By Christopher Wells
Based on a homily preached at the Cathedral Church of All Saints, Milwaukee.
“The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent” (Ps. 19:7).
What is the Lord’s law and testimony but a balm of ordered society, according to the pattern of reconciliation? God’s law and testimony are borne in the body of Jesus, and they bear repeating, as the Lord opens our lips and our lives so that our mouths may proclaim his praise. He puts his words in our hearts through the love of others. He binds them to our hands in the gift of teachers. He fixes them as an emblem on our foreheads in baptism and in death. These are the words of God that we talk about with our children when we are home and away, when we lie down and when we rise (see Deut. 11:8-10). In this way, prayer overflows into obedience by grace. God’s speech calls forth our reply.
We have just seen an example of this in the amazing spectacle of “Pope Francis, of the Holy See!” riding round the most powerful country in the world by Fiat (and airplane). Sept. 23 the pope met President Obama, led a parade on the National Mall, and canonized the first saint on American soil. Sept. 24, he delivered a mesmerizing — challenging, beguilingly gentle — speech to Congress before slipping away to share lunch with the homeless of Washington, eschewing congressional fanciness in favor of the poor and marginalized, en route to New York for Evening Prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sept. 25, this most energetic 78-year-old urged many of the world’s principal leaders at the United Nations General Assembly to tend to justice and order, care for our planet, and the sanctity of life, after which followed an interfaith service at the 9/11 memorial, a Catholic school in Harlem, Central Park, and finally Mass at Madison Square Garden. Sept. 26, the main event was the Festival of Families on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway where, to the astonishment of commentators, he replaced a prepared speech with a spontaneous 20-minute catechesis on God’s triune nature as love, how and why God created, the Fall writ as the first fratricide, and the way that God’s special concern for families runs through all of history and Scripture, culminating in the offering of his own Son to a humble couple, Mary and Joseph, who had the courage and fearless trust to say, “yes, we assent; be it unto us according to your word.” Here, said Francis, is the cradle of social life, because we all come from families, in and through which we learn love: that only love can overcome disappointment and despair; that love forms us to look beyond ourselves.
Why was this amazing? Because the world’s primary Christian leader captivated our country with his large-hearted generosity, dominated the news cycle for five days, and so managed to touch not only thousands upon thousands in the cities he visited but many millions more on televisions and laptops everywhere. You would have thought that CNN was EWTN as it streamed All Things Catholic 24/7. Several of the most articulate and enthusiastic commentators were non-Christians, like the irenic and generous Bruce Feiler, a Jewish writer. And sitting next to Feiler and others would be a parade of Catholic priests, lay faithful, and scholars who had an extraordinary opportunity to preach the gospel, that is, to talk about and frankly commend the Christian faith. For a moment, the cynicism of Washington and fatuous self-regard of New York melted before the sweet authenticity of the pope, and one sensed in the City of Brotherly Love our nation’s longing for truth, beauty, and genuine freedom.
There can be no separating word from act. God’s power depends upon the two working together, and the words of Christians, when they are true, presume and subsist in action.
One often hears a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words.” In fact, the saint never said it, but Scripture and our own fashioning in God’s image press in the opposite direction. The word of the gospel transforms human beings as it touches our bodies and souls both. Pope Francis cuts a fittingly Franciscan figure in his radical focus on and continual reference to Jesus, forsaking the world in favor of the humble poor who should be sought out, served, embraced, and imitated in their dependence on God.
In this way, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40) as many unsuspecting persons are drawn into the work of God. The gospel is true, and “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12), which means “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up …. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:15,16).
“Listen!” says Jesus at the end of the Bible: “I am standing at the door knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). When this happens, we commune with the one who speaks and the world is made, whose words make our hearts burn within us, who wants to make us members of his Body. As Pope Francis observed at Catholic Charities in Washington, Jesus was born homeless to homeless parents because there was no room for them in the inn. By contrast, God makes room for us and rushes to meet us, saying, welcome home, my child. Let us similarly welcome one another.