In 2013, when Pope Francis came to Assisi for the feast of Saint Francis, I happened to be there as a guide with a group of pilgrims making the Assisi Pilgrimage Program, which coincided with Saint Francis’ feast day.
It was a cold, wet October 4, but no one seemed to mind, knowing that Pope Francis would be there the whole day, which began just outside the city walls at the Serafico Institute, a religious charitable institution that treats seriously disabled children.
He spent a good 40 minutes there greeting each one of the over 100 children and, in his brief remarks, reminding the staff of their wonderful responsibility in tending to the wounds of Christ and telling the children how special they were to Jesus.
Needless to say, with such an introduction to the city, I was anticipating a really exciting Mass and homily later in the morning. All of us Franciscan pilgrims had tickets to the outside Mass, which we would view on a large screen located on the upper level of the Basilica of St. Francis. Pope Francis was to celebrate the Mass in the portico of the lower level of the basilica.
Earlier in the morning, the staff of Casa Papa Giovanni, the pensione where we live while in Assisi, informed those of us who had not yet left to secure a seat at the basilica, that Pope Francis’ motorcade would be passing along the street below ours on his way down the hill to the basilica. Four of us made our way immediately down Viale Aluigi to the street below to wait for Pope Francis to pass by, knowing we would be quite close to him as he made his way through the narrow street.
When the moment came, he seemed so large to me and, strangely, rather wooden with his arm raised in a blessing that seemed so frozen in the air that I spontaneously blessed him instead, my large cross signing the air and causing a fleeting smile to cross Pope Francis’ lips.
I felt that his rather absent stare was asking us to pray for him, bless him, just as he did when he stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica after his election to the papacy, with the same rather lost look, as if wondering how he got there, and asking us to pray for him. It was that same look that prompted my blessing, which, afterward, made me feel like a fool.
At the Mass, which loomed large on the screen, Pope Francis again seemed to me to be elsewhere and celebrated, I thought, rather perfunctorily, unlike later in the afternoon in the cathedral of Assisi when he welcomed enthusiastically the ordinary laborers who work in the hotels and other establishments of Assisi. He was similarly enthusiastic that evening when he was leaving from the Church of Rivo Torto on the plain below Assisi, where his helicopter idled, waiting for him to embark.
He stopped instead, seeing all the wheelchairs outside, and blessed and greeted each one of the people there. Was it just me? Was I the only one who felt he was not “on his game,” as it were, when he celebrated Mass that morning?
An Encounter with Saint Francis
As it happened, I was the main celebrant at the Mass the next morning at the tomb of Saint Francis in the crypt below the church in the lower basilica. It was our final Mass of the pilgrimage, and I arrived early to make preparations, but also determined to ask one of my Franciscan brothers working at the basilica if the pope had seemed distracted or different the day before.
Luckily, I chose the right brother. In a lowered, more confidential voice, he told me that Pope Francis had walked briskly down the steps of the crypt and knelt before Francis’ tomb in prayer that seemed longer than expected. When he finished and tried to rise, he seemed to have trouble getting up and coming back to himself again.
“Did he have a vision or something like that?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered, “but he surely did have some kind of experience at Francis’ tomb.”
I thought immediately of Saint Francis going to Rome in 1209 to have his Rule approved by Pope Innocent III, and here now was Pope Francis, centuries later, coming to Saint Francis, his patron, to have his papacy validated, a papacy not unlike Francis’ rule and life, that was to be about the poor and neglected, that was to be a renewal of living the Gospel in our own time. The theme, as with Francis, was to be about mercy. If ever two men would understand each other, it was these two men, Pope Francis and Saint Francis of Assisi, who, Pope Francis has said, alongside Saint Augustine, is closest to his soul. No wonder he seemed in a daze when he came out for Mass. His papacy would indeed be the Franciscan message reincarnated today, and it would begin with mercy.
A Call to Mercy
The word mercy, as Pope Francis has pointed out, derives from the Latin word misericordia, which means to open one’s heart to wretchedness. It is what God does time and again in our lives, God the lover, God the healer, God who opens his heart to our wretchedness, saying through the prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the farther they went from me. . . . Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; . . . I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; . . . Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.
