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Column: Pope Francis' new and modern rhetoric is refreshing

We’ve watched people disappear from our churches in recent year but Pope Francis has brought some back, writes Father Seamus Ahearne, who says from his first appearance, this pontiff showed he was different.

Pope Francis waves from his popemobile along the Copacabana beachfront on his way to celebrate Mass in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last Sunday
Pope Francis waves from his popemobile along the Copacabana beachfront on his way to celebrate Mass in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last Sunday
Image: Jorge Saenz/AP/Press Association Images

COPACABANA BEACH IS world famous. For its fireworks on New Year’s eve; for Usain Bolt winning the ‘mano a mano’ 150 metre race on 31 March; for its colour and exuberance; or even for the 3 million plus young people who gathered in prayer with Pope Francis last weekend.

Our world is very tired with sad stories. We grab any lifebuoy which hints at hope or possibility. It could be the media milling around the Lindo Wing Hospital waiting for the birth of a baby – where many journalists ended up interviewing each other or a door.

It could be the Chilean miners rescued in 2010, a dog alive in Oklahoma after the tornado, Malala Yousafzai addressing the UN Assembly on her sixteen birthday, Donal Walsh speaking to young people on suicide and on life, or Joanne  O’ Riordan so bubbly – with her banner of ‘no limbs – no limits.’

Or it could  be Maureen Greaves on forgiveness for Ashley Foster and Jonathan Bowling who killed her husband Alan on his way to Midnight Mass, the sunshine of summer which has brightened all our hearts, or – even – the announcement of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in March.

He showed he was different from those that went before him

John Paul II was 58-years-old when he was elected. Pope Benedict was 78, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio was 76.

Pope Francis has appeared at a time when he is needed. He brings a smile to the world stage. He attracts attention. He speaks a simple language. He doesn’t bother with the accoutrements of office. From his first appearance, he showed he was different.

Those of us who work out in the parishes found ourselves becoming strangers and foreigners in the official Church. The language of the New Missal; the formalities of dress and ritual were becoming more and more distant from our reality. The rigidity of thought and commentary meant that we often felt that the formal Church was moving away from the Church of Jesus Christ that we meet each day in our lives. We felt like outsiders.

The Ryan Report/the Murphy Report added to our sense of dismay. The Report on the Magdalen laundries further disheartened us. How could this happen? It felt embarrassing to belong to the official Church. The treatment of people like Sean Fagan and Tony Flannery made us wonder how the bureaucracy of Rome could suffocate the ‘spirit of Jesus Christ’.

Fearful of what church spokespeople might say

We were fearful during the debates on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill and what church spokespersons might say – even on the excommunication of our politicians.

We worried about how the ‘establishment’ would deal with same sex marriages. We simply worried on so many fronts because we lacked confidence. Where was the Gospel or the good news of Jesus gone?

We watched people disappear from our churches and who now saw it as a service provider (for baptism, communion, confirmation, marriages, funerals). God was missing and not missed. We wondered what had we done and what could we do. The God we meet in the lives of our communities was so different from what was now being presented. And then Francis appeared.

He smiled. He spoke. He chatted. He wasn’t guarded in his comments. He talked of the poor. He told the young people in Brazil some of the following, and has made a habit of throwing little gems around as asides:

‘Shake up the status quo; get out of the stuffy sacristies; go to the margins of life; don’t over intellectualise faith; use a grammar of simplicity; spread a message of love and forgiveness; fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery; the Church has appeared as too weak, too distant from the needs of ordinary people; too cold and too caught up in itself; the church is unfit for the new questions in life; have warm hearts; make a noise and a mess/a fuss; don’t worry about upsetting the CDF – get on with it; talk about Jesus Christ; make sure that Bishops are not careerists; church diplomats are about Christ and the Gospel and not to become part of the establishment.’

Stodgy language of the Church

The stodgy language of church has little or nothing to say to so many. And Francis appears and the poetry is back. We have fresh air. Francis emphasises simplicity and we know he is right, we know he is sincere. Will he get everything right? He won’t. Will he tidy up everything? He won’t. Has he been sure-footed so far? It appears so. Will that continue? It won’t. Many will dig into his history and drag out Yorio and Jalics (two Jesuit priests tortured by the Junta in Argentina).

Some suggest that he comes across as so good because he realises his own weakness and mistakes and sins – but if that leads to humility and ‘lack of infallibility’ – how much better it is?

Did some of us like what he had to say about homosexuals in the chat on the plane? We did. It was refreshing. Did we like what he had to say about women and priesthood? Some of us didn’t. But that too is fine. Many of us feel that the spirit of John 23rd is among us again or more truly – the Spirit of Jesus Christ has resurfaced and we are delighted.

We now have someone who echoes our own simple sentiments and feel alive again and feel hope has reappeared. It is good. We all smile with amazement at how the Spirit was allowed to release to us – such a man as Jorge Mario Bergoglio? What indeed went right or wrong at the Conclave?

Did we really need the system to collapse so badly for the Spirit to rescue us?

Fr Seamus Ahearne presides over Rivermount Parish, Finglas.

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