Francis Shows us Where We Have to Fix our Gaze

Avvenire (also published in ABC)
Julián Carrón

It’s common knowledge in the information age that news wears out; it cannot
keep our attention for more than a certain amount of time. The imposing gesture of
Benedict XVI’s renunciation already seems to have consumed most of that attention,
centered on the heart of the mystery of Christ and His Church. However, immediately
after we saw Ratzinger disappear with a smile, the media attention turned to Rome and
the Cardinal electors. It’s difficult to avoid the question of what the figure of Peter’s
successor hides, that generates an attention and an attraction that go beyond the normal
duration of media events.

During the almost two weeks of the vacant see, many hypotheses were explicitly
or implicitly offered about the nature of the phenomenon called Catholic Church. They
were days in which we relived the question that Jesus Himself addressed to His
Apostles: “Who do people say that I am?” And people tried to respond today, too,
almost urgently, as if it were a phenomenon that demanded an explanation. They
responded by applying the “normal” categories that each one has at his disposal. The
“political” categories that were applied to the conclave concealed an ultimate incapacity
to face a phenomenon that, today as yesterday, is disconcerting. The fact that these
categories have repeatedly been proven wrong (with John Paul II, Benedict XVI…) is
not enough to discourage people from applying them—what is necessary is an
exhaustive explanation of the phenomenon that we see. Or, more accurately, it is
necessary that this explanation happen.

Well, the Catholic Church happened before our eyes in the intense dialogue
between Pope Francis and the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. The people’s expectation
while the Cardinals were voting in the conclave revealed a confident community that, at
the same time, needed a shepherd, around whom springs up a unity that is always
surprising in a world like ours, accustomed as it is to division. The white smoke set off
a boundless joy that must have provoked the question, “How is it possible that they are
so happy, if they don’t even know who was chosen?” in more than one person. The
expectation grew as the curtains moved, revealing the desire to meet, to see, and to hear
the shepherd, just as, almost 2,000 years ago, Aquila and Priscilla, natives of Rome who
were converted by Paul in Corinth, wanted to meet Peter, friend of Jesus and first
Bishop of Rome.

The Pope’s first gesture arrived before his face: he had chosen the name Francis,
demonstrating from the very beginning where he wants to fix his gaze. Like the poor
man of Assisi, the Pontiff declares that he has no other wealth but Christ and that he
knows no modality of communicating this if not the simple witness of his life. And
when he appeared before the faithful, with the cameras of half the world focused on
him, the Pope showed, in action, what is the factor that lies at the origin of the Church:
he invited the crowd to gather in prayer to God the Father, through Jesus Christ. In that
moment, the Church happened before all of us. Like his predecessor, the impetuous
Peter, Francis confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As He did
with the first Bishop of Rome, Christ also entrusts to this man, in front of his flock, the
keys of the Church.

The faith that is apparent in Francis’s gesture, asking his people to beg for God’s
blessing, is touchingly the same as that of Benedict XVI when he reminded the entire
world that the Church is Christ’s. When he bid farewell to the Cardinals, Ratzinger
recalled, citing Guardini, that the Church “is not an institution conceived and built in
theory...but a living reality... She lives through the course of time, in becoming, like
every living being, in undergoing change... And yet in her nature she remains ever the
same and her heart is Christ.” Hearkening back to the previous day’s audience in St.
Peter’s Square, he concluded, “It seems to me that this was our experience yesterday in
the Square: seeing that the Church is a living body, enlivened by the Holy Spirit and
which is really brought to life by God’s power.”

We, too, can say, “We saw it yesterday.” And now we say it with Peter, whose
face we have come to know—and who invites us, as each of the Popes has done with
his people, in the urbe and the orbe, to begin a journey together.

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