“My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred. I will not give vent to my blazing anger, . . .For I am God and not a man, the Holy One present among you” (11:1-4, 8-9). This is the God who is the model of all mercy, the God whose name, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is mercy, “the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ, the incarnation of creative and redemptive love.”
It is this God that Pope Francis has been called to reveal to us again by reminding us by his words and, especially, by his actions that we are all called individually and as a Church to be the face of God’s mercy to the broken and rejected ones. We are the Church that Cardinal Walter Kasper says “is not a kind of social or charitable agency; as the body of Christ, it is the sacrament of the continuing effective presence of Christ in the world.” The Church, like God, must be mercy, must open its heart to wretchedness.
Following Saint Francis
This is what Pope Francis has done from the beginning by taking the name and ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi in response to a fellow cardinal’s whispered plea, “Don’t forget the poor.” At that moment, Cardinal Bergoglio knew what his name would be: Francis—for the saint of Assisi who said in his Testament: “For I, being in sin, thought it bitter to look at lepers, and the Lord himself led among them, and I made mercy with them. And when I left their company, I realized that what had seemed bitter to me, had been turned into sweetness of soul and body.”
Francis says that he made mercy with them. He didn’t patronize them by simply having pity on them. They made mercy together; they became Church to one another. In kissing the leper’s hand, Francis received Christ himself from the leper; and the leper, in letting himself or herself be ministered to, received the opening of God’s heart, received hope which is the ability to imagine a better future. There is mutuality in mercy. Mercy reveals the face of God to both the giver and the receiver, especially when mercy is given freely with no strings attached.
Saint Francis, in his letter to those who are given the ministry of leadership among the brothers, says, “Let there be no brother who has sinned, no matter how seriously, who would look into your eyes seeking forgiveness, and go away without it. And should he not seek forgiveness, you should ask him if he wants it. And if after that he were to sin a thousand times, even before your eyes, love him more than me, for this is how you will draw him to the Lord; and always have mercy on such as these.”
Those are the eyes of Saint Francis and Pope Francis, whose eyes draw us with love, not judgment. It is Pope Francis who says, “Who am I to judge?” thereby drawing to God’s open, merciful heart those who feel rejected and condemned by the Church.
Pope Francis’ Mission
A few months after Pope Francis was elected, I was riding in a taxi in Rome and asked the driver what he thought of the new pope. “Oh, we don’t have a pope,” he answered. “You don’t have a pope?” I asked, fearing he somehow did not like Pope Francis. “No, we don’t have a pope; we have a pastor!” And there it all was for me. We have a pastor, one who, as Saint Francis before him, had heard and was putting into practice the same Gospel words that changed the life of the rich young man of Assisi named Francis Bernardone, who at Mass on the feast of Saint Matthias, February 24, 1208, heard these words of Jesus to his disciples:
“As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” (Mt 10).
That is the mission of Pope Francis. He shows in his very gestures the Gospel as joy, a joy that comes from healing mercy; he models in his person what Saint John XXIII proclaimed at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council: “The Bride of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than arm herself with weapons of rigor.” God has many faces, and God turns now one face and now another throughout time.
The face of God shining in our time is mercy; and when we, in turn, work mercy with one another, we become the face of God among us. How that is done is being spelled out by Pope Francis daily when he says again and again, “Don’t forget the poor,” and when he acts upon his own words, providing showers for the homeless, for example, or opening the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums to them, providing food and shelter in the Vatican to Syrian refugees, washing the feet of prisoners, privileging those on the margins of society whenever he travels outside the Vatican, trying to find ways of working mercy with those whose decisions have removed them from the body of Christ and/or from full participation in the sacraments.
Pope Francis proclaimed this Year of Mercy not as an end in itself, but rather so that we can all participate in working mercy with one another, thereby opening our hearts to wretchedness in ourselves and others. In this, we’ll see that the merciful face of God is the face of God.
Then we can be, more fully, as a Church, the sacrament of the merciful renewed face of God, the face of God mirrored so dramatically in those of Pope Francis and his patron, Saint Francis of Assisi.