When news of the new Pope broke out in the early morning of Thursday, it was greeted with much joy and hope.
One North American priest, who has been based in the Vatican for years, commented that when Pope Francis appeared on the balcony for the first time, it was déjà vu. The priest said he was overcome with the same feeling he had when Pope John XXIII emerged on the same balcony.
Pope John XXIII, who was elected in early November 1958, convened the Second Vatican Council—which he described as opening the doors and windows of the Church to let in some fresh air to renew it. He has been described as a big inspiration to the Church.
People welcomed many firsts in the election of Pope Francis. His ministry characterized him as a reformer who is very much needed by the Church at this moment in its over 2,000-year history. In the same breath, he was described as a conservative. Someone asked me how this could be possible.
We often associate reform with radical change and being liberal. I would like to suggest otherwise.
Reform often leads to change—for the better. In this sense, a reformer seems radical and liberal as he changes the status quo.
However, it is important to see that genuine reform—which many of us seek and hope for not just in the Church, but also in the communities and the country—must be grounded in renewal.
Renewal before reform, or reform as a fruit of renewal, is the essence of a genuine reformer. His quest and compass is a renewal of the original inspiration.
In the Gospel readings last Sunday, the Fourth or Laetare Sunday, and today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, we focus on God’s forgiveness.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we reflected on the depth and liberating power of the love of the father. The sin of the prodigal son and that of the elder brother is the context in which this unconditional and forgiving love is shown.
Compassion and love
The sin of the woman caught in adultery and the sin of the self-righteous crowd form the backdrop that reveals the dramatic compassion and love of Christ. With the simplicity that hits us in our core as it leads us to the heart of the matter, Christ says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone… Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on, do not sin anymore.”
This is the inspiration that we are invited to return to—the renewal of our Church and communities. It’s a renewal that starts with the self and inspires the same in others. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Reform, renewal and inspiration form a continuum where the most visible element is reform. The process that gives birth to this is renewal, the going back to the inspiration that gave life to the community or the movement. Reform is the witness and the fruit of the renewal of the inspiration.
This is the inspiration of our faith: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” It is what gave birth to the community we call our Church.
As we had said and reflected on, it is a Church of second chances, founded by a God of second, multiple chances who tells us, “Neither do I… go and sin no more”; or, in the words of St. Paul, “… forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead… toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3: 12-14)
This is our inspiration, to “live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2: 20). This is the source of our renewal.
The day after his election, Pope Francis began his reform. He called on the cardinals, the same community that elected him, to a renewal of the Church. He also exhorted them to have courage. This reminded me of what Christ said in several situations in the Gospels: “Do not be afraid. Take courage. It is I.”
We must have courage because we live and face the future with a renewed sense of hope. As we say in Filipino, “nabuhayan tayo!” (We have renewed hope and life).
The renewed sense of hope is the first step and we must indeed have the courage, in the words of the Gospel for this Sunday: “Go and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Filipinos are a people of hope. We go through periodic moments of renewal as a people and as a nation. Perhaps we can learn the lesson of courage.
Is this the missing link? Is the courage to go forth, derived from the experience of a renewal, what we need to learn to live out? Do we tend to “shy” away from this because when we embrace the courage to go forth, we allow the change, the reform to take place, because it is part of the deal?
Renewal and hope
Many times we become part of the moment of renewal and hope. It seems to me that the human spirit is naturally attracted to this. As we often say, water seeks its own level. Likewise, the human spirit always seeks its inspiration that gives renewed hope and life.
Over a week ago, I was watching “American Idol” to put me to sleep. I had come from an activity with 72 public-school teachers for their weekend formation seminar, the first in a three-year program. I caught one of the “Idol” contestants, Curtis Finch Jr., who said he wanted to be a gospel singer.
Curtis sang “I Believe I Can Fly” by Robert Kelly. Surprised by grace, as C.S. Lewis would put it, or consolation without previous cause, as Ignatius of Loyola calls it, I found myself moved to tears as I listened to Curtis’ rendition. (Unfortunately, Curtis was booted out a week later—due to a bad choice for a song, or so I read. He should have stuck to the Kelly classic.)
Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj’s comments after the performance were equally moving. Urban put it simply and powerfully that there (in Curtis’ song and performance) was hope itself. Minaj added that this is the inspiration the whole world needs.
I was teary-eyed not out of pain or sadness, but because of the deep joy of feeling in my heart on what Urban and Minaj pointed out—hope and inspiration.
Allow me to quote the lyrics of the song: “I used to think that I could not go on/ and life was nothing but an awful song/ But now I know the meaning of true love/ I’m leaning on the everlasting arms/ If I can see it, then I can do it/ If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it/I believe I can fly/I believe I can touch the sky/ I think about it every night and day/ Spread my wings and fly away/I believe I can soar/ I see me running through that open door/ I believe I can fly/See I was on the verge of breaking down/ Sometimes silence can seem so loud/ There are miracles in life I must achieve/ But first I know it starts inside of me/ If I can see it, then I can be it/ If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it/ I believe I can fly.”
Habemus Papam! Pope Francis, the reformer and the conservative, we pray for him that he may be the channel of the grace of renewal and courage for the Church to go back to its original inspiration and hope. Go back to “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me,” who tells us, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Renewal leads to reform. The process is radical in that it changes the status quo and always it is toward a better order. It is conservative in that it returns to the original inspiration and hope that gave life to our community, to our Church. But remember, it is this inspiration and hope that gave the first followers of Christ the courage to go forth.
We live in exciting times, times of hope and inspiration.