The Feast of Forgiveness – France Catholique

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Pope Francis, whether we like him or not, has a gift: personal charisma. His pontificate could have been indisputably great if it had mainly stuck to his extraordinary ability to reach out to people – and avoided theological and moral issues which are clearly not his forte. Case in point: his pilgrimage to L’Aquila in central Italy yesterday for the Feast of Forgiveness was truly moving. He did not announce his resignation, as some had expected. But he did something that could almost serve as a touchstone for his best days as pope. He brilliantly dramatized the need for mercy and humility, anytime and anywhere, but especially now in our postmodern and deeply troubled world.

The Celestine Feast of Forgiveness (Perdonance) in L’Aquila has a long and interesting history. It was instituted by Saint Pope Celestine V in 1294, making this year the 728e anniversary. Yesterday was the first time in so many years that a Pope came and opened the Holy Door (Santa door) of the Basilica of L’Aquila. Pilgrims who pass through this door on feast days, as the pope himself did, and fulfilling the usual conditions, can receive a plenary indulgence.

The event even attracted attention in the secular world. UNESCO inscribed the holiday on its list of “intangible cultural heritage” in 2019.

In 2009, L’Aquila was badly hit by an earthquake that immediately killed around 300 people, injured thousands and left more than 60,000 homeless. Benedict XVI visited the city a few weeks after the devastation and spent a lot of time at Celestine’s tomb. Yesterday it was clear that the region was still suffering and in great need of encouragement and consolation.

It was something to see Francis pushed to the Holy Door after Mass in a wheelchair, helped to his feet by a rather large Swiss Guard, banging loudly with an olive wood stick, then painfully pushing his way through. walking path through the threshold in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. Despite all the controversy and turmoil of the past decade, it was a quintessential Catholic moment. His prayer before the tomb of Saint Celestine, for anyone with a Catholic sensibility, reminded you how short our time is on earth – and how long eternity is.

Officials estimate that 10,000 people showed up along the road from the airport and for the papal mass. And there was a palpable enthusiasm among the crowd. In his homily, Francis argued that our view of Pope Celestine is skewed because Dante placed him on the brink of hell among “the indifferent.” In Hell, Dante refers to someone who “did the great refusal” without naming him. It was generally assumed that when the divine comedy first appeared that he was talking about the last pope to resign before Benedict XVI, namely Celestine. The abdication of his papal responsibilities, according to Dante, earned him an ignominious, anonymous, and marginal place in hell, disdained by both the saved and the damned.

Modern scholars wonder if it was even Celestine whom Dante left in shameful anonymity among the indifferent. What we do know for certain is that he was appointed to the papacy on July 5, 1294. A famous Benedictine monk and hermit, it was believed he could heal the divisions between the various factions then vying for the papal throne , which left the Church without a leader for two whole years. (Yes, such things happened even in the High Middle Ages).

Not exactly fit to lead an institution like the Grumpy Medieval Church, Celestine carried out our major reforms and then resigned only five months later. Dante had strong personal reasons for lamenting his resignation. Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII, was a political intriguer, one of the main figures who had Dante, condemned to death, exiled from Florence. The great poet never tires of predicting that Boniface will end up in hell, buried upside down among the simoniac popes, the flames of the Holy Spirit burning the soles of his feet eternally.

Among his other misdeeds, Pope Boniface also reversed Celestine’s reforms. But a later pope, Clement V, canonized Saint Celestine in 1313.

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In his homily, Francis denied that Celestine said an unjustified “no” in resigning. In François’ reading, Celestine said “Yes” – to humility, “no logic or power could control it”. The Feast of Forgiveness he created should remind everyone, he said, that one of the names of God is Mercy, which is the heart of the Gospel.

(In an off-the-cuff remark, the pope compared God’s patience in seeking a way for his light to penetrate our darkness to an experience he had just had while coming to L’Aquila. It was too foggy to land and the helicopter pilot had to circle around until he saw an opening in the clouds God’s unrelenting mercy arrives the same way, like an unexpected gift for each of us – a gift we can pass on to others.)

On such a day, controversies seemed best put on hold for the time being. But in retrospect, another calculation must follow. And probably will be in the next few days. All talk of mercy began to turn into sentimentality. As too much in contemporary Christianity, there was much psychological discussion – of our darkness and our feelings of guilt – and what our individual restlessness does to society, particularly how it leads to war. But there was no connection between human misery and things like truth – or with a word very present in the Gospels and subsequent tradition: sin.

It’s almost as if Jesus never said the harsh things about our sinfulness beyond the words of consolation and forgiveness. It can be a good strategy not to talk about “sin” as such to a world in general that no longer believes in it. But to a crowd of 10,000 Catholics, who had come expressly to be with the pope of Rome on a very special day?

Indeed, when the words of Jesus at the Last Supper were invoked at Mass, it was a shock:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, pronounced the blessing, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take and eat; This is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink out of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Without this central concept, it seems that our troubled lives and humanity’s wars are just the kind of stumbling mediocre human you see in a modern relationship movie, rather than a radical separation from God requiring not only recognition of his mercy, but fundamental reorientation.

There has also been a strange common thread in modern Catholicism about forgiveness and mercy as the path to peace and true justice in a world often torn by division and war. There is some truth in this proposition, of course, but not the whole truth. And with Russian aggression against Ukraine in Eastern Europe, that was a pointed message – a message that really needs to be heard. But in itself it is incomplete.

Francis has been widely criticized for applying this spiritual message too broadly to the Ukraine war, going so far as to imply that there is a virtual moral equivalence between the two sides. Last Wednesday, at the general audience in Rome, he said, “Madness is everywhere because war is madness, and no one who is at war can say, ‘No, I’m not mad.'”

It’s a sad reality about our fallen world, but it’s just not true. It blurs the proper moral distinctions between abusers and their victims. The relative responsibilities for a conflict – even in a place like Ukraine – are not always neat or perfectly clear. Nevertheless, Catholic tradition has always recognized the tragic necessity of the proper use of defensive force.

And by the standards of just war – both in the war to defend itself and in the conduct of the war – Ukraine is right, and Russia is wrong. On the other hand, Francis has, at times in recent years, come close to saying that all war is unjust, even defensive. He even called for an overhaul of the concept of “just war”. It is a utopianism which can have terrible consequences.

These are debates for other days – in particular, perhaps, today and tomorrow, when the cardinals and the pope will discuss for two days during the “extraordinary consistory”. There are Roman rumors that some sensitive, even explosive, topics will be discussed. It will be interesting to follow what the cardinals, who are finally reuniting as a college again now after seven years apart, have to say.

*Image: Pope Francis opens the Holy Door in L’Aquila

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