Humble Pope, Humble Savior

Shepherd One
Shepherd One

If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all. (Mark 9:35)

If we really want to understand what this means, I think we have to meditate on Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate.

Christ had made what St. Paul calls His “noble confession.” That is, Jesus had declared His true identity. He possesses absolute authority. There is only One Who rules all. Christ, only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, is that One.

Here He stands, the One Who actually is truly the first, standing before a feckless Roman careerist with highly limited insight, and less courage. The Emperor of All Things stands in the dock, at a shabby excuse for a tribunal of justice, accused of blasphemy for declaring what is true. And, because this new, divine Adam loves you and me as much as He does, He bows His head, accepts His death sentence without protest, and takes up His cross.


Lately, the airwaves have coursed with news of Pope Francis and his visit to these shores. This week we will certainly see a lot of Pope-Francis coverage. Your unworthy servant will have the privilege of concelebrating Mass with His Holiness on Wednesday afternoon in Washington, when the pope will declare the Apostle of California, Fr. Junipero Serra, a saint. Holy Father will use Fr. Serra’s language, the original vernacular language of the Church in North America…Spanish.

pope-francis_2541160kAnyway, people love Pope Francis for his humility, as well we should love him for it. He occupies the office with the world’s greatest responsibilities in a perfectly unassuming way. Now, those of us with functioning memories can recall that Popes Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI, and John XXIII all occupied the office of Successor of St. Peter with unassuming humility, also. But that doesn’t make Pope Francis’ humility any less powerful and beautiful. To really understand the power of the pope’s humility, though, we have to try to understand its source.

The Holy Father does not practice humility because his enormous ability to influence people and events embarrasses him. Much less does he practice humility in order to out-humble previous popes. No. Humble Pope Francis is as humble as he is for one reason, the same reason that humble St. Francis walked the streets of Assisi as humbly as he did: because of the humble Savior.

One of the best devotional exercises we can do, I think, is to try to imagine how the world would look to us if we had never heard of Jesus Christ. Of course, we can never completely succeed in imagining this. Most of us have fed on Christ as our spiritual food since our earliest years. But, since the world around us has fallen back into paganism, we can do this spiritual exercise a lot more successfully than our grandparents could.

So, let’s ask ourselves: Could anyone really practice humility, the virtue of humility, in a world without Christ? Pagan nations have not generally prized humility as a virtue in their own citizens, though of course they loved having humble slaves. As the Lord Jesus said, “The pagans lord it over each other. The masters insist on making their authority felt.”

Ambitious pagan people jockey for position, stab each other in the back, claw their way to the top, stomping on the heads of their closest associates—and for what? Status in a puny pecking order.

the_passion_of_the_christYears ago, I had friends among the aspiring avant-garde artists in New-York-City. One of them said to me, after a supposed friend of his had trashed him viciously in order to get a leg up for an obscure gallery show: “It’s par for the course. The fighting is so fierce because the stakes are so low.”

Meanwhile, here stands Christ—with power, glory, eternal beatitude in His sovereign hands. With those very hands, He grasps the cross He carried for us.

Of course, the most humbling thing for us about Jesus Christ’s incandescent humility is this: this is Divine Mercy for us. We have to humble ourselves enough to see that… 1. For all our vain human ambitions, we have absolutely no hope at all for anything truly good, without Christ, and 2. He loves us enough—loves us, lumps and all, foolishness and all—Almighty God, our Creator, loves us enough to stand before Pilate and bow His head, so that we won’t have to, when the day of reckoning comes.

There is nothing we ever could have done, or ever could do, to deserve such love. Yet He loved us enough to satisfy for our sins as one of us. This is even more humbling. We can say, “Look, Father! Our brother Jesus is just! The human race does not totally suck. Not at all. We have Jesus, and all of His saints, especially His Blessed Mother!” And when we cry out to Him like this, which is what we are doing every time we pray Holy Mass together, He smiles and says, “Yes, My children. Yes.”

The humble pope will soon give us a special holy year, a jubilee year, of mercy. So that we can share more fully in what Christ has humbly done for us. Jubilee Year of Mercy begins December 8, the fiftieth anniversary of the conclusion of the second Vatican Council. More on that as the day gets closer. In the meantime, let’s pray for our Holy Father’s safe travels and rejoice that he has come to visit us!

No King but Caesar?

Pontius Pilate appears to have been genuinely confused by how much the High Priests and the crowd hated Christ.

At first, Pilate did not want to judge Christ at all. Then Pilate tried to appease the people by having Jesus scourged, instead of crucified. But only death would satisfy the angry mob.

