Lent's turning out to be a hum-dinger this year. Pope Francis continued his tradition of surprising the faithful with his witness as a fellow sinner, even while in papal robes. As one would expect, the Pope led a penitential Lenten service at St Peter's Basilica in Rome. When it came time in the service for the priests to head to the confessional to hear confessions, one priest got quite a shock. The Pope knelt before him to offer his confession!
The Vatican assured the media that the Pope goes to confession regularly, but in private. (I don't think anybody really doubts that for a moment.) The Vatican still seems thrown by a Pope who stays in a hotel room rather than private quarters, takes to task bishops who like their "bling" and lives a public witness to faith that has the whole world abuzz. Indeed for many, Francis lives up to his papal namesake: Francis, gentle in spirit and beloved. Francis also continues the grand tradition of being a disciple just like Simon Peter, one who knows the edges within himself, only after much trial, error and earnest confession.
The oft quoted (and ecumenically contested) text for the papal office comes from Matthew's gospel as Christ says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. It appears to be such a simple little text, yet when you consider the history of the Church (pick a tradition, any tradition--Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox), even the most ardent of believer will admit the Church has lived through times of challenge and sometimes not been the better for it all. This text alone has been part of the historic division of the Christian tradition.
Obviously, the Catholic tradition traces in part its claim to papal authority citing this text, claiming the Bishop of Rome, aka “the Pope”, as the successor of this humble fisherman turned apostle. Some interpreters beg to differ, claiming this text lifts up Peter no more than any other disciple who evidences great faith with no special privilege presumed.
Over the centuries, Christians have fought more about “who” can follow Jesus than just sticking to the script and following Jesus. You need not go back to the Reformation era when the Protestant traditions emerged or five hundred years before that when the Orthodox and the Catholic traditions parted ways. Just take a look at the headlines of any newspaper and you’ll find the great divides between Christian fundamentalists and progressives often capture the headline far more than a word about believers gone good! More often than not, the teachings of Jesus get eclipsed by the search for dogma and orthodoxy, being right and ensuring what is deemed right is well regulated.
What takes the gospel just about a minute to communicate becomes centuries of convolutions and rifts, schisms and battles. Some have suggested the Church was the worst thing to happen to the teachings of Jesus, becoming an institution rather than keeping it simple. You look around and think, “Really? Upon this (you mean ‘this’….) rock? Oh dear….”
More usual, the gospel is far clever than the stories the Church sometimes hopes that are told about itself. Instead of splitting hairs over theological matters, Jesus offers a way of discipleship that asks us to open up to the possibilities of what the Kingdom/Reign of Heaven is all about. Read the gospel as told by Matthew and discover a discipleship that considers the Sermon on the Mount a way of life or the parables of Jesus far more subversive than many a Sunday morning sermon is able to recount. Jesus is near parabolic in his affirmation of Simon, the one he calls “Rock” (as translated by Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch Translation"). This disciple may be saying words of glowing faith and affirmation right now, but read on as Jesus has to rebuke Simon just a few verses later for good cause. Simon Peter is a disciple not meant for fine marble statuary. He’s just as rough around the edges, hewn from the same world we live in. Here, he gleams as if polished fine stone. In a few verses, he’s back to meandering around. “Upon this rock” works well on some days. Other times, Simon Peter’s just as much a blockhead as the rest of us.
Jesus has high hopes (and indeed a good deal of trust) that his followers will follow after he has left the scene. The church has been “on its own” now for two millennia, sometimes “stumbling in the light” (cf. Robert Kysar, Chalice Press, 1999). While he is calling a mere mortal capable of being a mighty foundation, Jesus is calling his gathered disciples, women and men just like you and me, this curious word translated as “church” in English. He calls the gathered the “ekklesia” (the New Testament Greek's term for the assembled faithful, or, as early English Baptists termed it, "the gathered people" who live under "the rule of Christ").
So, as we get ready for the Holy Week cycle, the challenge is upon us. The world has seen the remarkable and I believe indelible image of Pope Francis kneeling before a fellow priest, unmistakably communicating his awareness he is in need of confession and seeking the fruitfulness of an abiding faith in the teachings of Jesus. The trappings of office surround him, yet he offers himself truthfully in that moment in a way that should really prod us to up our game.
Will the Easter message be proclaimed with smug artifice by a priest or minister more worried about "how did I do today with a larger than normal crowd?" (I confess my sin in thinking this on too many Easter mornings and Christmas Eves.) Is the Easter resurrection being proclaimed to a world sore in need of liberation from humanity's varying ways of going astray or exploiting one another socially, politically or economically? How does Easter culminate more than just this year's cycle of 40 days (and for some, a steady diet of fish on Fridays)?
How will our Holy Week observances be more than rote tradition (i.e. wave palms, shout Alleluia, and then go the rest of the week without a thought to the heaviness within the Liturgies of the Palms or the Passion)? Will we see these as old tradition or part of our way of learning to walk with Jesus through the midst of the world, even at its most frightening and forlorn?
Can we join our brother Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Francis I, in kneeling the midst of Lent and knowing exactly where we are and to whom we answer?