Pope Francis recently led an extraordinary moment of prayer, one spectacular in its imagery, profound in its preaching, earnest in its supplication, and powerful through its blessing of the city and the world (“Urbi et Orbi”).
Now, the pope shares his thoughts on “A Time of Uncertainty” with Austin Ivereigh. Conducted in Spanish but published in English, the interview is fairly brief and the format easily readable. But words alone don’t do justice to what the pope is communicating.
In each response to six questions posed by Ivereigh, Pope Francis takes up his own adage about preaching. In Evangelii Gaudium (no. 157), he states: “A good homily … should have ‘an idea, a sentiment, (and) an image’.”
Sometimes his own, sometimes drawn from literature, the imaginative corollaries to the pope’s comments express differently his musings on the questions asked. As Tim Muldoon points out, the pope’s Jesuit formation informs this pictorial way of thinking.
But I suspect there’s something more. By responding with images, Pope Francis invites his interlocutors to engage with his thinking and, thus, to ponder the potential meaning for themselves.
Consider, for example, the image in his first response. Asked about his own experience of being locked down, Pope Francis admits that he is praying more, out of concern for people. Then he says, “Thinking of people anoints me, it does me good, it takes me out of my self-preoccupation.”
Of course, the notion of thinking about people pertains to the pope’s job as pastor of the world. His Jesuit confrere, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, suggests that Pope Francis is “profoundly disturbed and pained by so much suffering and sacrifice.” In such a state, the thought of people “confirms and reinvigorates” the pope in his pastoral mission.
But thought that “anoints” someone is an odd image. It suggests the workings of the mind and heart made into oil and put upon a person through a personal touch. There’s a texture to it, a scent in it, a flowing movement, a permanent residue.
It’s a sacramental image, as we use oil to confirm, to heal, and even to ordain. Somehow, then, thinking of others strengthens, comforts, and even commissions. Such concern touches one with the grace of God. The thought enables one to accompany another along this perilous way.
On Good Friday, we might say, the Lord “anoints” the world from the cross and accompanies us there. That’s a strange image, since he is the one crucified, not the rest of us. But thinking through the paschal story, we see the divine “anointing” at work.
Anticipating the cross on Holy Thursday, the Lord accompanies us through the Eucharist, anointing, as it were, the bread and wine with his real presence.
On Calvary, he accompanies the two others crucified along with him, anointing the repentant one with the promise of his being in paradise this very day.
There, too, he accompanies all who question the reason for suffering, anointing their doubts with his own plaintive cry, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”
The crucified Lord promises also to accompany the church, anointing the Blessed Virgin and his beloved disciple with the mutual care of mother and son.
Jesus accompanies all of us on this Good Friday. The potential for infection and possible death occasioned by the spread of a novel coronavirus is agitating the world with real fear. Compounded further by the cognizance of our own sins, that fear grows worse by having to be “socially distanced” from those we love.
In all this, Jesus accompanies us from the cross. There he takes upon himself the sin and suffering that distances humanity from the eternal happiness for which we have been created. There his own respirations cease when he breathes forth his last. There his Sacred Heart is pierced open for us, and we are “anointed” with the blood and water that flows from it to sanctify us.
When Easter comes, the risen Jesus vanquishes the power of death, thereby releasing us from the chains of mortal existence (and the attendant anxiety produced by a pandemic). At Pentecost, the ascended Jesus will “anoint” those who believe in him with the Holy Spirit, pouring into their minds and hearts the truth of God’s steadfast love.
To be sure, uncertainty characterizes today’s trying times. Images, too, remain uncertain in as much as each can be “seen” differently.
But pondering the papal image of being anointed with the thought of others may give us some certainty about what Good Friday means. In turn, seeing the cross anew can help us best respond to the global crisis in which we are living.
Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S. is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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