BY BISHOP HOWARD J. HUBBARD
The past two months have been transformative for our Roman Catholic community. We were stunned by the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, the first pope in nearly 600 years to relinquish the See of Peter in order to live a monastic life of prayer and reflection.
Worn down by the burdens of office and the unrelenting diminishment of strength that comes with aging, Benedict, with great courage, faith and humility, concluded that the best apostolic service he could render the Church universal was to hand over the Petrine ministry to one with more vigor and energy to fill the shoes of the fisherman.
Benedict did not enjoy the charismatic personality of his predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, and faced monumental challenges with the growth of secularism in the West and the crescendo of the clergy sex abuse scandal throughout the globe.
However, he was a gifted theologian, homilist and author - and, I believe, his three magnificent encyclicals on charity, hope and justice; his homilies; his insightful and accessible three-part series on Jesus of Nazareth; and his scholarly discourses delivered at his weekly papal audiences and during his Sunday Angelus addresses will have a long shelf life and continue to influence the Church for years to come.
Startling new pope
Benedict's startling departure was followed by an equally unprecedented election: giving us the first pope of the Americas, who is also the first Jesuit pontiff and the first to embrace the name Francis, in honor of the Poverello of Assisi, arguably the most well-known and beloved saint in the life of the Church.
Already, Pope Francis has captured the admiration of the Church and world by his simplicity, humility, gentle pastoral style and unswerving commitment to the poor, to service and to social justice advocacy, which were the hallmark of his priestly and episcopal ministry in his native Argentina.
As Jesuit theologian Rev. James Hanvey suggests, Pope Francis' very selection by the College of Cardinals is an indication of the recognition that "the Euro-American countries of the Church must give way to the Church emerging in a developing world. It must give voice to their concerns, which are far from those of the secular West. It must raise its voice against exploitation in the defense of their social and economic rights, especially the basic rights of human life and the rights of women and children."
Based upon his past experience, I am confident that this will be the lens through which Pope Francis seeks to guide our Church in the days ahead.
Hopefully, St. Francis of Assisi's love for the whole of creation will lead our new pope, who now bears the saint's name, to continue Pope Benedict's strong initiatives to care for the environment by seeking to combat global warming, which places the planet at great risk and impacts disproportionately on the poor of the world.
This seems to be on the agenda of Pope Francis, because, in the homily at his installation liturgy, he stated that the Church's mission "means respecting each of God's creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly and those in need, who are often the last that we think about."
Care for the poor, however, must not only be for those who are materially impoverished, but for those who are spiritually in want, as well - for the most pitiful form of human property is not the deprivation of material goods and possessions, but the lack of a knowledge of God and of a meaningful relationship with God.
That is why the new evangelization must be an important goal for Pope Francis. A recent Pew study on the global religious landscape revealed that "no religion" is the third-largest response after Christianity and Islam. Worldwide, 1.1 billion people - 16 percent of the population - have no religious affiliation, compared to 2.2 billion Christians (32 percent) and 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent).
In our United States, some 90 million people are unchurched. One in five Catholics have stopped practicing their faith or joined another denomination; one-third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation; and six percent now identify themselves as either atheists or agnostics.
So, it is imperative that we make evangelization our number-one priority. We must make our teaching more understandable, more attractive to young adults and more credible to a society and world jaded by the darkness of discouragement, disillusionment, despair, cynicism and skepticism.
Certainly, the election of a Latin American pope has given a boost to that segment of the globe which comprises 40 percent of the world's Catholics. Hopefully, Pope Francis will further solidify the faith of our Hispanic Catholics, whose immigration in recent decades has been the major source of growth in our own U.S. Catholic Church.
Evangelization, though, is not only the work of the pope, the bishops, the ordained and the vowed. Rather, as Pope Paul VI stated emphatically in his 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization, "Evangelii Nuntiandi," "evangelization is not an optional activity for the Church but a duty, incumbent upon every member of the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ so that people can believe and be saved."
Given the statistics I have cited, Pope Paul's exhortation is more urgently needed now than when it was issued originally.
Also, the lives of both Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis have been characterized by simplicity. This is a quality much-needed in our age of consumerism.
In his 1991 encyclical, "Centesimus Annus," commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's landmark "Rerum Novarum" social encyclical on capitalism and labor, Blessed Pope John Paul II lamented the consumerism he described as exhausting.
He pointed out that we in the West are shaped from cradle to grave to live and act as consumers. We are bombarded incessantly with high-powered advertising techniques that seek to define and create more and greater needs: The superfluous becomes the convenient; the convenient becomes the necessary; and the necessary becomes the indispensable.
Furthermore, these high-powered advertising techniques not only seek to define and create needs, but to shape the attitude and personality of the consumer, as well. The self becomes the center of the universe; other people, things to serve one's needs; the moral norm, efficiency; the means, whatever works, let the chips fall where they may - be they chips of unethical business practices, abortion, adultery, euthanasia, or whatever else suits one's needs.
That is why we need to break free from the lifestyle of high consumption, of wasteful depletion of resources and of the affluent use of service and leisure that abound within our society: so that we can truly listen to what Gospel values have to say.
Gospel values tell us that we are all God's children and that, with respect to the goods of this world, we are stewards, not masters; Gospel values say, "How blessed are the poor in spirit;" Gospel values remind us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven; Gospel values tell us that we should be content to be fed and clothed.
While all would readily admit that these are Gospel norms and values, there are far too few people who are willing to take the steps necessary or to make the sacrifices required to translate these evangelical exhortations into lived realities.
All of us try
For example, the poor person says, "Let the rich begin; I've had enough frugality already." The rich person says, "Why should I give up what I have legitimately acquired? Besides, if this is going to work, then everyone must be in the same boat. Therefore, let someone else begin and then we'll see." All this has the net result that no one does anything.
Therefore, I believe we in the Church can make a valuable contribution in today's world and society by taking the initiative to offer an irrefutable counter-witness to the consumerism of our day: by adopting a lifestyle that enables us to live with what is sufficient; a lifestyle that is less dependent upon money, power, prestige, influence and possessions and that is more open and available in service to others; a lifestyle that is characterized by simplicity in clothing, diet, entertainment and transportation, and by prayers for, advocacy on behalf of and service to the poor.
May our new Pope Francis and all of us, God's people who are called to holiness and ministry, seek to be people concerned for the poor, for the environment, for the new evangelization and for embracing a more simple lifestyle by heeding well the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
"Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
(April 04, 2013)