Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday in Rome

‘If there must be a pope,’ I said to myself when I saw this photo, ‘let it be this one.’ I am not a Roman Catholic. Doctrinally, I know what separates Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox Christians. Practically, I also know what separates them, or rather, us. As to faith, however, there is only a single divide, a great chasm, a very great, deep, and maybe impassable chasm, between those who believe, and those who deny, the Christ, the God-man who appeared bodily two thousand years ago and then disappeared so He could appear universally among us till the end of time.

Today the whole Church is on the same page, celebrating each in their own way the entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem the week before Passover riding on a donkey and acclaimed by the crowd. The photo above of Pope Francis (I do not add a ‘I’ after his name, e.g., Francis I, because I do not believe there could be another) engulfed by enthusiastic supporters armed with cameras, looks very like a modern replay of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and on many levels.

Yes, according to Roman belief, the Pope is ‘Vicar of Christ,’ in other words, since Christ can’t be here with us bodily in a single place, He has a proxy, a kind of religious stunt man to do all the dangerous stuff— well, maybe—so that He can stay where He is and reign in heaven on His throne—not!

We have seen for centuries a whole succession of their Holinesses wearing triple crowns and fairly buried in heavy, glistening vestments, being carried around in sedan chairs above the heads of the teeming multitudes, their right arms raised with tricky fingers in benediction. Then came a humble pope, John Paul I, who wasn’t given the chance to show us his stuff, spirited away by death in a month, as if fulfilling St Malachy’s disputed prophecy de mediatate lunæ, ‘from the midst of the moon.’ Yet, as if passing to his successor and namesake, John Paul II, a new spirit of simplicity entered the occupant of St Peter’s chair.

We had come to expect that the popes would now be rather more than ceremonial oracles, when Benedict appeared. He disappointed everyone, it seems, and after a short pontificate, notoriously retired. Was he, like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the whole affair (Christianity in the rough) when the going got tough? I don’t think so, but perhaps he sensed that human error really had, at least this time, chosen the wrong man for the job. But little did we think, let alone hope, that his successor would turn out to be a man with the courage to turn the world upside-down as did the holy Apostles at ground zero, or Francis of Assisi, a millennium later. This pope, a Jesuit on top of it all, taking the name of the saint remembered more for his love of animals and nature than anything else, seems to be doing what popes were meant to do all along, not ‘interfere and rule’ but ‘gather the lambs.’

Well, who knows what it will look like in the end, these crowds of photo-flashing admirers hemming Pope Francis in on all sides? Something like this happened that week before Passover in Jerusalem. Not cameras held aloft, but branches of palm and olive, engulfed the Prince of Peace.

With the world around us descending, it sometimes seems, to that hell on earth where ‘the love of men has grown cold,’ it is of good omen to see this man come down to raise up the fallen, who has been chosen to fill the unfillable chair, which all along was meant by the King of all to be His mercy seat in Rome, but which was often used as Satan’s stool. Let’s hope that the adoring camera-clung crowds that surge around him now will follow this shepherd when he calls them to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,’ and not turn on him as they turned on the Son of Man that Passover in Jerusalem.

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