My hope for finishing up this series of meditations on the Cross was not fulfilled: rather than writing within two weeks of my previous post, I've now been delayed almost two months! Hopefully you will find what I have to present today worth the wait. This penultimate post is intended to present not my meditations but those of Pope Francis for (as I previously stated) he is surely “a man who knows the Cross in a deeper way.” My research into Pope Francis' understanding of the Cross has only confirmed this impression: since he was elected to the See of Rome, Pope Francis has spoken of the Cross with some regularity in his homilies, making it a key “theme” of his Petrine ministry of confirming all of us in faith (Luke 22:31-32).
Why is the Cross such a dominant theme in Pope Francis' preaching? While not denying his own initiative in the matter, a blog post by Sandro Magister alerted me a while back to one possible influence: Prosper Cardinal Grech's preaching to the cardinal electors prior to the start of the voting procedure for electing the new pope. “The Scandal of the Cross” section caught my attention, naturally:
The proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is made concrete in the proclamation of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). […] It is precisely this scandal of the cross that humbles the “hybris" of the human mind and elevates it to accept a wisdom that comes from above. In this case as well, to relativize the person of Christ by placing him alongside other “saviors” means emptying Christianity itself of its substance. It is precisely the preaching of the absurdity of the cross that in less than three hundred years reduced to the minimum the religions of the Roman empire and opened the minds of men to a new view of hope and resurrection. It is for the same hope that the modern world is thirsting, suffering from an existential depression.
Wow, that's something! The mention of the modern world's “thirsting” and “suffering from an existential depression” reminded me of Pope Benedict XVI's thoughts on the state of contemporary society, well-summarized in Chapter 4 of Tracy Rowland's Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I'm presently reading. Is Pope Francis' preaching of the Cross influenced by Cardinal Grech's preaching? Whatever the case, it is clear that its emphasis was being stressed at the highest levels of the Church's leadership prior to Francis' election.
Let's look at what the Pope has to say about the Cross. I'll leave it to the reader to compare the ideas of Pope Francis to those of Cardinal Grech contained in the excerpt above. We'll begin by looking at the connection of the Cross with evangelization.
(The numbers you encounter in brackets while reading refer to sources listed in the "view attributions" link at the bottom of the post.)
Pope Francis talks about the Cross often in the context of evangelization, with the understanding that evangelization is only possible through sincere Christian discipleship. Indeed, the living out of one's Christian discipleship is a form of evangelization. Thus, I can present three stages of Christian proclamation in the world: personal conversion from hearing the word ("discipleship”); a “passive proclamation” of this word through a public life of discipleship (“witness”); and an “active proclamation” of this word to the world around us (“evangelization”). All of these stages are colored by the Cross.
Discipleship begins by knowing our place: we are servants of a Crucified King [#4] and we are to imitate Him in all we do. Pope Francis speaks of the Cross as Jesus' “throne” [#4] and of the Church being built “on the Lord's blood” [#2]. We are to embrace the Cross as Jesus does: otherwise we are worldly and devoid of gospel courage [#2]. We must approach the Cross constantly as the source of our spiritual renewal, to be “re-created” constantly [#7, #11]. We are to look upon the world with the compassionate gaze of Christ on the Cross [#10, #11]. Finally, we must be filled with the hope of the Resurrection, overcoming the Cross through the joy given by the Holy Spirit [#4, #5, #6].
We become witnesses to Christ through our public lives of Christian discipleship. This can include enduring the disdain of the world for not abandoning the Cross [#14], which is made possible by embracing the Cross with true self-sacrificing love [#4]. As we become “permeated by the love of Christ” we become so united to the Cross that we can be said to be “grafted” onto it, like branches on the “tree of life” [#7]. United to the Cross, meekness characterizes how we act in the world: power is not for self-glorification but for service to others, for the common good [#3]. Pope Francis holds up St. Joseph as an icon of this service: lowly (not aggrandizing), concrete (not sentimental), and faithful (not from ulterior motives) [#3].
The “passive proclamation” of life-witness should lead naturally into the “active proclamation” of evangelization. Any authentic preaching we do—and here I have in mind any sort of work explicitly for the gospel—bears always the marks of the way of the Cross, beginning with hardship and persecution and ending in joy and consolation [#5, #7]. These marks are most obviously the “marks of Christ” found with the true “Apostle of the Gospel,” of which there is no better example than St. Paul [#7]. This is not to say that we must bear the stigmata (!), but simply that hardship is to be expected and endured in love (cf. John 13:16, John 15:20). Authentic preaching must also be characterized by the “scandal of the Cross” of which St. Paul speaks, which also brings about in hearers the “freedom of the Holy Spirit” [#15]. (Pope Francis notes that many, even professed Christians, are “not free, for fear of [this] freedom.”) Finally, authentic preaching professes the Cross as the “glory” of God; that is, Jesus' life of self-sacrifice even unto the Cross is all oriented towards giving glory to the Father [#2, #6], and “preaching the Cross” is characterized by actualizing this glorification.
Pope Francis has much more to say about the Cross in his homilies, but we'll wait to delve further into his thoughts until the next post. Until then, may God bless you in your own meditations.