I guess by now you have all heard about our new Pope who has chosen the name Francis. He has explained that this was inspired by thinking about St Francis of Assisi. It looks as though the Cardinals who elected him wanted a man who was strong in the faith but also determined to renew and purify the Church, and I guess we are all happy that our new Pope seems right for this. I love the idea that he has already refused to travel separately in the posh car for the Pope and instead travelled in the coach with the Cardinals and that he went and collected his own luggage from the hotel he had been staying in and paid his own bill! I was also intrigued to hear that unlike the normal process in which a new Pope confirms in their posts all the senior officials at the Vatican, he has delayed doing this. I guess he wants to see the Report on the Vatican that the old Pope is handing on to him and him alone before he decided who should run the Vatican in the future!
But can I offer a word of warning? It is easy to think that one Pope can change and purify everything, but it will not be the case. The Church, as a human organisation, is always in need of reform and purification, as are we the individuals that are its members – Cardinals, Priests and all the People! Our new Pope Francis will no doubt do his best, but it will be a hard job and he really needs our prayers doesn’t he? Not least because our British Press with its anti-Catholic bias has already begun to criticise his past. What he has to do is to be like Jesus in the Gospel today (John8:1-11) who identified the real sinners and was tough on them, and yet was compassionate to another sinner who was being treated as a victim. Now that is a hard task when there are 1.2 Billion members all of whom, including you and me, are less than perfect! The other thing I want to say is that we cannot assume that we can now leave it to him and he will put everything right, nor can we assume that he is perfect and that he will not make mistakes – being infallible only refers to his task of proclaiming an official doctrine of the Church – not on everyday matters. So what should we do?
Well St Paul has some ideas for us in our 2nd Reading today (Phil 3:8-14) when he tells us that he wants “only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ.” And then continues “Not that I have become perfect yet… I am still running.. so I forget the past and strain ahead for what is still to come.” This surely applies to us as individual Christians, as well as to the Church as a whole. It is something that you’ve heard me stress often in my Homilies – never to be self-satisfied – always to be looking to being a better person and to doing more in one way or another to help others around us.
Today the Church enters into a period of mourning. The statues are veiled in purple and we begin to look on towards the sadness and suffering of Jesus that we will remember next Sunday and throughout Holy Week. Although St Paul, and the 1st Reading from Isaiah (43:16-21) tell us not to recall the past, they do not mean that literally. Clearly, in order to be better Christians, and to be a better Church, we need to face up to our past failings if we are to get better. It is necessary, isn’t it, to be sad and sorry about things that we, or the Church as a whole, have done wrong. The suffering of Jesus and his death on the Cross are meant to remind us vividly of all the evil and sin of the world, that he endured through his Death and defeated in his Resurrection. But what we mustn’t do is to continually look back, to dwell on past mistakes, instead of looking to the future. That is surely what these readings are getting at.
The Death and Resurrection of Jesus teaches us that even in the darkest moments of our lives, or in the life of the Church, there is always hope, there is always a way forward. God is more powerful than all the sin and wickedness of the world. He allows such things to happen, because he gives us all the freedom to be ourselves, and that means facing up to our failures as well as looking at opportunities for improvement. But we Christians do not believe in self-improvement. The Self-Improvement ideas of our modern world may teach us a few ways of pulling ourselves together, but as Christians we do not believe that we can do it alone. Always we need to call on God to help us, because the forces of evil that we face can only be ultimately defeated by Him.
This is what St Patrick is most famous for – defeating and confronting evil in the name of Christ. Let us pray his great prayer, (the one we will sing at Communion) “Christ be beside me, Christ be before me” and make it something that we pray every day. Listen to the Catechism! (Para 1428) “Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This.. is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church – at once holy and always in need of purification.”
This is precisely why we need to go to Confession, as I will this Thursday, and the most important part of Confession for me is the Preparation – sitting down with God and looking at my life and identifying not just looking back to where I have failed (again!) but where I might do better in the future. It is the same for all of us. Like a car we need to be checked over regularly, but unlike a car we may not always run smoothly afterwards, because we are humans not engines, But at least we know from our Gospel that Christ is always there to help us with his infinite love and compassion, that sees deeper than our outward failings.