Traces N.3, March 2018

Words and Gestures

Five years have passed since that evening. Just two days into the Conclave, on the heels of the major shock of the previous month when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, came another exciting event: Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, whom the Cardinals “seemed to go to the ends of the earth” to get, stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s.

It quickly became clear that the way he greeted the faithful for the first time–“brothers and sisters, good evening!”–and the equally unprecedented gesture of asking the people to offer a blessing “for their Bishop,” were just hints of many firsts to come.

Over the last years, Francis has made many proposals. Each is presented using the same method: words and gestures that are inseparable. His repeated calls, for example, for a “Church going forth,” are accompanied by his visits to unusual places to kick off his trips (to prisons, shelters, rough neighborhoods). His urgent call to treat migrants as persons came as he himself welcomed refugees in Lesbos. His condemnation of a “piecemeal third world war” goes hand in hand with initiatives that have helped build bridges where before there were only walls (between the U.S. and Cuba, in Central Africa, in Colombia, and in Syria, Russia, and China...). His “preference for the poor” is intertwined with real, symbolic gestures, from the outdoor lunch at the Vatican with the homeless to the washing of feet on Holy Thursday. And the list of examples goes on, shedding more and more light on what could be interpreted as mere “moral reprimands,” such as his words denouncing the crimes of a “throwaway culture” and insisting that politics should be in the service of the common good.

We can be resistant in the face of these gestures, stopping at the surface and playing down their significance by filing them into our usual categories. We find ourselves speaking in terms of sociology, pauperism, or even how close or far he is from Tradition. Alternatively, we can let that powerful unity of words and gestures–Francis’s witness–move us to seek its origin deep down. This origin is what he himself has called the “essentials,” the “heart of the Gospel,” and the “first announcement: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’” It’s an announcement directed to all people, as was decidedly clear during the Year of Mercy, capable of engaging (as were his predecessors, Ratzinger in particular) at an even more radical level with the chaos of the “epochal change” that, little by little, we are recognizing in our world.

Five years is a short time to begin to assess. Still, this can be an occasion to pause in order to answer a vital question: What does all of this ask of us; of me? Which road is Francis indicating? What is he proposing to us and offering for our lives? These are the questions we attempted to answer in the “Close Up” section of this issue: through witnesses that “bring it to life” and through a review of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, that was released just a few months after Pope Francis’s election. Francis himself calls it his “programmatic document,” and it continues to be crucial to understanding this pontificate. The title speaks volumes: the joy of the Gospel. Not a random choice, as Cardinal Luis Tagle, one of the Pope’s closest advisors, notes: “Francis put the emphasis on joy. There’s a tendency in our contemporary world–not only in the Church–to feel tired and sad. Family life, one’s studies, and work are all perceived as a burden. Yet we have the one true reason to be joyful: Jesus who died and rose again is alive, and He is our hope.”

This is where the Pope is pointing us with his words and gestures. And our “one desire is to follow him,” as Fr. Julián Carrón wrote to the CL Fraternity after his audience with the Pope on February 2nd, in which he also asked that “the Spirit of the Risen Christ help him to carry the weight of the entire Church!” Happy reading, and a Happy Easter!