Then Pilate asked them a question, full of contemptuous irony: “Shall I crucify your king?”

He received the answer: “We have no king but Caesar!”

We have no king but Caesar.

Continue reading “No King but Caesar?”

Sinners, Men

Thus spake the noble Prince of Denmark to poor, sad Ophelia:

Why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all.

…I took a brief trip to Guatemala to practice speaking Spanish. Imagine my surprise when I encountered a group of feminist Presbyterians arguing for women’s ordination!

Perfectly delightful. Lovely ladies.

Now, why can’t they be ordained?

Fr. W.'s new amigas

Continue reading “Sinners, Men”

Pilate’s Conversion?

Pontius Pilate sat as judge in Sanhedrin v. Jesus of Nazareth. As we know, the trial proceeded as a travesty of justice.

Pontius Pilate

Why did the judge fail so miserably in his duty to pursue the truth? At one point, we heard the defendant say that He had come to bear witness to the truth. Pilate responded by asking, “What is truth?”

When Pilate brought the prisoner out, he said, “I find no guilt in him.” But Pilate did not declare Christ innocent.

Pilate knew that he was up against a case that he did not and could not understand. But there was one thing Pilate took for granted: Jesus of Nazareth must be guilty of something.

Pilate had seen too much of the world to be so naïve as to think that there was such a thing as an innocent man.

“This crazy prophet made these priests mad. Maybe he didn’t do everything they say he did. But he must have done something. I won’t be able to get to the bottom of this, so why bother trying? Let them all rot in their self-righteous hypocrisy.”

Whenever Pilate became aware that his prisoner had risen from the dead—whenever the Roman procurator beheld the true innocence of this man—whether it was while Pilate was still on earth or when he went to meet the truth after breathing his last—whenever it was, Pilate surely had to endure the agony of seeing just how wrong he was.

Maybe that agony became Pilate’s everlasting torment. But, on the other hand, maybe seeing the perfectly innocent man, standing in vigor and strength—maybe the sight of the risen Christ kindled a spark of joy somewhere deep in the heart of the cynical, worldly judge.

Maybe even Pontius Pilate, after doing penance for all his sins against the truth—maybe even Pilate could share in the joy of the whole human race, the new hope of the world: Innocence is possible. There is such a thing as the truth.

Not only that: innocence and truth have a strength which conquers deceit, cynicism, cruelty—even death itself.

Reaction to Reading John 9

There are a number of moments in this gospel passage when people seem, frankly, out of it.

“Lord, who sinned? This man or his parents?”

“Is this the one who used to sit and beg? No, it just looks like him.”

“This man might have cured the blind, but he cannot come from God because he does not keep the sabbath!”

These statements all have one thing in common: They are obtuse.

The Lord Jesus enabled a man born blind to see what was in front of his face. But it seems like everyone else involved could not see what was in front of their faces.

“Is your son cured?” “Ask him.”

“Are you disciples of Christ?” “No, we are disciples of Moses.”

“Where is the man who cured you?” “I don’t know.”

“What do you have to say about him?—No wait. You were born in sin, so how can you teach us?”

At one point, the cured blind man began to speak by saying, “This is what is so amazing…” What is amazing is that no one talks in a simple straight line. No one wants to acknowledge the obvious facts.

Except the Lord Jesus. “I am the light of the world,” He said.

Pontius Pilate

The Lord of truth has no patience for obtuse and manipulative speech. In the Sermon on the Mount, He insisted: “Let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No.” A disciple of Christ lives in the simplicity of the truth, without fearing it or blinkering himself to it, without trying to change it or fudge it.

The fact of the matter is, we human beings cannot live in peace with each other if we do not have confidence in each other’s commitment to seeking and speaking the truth.

The account of the cure of the man born blind would be much more satisfying to read if everyone involved loved the truth. But rather, the episode provides us with a particularly vivid example of a situation where trust and truthfulness have been lost.

The streets of Jerusalem hissed with whispers in shadowy corners. Small, weak men fought for their petty prerogatives. They conspired and plotted. The idea of the common good did not enter their minds, except as a pretext for self-serving violence.

The light of the world walked unarmed into this cesspool of dissimulation. He spoke divine truth with unguarded forthrightness and calm candor. When Christ went up to the obtuse city that Jerusalem had become, He showed us the path to honesty in this fallen world: He prized the truth more than His own mortal life.

Pontius Pilate tried to flim-flam his way through the Passover festival. Instead, he wound up with a riot on his hands and his lackluster career in peril.

Pilate knew the mysterious rabbi was innocent. But he sent Him to a cruel death anyway.

Before He took the cross in His hands, the condemned Galilean said:

For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.