Our little parish church in Lachine, Que.,verges on the higgledy–piggledy at times.
Sunday Mass starts on time, and the liturgy is followed with proper respect, of course. There's always a certain feeling in the air around the gathered grey hairs, new Canadians and cradle Catholics returning for the sake of the kids, though. It's a sense that the impromptu risks breaking out at any moment.
Hymns are often led by an extremely courageous young fellow whose pure boyish voice is, shall we say, now running up on the curb of puberty. Our priest is a fine, fine man: the physical manifestation of kindness, gentleness and humility. But he endured a serious health fright this past winter and cannot conceal his fatigue no matter how hard he tries. He actually retired from active ministry last year but then – welcome to Quebec – came back rather than have the church stand empty on the weeks his replacement was saying Mass at a second parish.
One recent Sunday, he delivered a short homily that was evidently patched together in his head on his drive to church that morning. As we drove home after Mass, my son, who has been sampling the grandeur of churches in Paris while living there, began to pick apart the homily for being so theologically threadbare. I couldn't disagree with a single fault he found.
When I was his age, I would practically go twinkle–toes for smells and bells. Working the ground of my own reason for faith, I settled on beauty as necessary and sufficient. During a six week sojourn at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, the conviction struck – and stuck – that a world able to boast Michelangelo's "Pietà" and Bach's Mass in B minor, not to mention Gregorian chant and Blind Alfred Reed's 'Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down,'" had to have more than a passing connection with an all–knowing and merciful Creator/Saviour. The rest was – is – elaboration and commentary.
Yet having come so far for beauty, in Mr. L. Cohen's immortal phrase, I couldn't help pointing out to my son that while grandeur is grand for drawing us towards it, the plain, the simple, the raggedy, the threadbare contain infinite power to move our hearts to truth if only we are willing to truly look and listen. If only, that is, we can bring ourselves to see the glorious, shining beauty of Christ's face in the distressing disguise of all that seems outwardly poor.
I asked him to think about the tableau that had been put before us: an elderly priest facing his years through the challenges to health and energy, standing in front of his catch–call congregation in his higgledy–piggledy parish, on a morning when he probably shoulda stood in bed, preaching, however simply, the word of God, the source of Life, the expression of Love. Not hectoring us with what Pope Francis has called the "ideology of ethics" or threatening us with shame and sulphur for straying like lost sheep. Neither inundating us with erudition nor inspiring us with pure spectacle. Rather, standing in his place to let us look, as deeply as we were able, for that poor face in all its radiant glory. Looking to that face to renew in our hearts the truth that is as old as the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
This is the face of the Church – of Christian life; indeed of the whole life of religious faith – that Pope Francis is asking us to open our eyes upon anew. This, I think, is what he means when he calls us to his desire for a Church that is impoverished; that has the mud of the streets on its shoes.
There has been, since Francis' election as pope, much duck clucking from the media commentariat that such a call represents a radical departure not just of style but of substance. It is said to portend a wholesale upending of dogma. As Convivium editor–in–chief Father Raymond J. de Souza reminds us in this month's Sea to Sea column, however, the idea that Francis is some kind of Latin American theo–revolutionary is a signal misunderstanding of the history and nature of the Church.
The Church, Father de Souza notes, has always spoken with a voice that is both merciful and prophetic. Any change in emphasis is not a matter of dissonance but of discernment as to what the times require. What the times always require is the Gospel message that breaks through the deceptive gaudiness in which all eras, all societies, wrap themselves and goes straight to the impoverished human heart.
Few better examples can be found than Cardinal Timothy Dolan's description in this issue of Pope John Paul II's first visit back to Poland in 1979 after becoming pontiff. As the Pope stood before 1.5 million of his countrymen in Warsaw, a murmuring of three Polish words began at the back of the crowd and swelled until it burst from their throats as one.
"A millon and a half people slowly, slowly, slowly before they're all on their feet, shouting it out: 'We want God. We want God. We want God,' Cardinal Dolan writes. "Solidarity is born. The soul is restored."
A grandeur made infinitely beautiful for being so simple, so unadorned.