I went to Easter Mass at the church of Saint Francis Xavier in Brooklyn, a pretty church in Park Slope which does not, despite its name, appear to have any formal connection with the Jesuits. Some years ago it might have been difficult for me to feel the joy the holiday seemingly required – often our emotions do not correspond with the liturgical calendar. But in the past years – I think since I have been more honest – I have found that I experience the large holidays quite sincerely. In part this is because I am continually responsive – I wanted, for instance, to go to the Easter Vigil Saturday night, but I was at a seder and I found the conversations so interesting I decided to stay there with my friends rather than go to a church service alone. The next day I wanted to go to mass, but I first met with a pair of friends who wanted to discuss Darwin’s Descent of Man. By the time I got out it was noon on Easter and custom is for all Easter masses to be during the morning, but I walked to the nearest church and sure enough there was a 12:15 mass. I had planned nothing but been responsive at each moment to what seemed most loving to me, and it had all worked out. (Of course it is a pleasure on a great holiday to be in a great city where there are so many church celebrations going on all around you).
Similarly in church it is my custom now to make no attempt to think “church thoughts,” but instead to honestly feel, and intensely feel, whatever I am feeling at the time. If I am angry with God, or the Church, or the hierarchy, or someone else, or myself, I simply sit in the pew and feel angry. If I feel sad or depressed or lustful or self-absorbed or whatever it is, I simply let myself feel that way in front of God’s altar. I think that this technique works much better than anything I ever tried before. I feel myself transformed more by attempting nothing and simply sitting there honestly than by any act of will. Despite the fact that it would seem that this approach would not allow for much harmony with the liturgical calendar, I often find that it does.
This Easter it was not too difficult to think Easter thoughts. In part this is because it was precisely at this time of the year, five years ago, that my life changed and I was meaningfully reborn through divorce. I have lived the past five years in poverty, living mostly by the work of my hands and close to nature, and with the help of Christian teaching I have felt it as redemptive and renewing.
But it was not just me: in the church too I sensed the stirrings of some kind of good news. It was beautiful to feel. The priest gave an excellent homily, linking the Easter readings to the current state of things in the Catholic world: “For many years now,” he said, “whether we have admitted it or not, we Catholics have been mourning. There have been many reasons to mourn, many failures of our church, but in particular I will say that I believe that the sex-abuse scandals, and the way those cases were handled, from the bottom to the top, made us all mourn, and if I may speak for us all, I think it has been many years now since we have had any – any – good news in our church that we really felt we could celebrate.
“But I see a glimmer of hope. I see a glimmer of hope. Now I don’t think that Pope Francis will make any radical changes in doctrine. But I see a man who has come to bring good news, to the poor, to the suffering, a man who does not hide behind fine clothes and big words. And now that I see it, I realize that we have been in mourning, longing for it for many years.”
I picked up a copy of the Tablet on the way out, and there was a story from the Catholic News Service about Francis causing some concern for his Swiss guards, due to the security difficulties of a Pope who is not keeping his distance from crowds. “We are worried if there is more contact with people,” an officer of the guard said, “because that means there’s a greater possibility something can happen.”
Of course, that is precisely what we Catholics are hoping for – that something will happen, not in a violent sense, but simply that in actual encounter the power of Christ’s example be proven more important than security concerns. There is a story that the pope stopped his popemobile and got out and blessed a disabled man on his route through the city. This actually sounds like something from the Gospels. And there are people complaining about it too – which also sounds like something from the Gospels. The complaint is that disabled people don’t want any special treatment or to be singled out – which is to me an impossible hope, like pretending that the President of the United States could walk into your room and you wouldn’t act differently. The Christian teaching is that all forms of weakness, powerlessness, and imperfection serve as the conduit for God’s blessing, which works in a mysterious way. I read an article by a woman who said that having herpes was good for her love life – when she told men about it she necessarily drove away the selfish ones who felt no love for her. Similarly I have felt that my own divorce, which the Catholic church senselessly prohibits, has served, the way failure and powerlessness do, as a hole in my armor through which God’s grace has poured. Andrew Sullivan spoke about HIV doing the same thing for him. Christianity teaches us to see God precisely in these wounds – and most emphatically not to desperately insist they were never wounds in the first place, never things that needed no healing and needed no redemption and needed no God.
This is something a world relentlessly bent on chimerical perfection needs to see. “When I am made weak, then I am strong,” said Paul. And this is certainly what the world needs from the Pope. All I want to hear from the Pope is that he sees the poor before the rich, that he blesses the weak before the strong, that he speaks with the people who have never heard of Christ and not with the theologians, that he loves crowds and blesses them out of deep love and not that he is sequestered in some palace with his gorgeous valets. I don’t want to hear that he has written another book or censured another theologian. I want to hear that something is happening in the world that sounds like it could have happened in the Gospels, not something that sounds like a wet dream of a liturgy fanatic or vestment fashion designer or stay-at-home who does nothing but read tractates.
This is only the beginning, and there is plenty of room for disappointment. But I will say that I am glad that Francis is at least aware that poverty, simplicity, and blessing are integral to Christianity, and I am glad that the cardinals were at least somewhat aware of it as well, and they chose him rather than a “normal guy” like “our own” Cardinal Dolan. The life of Christ is not pomp, but it is not normal either. Just because it is in exile in a palace does not mean it is at home with the bourgeois either. In the press coverage of the papal election we heard everything through the lens of the concerns of secular culture: the qualities looked for were diplomatic savvy, competent governance, a spotless resume, public support of the party platform, identity politics, and telegenic charisma. No one in the press who assessed the possible candidates looked to such things as “who can best bear witness to the life and teaching of Christ in the world?” And as soon as you see it you remember what you were missing. It looks from a distance that maybe Francis has started on this road, and it is my belief that once you start on it you never really leave it. If you fall in this kind of love, you never fall out. And that gives me great hope. Such a love can bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and hundredfold. We shall see.
[A very similar piece by Scott Moringiello is found in Commonweal. The comments also show optimism, but terribly guarded, I am afraid.]