In the incredible plethora of stories, photos, mementos, etc. that surrounded the recent election and inauguration of Jorge Maria Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, perhaps my favorite photo was the one taken last March 23. This showed Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI kneeling in prayer side by side, almost shoulder to shoulder, in their white cossacks in the private chapel of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope on the edge of Lake Albano, not far from Rome, where Benedict is temporarily staying while his apartment on the Vatican grounds is being repaired.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. That photo of the two Popes kneeling side by side in the private chapel is fraught with immense symbolisms. It’s a snapshot of the strength of continuity in the 2,000-year papacy, despite a few historic aberrations such as the nearly seven-decade “Great Schism” in the 14th century, when there were two claimants to the Throne of Peter, one in Rome and the other in Avignon, France.
The visit of Pope Francis to his predecessor by helicopter was one of his first acts, with Benedict meeting him at the landing site—the first such meeting in 600 years between predecessor pontiff and successor. As Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi related it, there was a “moving embrace between the two” and getting into the rear of the car for the drive to the papal apartments, Benedict yielded the place of honor on the right side to Francis.
Once inside the apartments they immediately went to the chapel, and there the Pope Emeritus again offered the place of honor in front of the byzantine image of Our Lady at the altar to Pope Francis, and Benedict would take the rear pew. But Pope Francis said: “We are brothers,” and insisted for them to kneel together in the same pew. After a moment of prayer, they went to the private library where the private meeting began, with Pope Francis gifting his successor with a beautiful icon of Our Lady of Humility, in recognition of Benedict XVI's great humility.
In an afternoon full of meaning and symbols, it was noted that the Pope Emeritus wore a simple white cassock without a sash and a mantilla that his successor wore as symbol of his current office. After the private and confidential meeting, said the account, the Pope Emeritus took Pope Francis back to the heliport for his return to the Vatican.
Fr. Lombardi’s account said that the historic Castel Gandolfo visit by Pope Francis was their first face-to-face meeting since Benedict left the Papacy and Francis was elected pope last March 19, Feast of St. Joseph; but it was said that Pope Francis had many times already addressed his thoughts to the Pope Emeritus, during his first appearance on the central Loggia, and then in two personal calls on the night of his election and on St. Joseph’s Day.
The account also said that the retired Pope had already expressed his unconditional reverence and obedience to his successor at his farewell meeting with the Cardinals, February 28. Certainly, it said, that noon’s Castel Gandolfo meeting—“which was a moment of profound and elevated communion”—was the Pope Emeritus’ opportunity to “renew this act of reverence and obedience to his successor,” and certainly too, Pope Francis “renewed his gratitude and that of the whole Church for Pope Benedict’s ministry during his pontificate.”
Why was this blogger so touched by that photo of the two Popes kneeling side by side in the private chapel? I thought that Pope Francis, in insisting that “We are brothers,” was telling his predecessor, “Stay with me. Don’t abandon me, as I am so nervous with the weight of the world and the responsibility of leading the Church on my shoulders.” Francis now has a powerhouse ally in Benedict who had told the world earlier that he would spend his last days praying for the Church.
The humility of the two Church leaders is awe-inspiring. May it touch the hearts of all clergy and the faithful as well.
As my own “Lenten Special,” allow me to feature here three small oil paintings from the series of the “Via Crucis” by our own National Artist Ang Kiu Kok that has been in my collection for many years now. One day many years back, Mrs. Purita Kalaw Ledesma, longtime president of the Art Association of the Philippines, saw these small paintings individually done on kamagong tryptich style. She said that never again was the artist able to do another such series, with the Christ figure lean and gaunt in His agony.
I thought the Via Crucis series by Ang Kiu Kok would be a perfect companion to a meditation on Lent, titled “Lent, A New Conversion,” delivered by St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, first given on March 2, 1952, First Sunday of Lent, and reprinted in his book, “Christ is Passing By.” Space here permits only a reprint of a portion of that homily by St. Josemaria:
“Imitators of God"
“Let’s remind ourselves, this Lent, that the Christian cannot be superficial. While being fully involved in his everyday work, among other men, his equals, busy, under stress, the Christian has to be at the same time totally involved with God, for he is a child of God.“Divine filiation is a joyful truth, a consoling mystery. It fills all our spiritual life; it shows us how to speak to God, to know and to love our Father in heaven. And it makes our interior struggle overflow with hope and gives us the trusting simplicity of little children. More than that: precisely because we are children of God, we can contemplate in love and wonder everything as coming from the hands of our Father, God the Creator. And so we become contemplatives in the middle of the world, loving the world. “In Lent, the liturgy recalls the effect of Adam’s sin in the life of man. Adam did not want to be a good son of God; he rebelled. But we also hear the echoing chant of that felix culpa: “O happy fault,” which the whole Church will joyfully intone at the Easter vigil.
“God the Father, in the fullness of time, sent to the world his only-begotten Son, to re-establish peace; so that by his redeeming men from sin, “we might become sons of God,” freed from the yoke of sin, capable of sharing in the divine intimacy of the Trinity. And so it has become possible for this new man, this new grafting of the children of God, to free all creation from disorder, restoring all things in Christ, who has reconciled them to God.
"It is, then, a time of penance, but, as we have seen, this is not something negative. Lent should be lived in the spirit of filiation, which Christ has communicated to us and which is alive in our soul. Our Lord calls us to come nearer to him, to be like him: “Be imitators of God, as his dearly beloved children,” (Eph. 5:1) cooperating humbly but fervently in the divine purpose of mending what is broken, of saving what is lost, of bringing back to order what sinful man has put out of order, of leading to its goal what has gone astray, of re-establishing the divine balance of all creation."
(Christ is Passing By, 65)
“A new conversion"
“I advise you to try sometime to return... to the beginning of your first conversion, which, if it is not becoming like children, is very much like it. In the spiritual life we have to let ourselves be led with complete trust, single-mindedly and without fear. We have to speak with absolute clarity about what we have in our mind and in our soul."
“To be converted you must climb via humility, along the path of self-abasement."
“Never lose heart, for Our Lord is always ready to give you the necessary grace for the new conversion you need, for that ascent in the supernatural field."
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