, the Curia)- I am reminded of the saying of a Greek poet (Archilochus ,7th Cent BCE), ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. By this reckoning, Pope Francis is a hedgehog, and the one big thing he knows and has at heart is the plight of the poor and dispossessed of the earth.

More of what this means comes out if we reflect on the name he has chosen, Francis.  Interestingly, the historical St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the late 12th and early 13th Century, had his great conversion experience in a society that, like ours, was in rapid social change. It was experiencing the rise of cities in which people more and more saw themselves as individuals bent on economic and social success.  Economic rationality and the profit motive were being vigorously explored for the first time.  The downside of this, the losers or victims, were large numbers of poor, beggars, lepers and other sick people.  For them, there was little or no provision.

In the same way that Jesus was ‘deeply moved’ by the plight of Lazarus, Francis, the well-off son of a wealthy cloth merchant, was deeply moved by the crying needs of these same poor, the beggars and lepers of his own city and society. In February 1208 in the presence of the local Bishop and his father, Pietro di Bernadone, Francis publically divested himself of his fine clothes until he stood naked and from that day wore a habit made of sackcloth.  More importantly, he dedicated his life to the poor and, at the same time, to rebuilding the Church – as the place where Christ was explicitly named and celebrated – and to gathering disciples around him, disciples later to become the Franciscan Order.  He died in 1226.

To get the whole Franciscan ‘thing’, we must also pay attention to Francis’ wonderful vision of God and creation. Here’s part of The Canticle of the Sun:

Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light.  And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour and bears a likeness of You, Most High One…. Praised be to You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs … 

As St. Bonaventure, great theologian and second generation Franciscan, reflected on this in conjunction with the whole life of St. Francis – and not forgetting Francis, the mystic, the contemplative, the man of prayer – what emerges is a picture of God as the fullness and source of all goodness, truth, and beauty, a fullness that this Creator God pours out in unimaginable prodigality upon the whole creation: people, animals, wild and tame, rocks, air, fire, water, earth, life and death – each and all in their different ways partakers of the same goodness and fullness of God.  Thus, not only does the whole created order cohere – or better, co-inhere – this deep interconnectedness of all things creates an active or political solidarity.  Each must care for the other, nothing and no one must be left out. Why?  Not only because this goes against the grain of things, but also because it contravenes the very nature of God present in all things.

In appealing to St. Francis of Assisi as the inspiration of his Pontificate, the new Pope is perhaps doing two things: first, pointing – as in the story of the raising of Lazarus – to the real or concrete incarnation or embodiment of the living God in Jesus, the ‘resurrection  and the life’; but this as touching the realities of the embodied life of all people, especially the poor; and second, to the way the whole created world is shot through – to our joy and delight! -with the very goodness, power, and life of God.

We thus not only have an ‘option for the poor’, but also an ‘option for the creation and the care of creation’.  All this, surely, is to be welcomed not only by Christians but by people everywhere.  We’re talking about ‘good news’ that really is good news!  In Catholic belief and practice this is centered in the burning, living – actual, concrete – presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist: ‘Christ among us, the hope of glory’ (Colossians, 1:27).

In this way, we’re talking not about ideas of God or things that point to God, but the ‘here and now’ challenge of the nearness and concreteness of the living God.  Or, put another way, we could say that in Pope Francis, and in Christians or people like him, Lazarus Comes to Town! and boy, does he mean business.

  • Raymond Pelly is a Priest and Theologian who works out of the Anglican Cathedral of St. Paul in Molesworth Street in Wellington New Zealand
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