Reflections on the Holy Father at World Youth Day

Now that the events surrounding the 28th World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil have ended, we can spend – oh – a couple of months analyzing them. How shall I begin? First I will say that I had assumed the media would ignore a religious event even of such a massive scale. I was pleasantly surprised that the coverage was as extensive and as positive as it was. Some people reading or watching may actually have received the authentic message Pope Francis wished to send!

As I sat with a group of priests in a hotel room in Wisconsin Dells around July 24, the Pope traveled by car through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. We priests sat staring at the television images of a chaotic scene. Those poor security officials! The car came to a halt because of traffic, and tremendous crowds surrounded the car and reached in through the open widows. Apparently the Pope was perfectly content with all of this, but it sure made me worry about his safety. The crowds, of course, were delighted. No special credentials were necessary for them to have a surprise encounter with the Pope – and that was important to them, we can assume, not because he is some kind of celebrity, but because he is the Vicar of Christ.

I have learned that a very important change had to be made because of heavy rains in the days preceding World Youth Day. You might recall that last time I wrote that people would travel to a site in a far part of the city that was being called the Campus Fidei (the “Field of Faith”), arriving for a prayer vigil with the Holy Father. They would stay there overnight until World Youth Day itself (Sunday, July 28), and Pope Francis would celebrate Mass there. Well, the rain brought crocodiles into the field that had been prepared, and because no one wanted crocodiles to be among those attending the Mass, the location was moved to Copacabana Beach. That location made it easier for city dwellers to attend, and so 2.3 million people worshiped God at the Mass celebrated by the Holy Father. What an assembly of humanity!

On the flight home, Pope Francis answered a question that has brought joy to many who oppose Church teaching on homosexuality. I think it is important for me to offer you the context of his response, which our nation’s newspapers seem not to have had room to print. Msgr. Battista Ricca, who was director of the Domus Sanctae Marthae (the Vatican residence in which Pope Francis has chosen to live) and whom the Pope recently appointed to head the Institute for Works of Religion (commonly called the Vatican Bank), has been accused in the Italian press of having had a sexually immoral chapter in his life. A reporter on the flight from Brazil to Italy asked the Holy Father about the priest and about the wider issue of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican. Pope Francis responded in the words that have been selectively quoted. He was speaking about his decision to allow a repentant priest with a sinful past to continue on in his job. He said:

I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. They are bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully but says, wait a moment, how does it say, it says, these persons must never be marginalized and “they must be integrated into society.” The problem is not that one has this tendency; no, we must be brothers, this is the first matter. There is another problem, another one: the problem is to form a lobby of those who have this tendency, a lobby of the greedy people, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies.  This is the most serious problem for me.

I suspect we will be hearing more about this.

I would like to reprint the beginning of the wonderful talk Pope Francis gave to the bishops of Brazil. I hope to print more of it next time. He referred to the story of the dejected disciples who after Jesus is crucified leave Jerusalem and encounter the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus:

Here we have to face the difficult mystery of those people who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think that the Church – their Jerusalem – can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important. So they set off on the road alone, with their disappointment. Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age. It is a fact that nowadays there are many people like the two disciples of Emmaus; not only those looking for answers in the new religious groups that are sprouting up, but also those who already seem godless, both in theory and in practice.

Faced with this situation, what are we to do? We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.

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