The newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church chose the name Francis. I love that, because Francis is one of my favourite saints. Saint Francis of Assisi symbolically rejected the wealth, the power, and the control of his family by stripping off all his expensive clothes, to stand naked in the town square. This was a way of saying he was placing all his hope and trust in God, and would not rely on worldly status, or his family’s influence, to make his way easier in this world.
Francis took the life, and teachings, and death, and resurrection of Jesus seriously, and chose to leave behind his old life, and live a new, resurrected life.
Francis is the saint we remember when we have a service to bless the animals. Francis saw God in the world around him, in all people, and in all living creatures. Pope Francis seems to be starting out on a path of reminding us all to look for God at work in the world- and not only in the traditional holy places like churches and shrines.
Francis took the papal tradition of re-enacting Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, and turned it inside out and upside down. Rather than hold this ceremony in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica, where his papal predecessors have usually washed the feet of 12 carefully chosen priests, Pope Francis went to a juvenile detention centre called the Casal del Marmo. While there he washed, and kissed the feet of 12 convicted criminals. Two were Muslims, and two were women. No pope has ever done this, and Francis defied canon law when he washed and kissed the feet of a non-Catholic woman.
Why would the new Pope do these radical things? As Francis explained to the young inmates, “This is a symbol, it is a sign; washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.”
Before he left them, the pope also said, “I am happy to be with you. Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope.”
This was not new behaviour for this man. While archbishop of Bueno Aires, Argentina, he would celebrate the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals or hospices – symbolic of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society.
I heard about something else he did after he was elected as the head of the world’s largest Christian denomination. (There are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world.) He went to the small hotel in Rome where he had been staying while attending the cardinal’s conclave, and checked himself out. He could have sent someone to do that- or had them send an invoice, but he returned to the hotel and thanked them for their hospitality, and personally paid the bill.
He also phoned the newspaper vendor near his home in Buenos Aires, to tell him that he would not be walking by to pick up his daily newspaper. He liked to stop by and pick up the paper, and chat with the vendor. Once a week he would bring back the elastic bands he saved, that the vendor uses to secure the rolled up papers. I love the attention to simple details, and to the people he meets each day, that are revealed in these stories.
He has not gone as far as Francis of Assisi did, stripping naked in the town square, but this new Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is shaking things up at the Vatican. He has rejected the tradition of living in the lavish Papal apartments. When Vatican officials showed him the accommodations, he said: “But there is room for 300 people in here.”
How wonderful! Wouldn’t it be amazing if other world leaders looked at the places they live with the same compassionate, humble eyes? I know I risk raising a ruckus when I say this- but I remember that the Queen of England is also the official head of the Anglican Church. How many people could live in Buckingham Palace, her official residence, or even one of her spare castles or estates? What is all that extra space for, in world where people go hungry and homeless?
I better be careful. Saying things like that can make a minister, or a pope unpopular. In more polarized places, asking questions about how the wealthy and powerful live can get a person killed. We are still close enough to Good Friday to remember that.
In our reading this morning from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem trying to sort out what to do with Peter and the apostles, followers of Jesus, in the days after the first Good Friday, and the first Easter. The Jewish high priests, were still concerned to keep peace with the Romans who controlled their country. They were frustrated that Peter and his friends kept on teaching and preaching Jesus’ message. They had hoped that Jesus’ death on the cross would be the end of all the trouble-making.
It was confusing to them that rather than shutting down the followers of Jesus, the events of the first Easter weekend seemed to have charged them up, made them more bold. Those outside the Jesus movement didn’t know what to make of it all.
Over the next few weeks we are going to be reading stories from the Book of Acts, to get a deeper sense of what happened in those early times after the first Easter. How did the first followers of Jesus move from fear and confusion, and paralysing grief, to hopeful, daring living out of the Good News of God’s love?
Hopefully we will pick up some clues from them about how to live as resurrected people. Amen