COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. (CNS) — The following excerpt of an essay on Pope Francis and prayer was written by Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, for the book, “A Pope Francis Lexicon.”
Edited by Joshua J. McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, and Cindy Wooden, the Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief, the book contains 54 essays by cardinals, bishops, theologians, women and men religious and professional writers. It will be published Feb. 15 by Liturgical Press.
I had Mass with Pope Francis at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Well, I and a couple hundred thousand others in and around the basilica. There we were, from different places and coming with different concerns, the rich and the mighty poor, the communion of the baptized around the successor of Peter, at the altar of Christ in the house of the Virgin Mother of God. Here was the church on sacramental display, showing forth her identity as a body at prayer. This is what I first think about when asked about this pope and prayer.
I have only greeted Pope Francis briefly on a few occasions. But watching him celebrate Mass, hearing him preach and being in his presence when he pauses for silent contemplation are experiences, like the one in Mexico City, that have left deep traces on my mind. Maybe in our individualized societies, with our relational selectivity, we think first about personal prayer when we use the word “prayer.” But I think for the Holy Father, prayer is first of all a work initiated by the living God who swoops into our lives and pulls us into his vision and into his activity. The event of God’s swooping is the creation of an “us,” a people, a body. We are never more at prayer than when it is we who pray. This is why it came so naturally to Pope Francis to ask for the prayers and blessing of the great crowds assembled at St. Peter’s Square on the night of his election. There is great grace and blessing in the assembly of the communion of the baptized.
When the Holy Father preaches, he is showing us that prayer is a response to Jesus in the flesh. Not just to his words or to his teaching but to him in person: “Jesus wished to introduce his companions into the mystery of life, into the mystery of his life. … He invited them to share his life, his interiority, and in his presence among them he allowed them to touch, in his flesh, the life of the Father” (homily in Morelia, Michoacan, Feb. 16, 2016).
Some have said that the Holy Father’s preaching is down-to-earth, or even earthy. I would say that Pope Francis has the gift of getting to the point. The church is supposed to be like your mother, not your mother-in-law, he is said to have said once. Whether he did or did not say exactly that is not as important as the fact that we can all imagine that he could have said it. The Lord was fairly earthy in his preaching too: Jesus said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Mt 15:26). This is not exactly the saying of one whose first priority is politeness. Yet as with the Gospel itself, the abruptness and the imagery the pope uses all point to mercy. Only prayer can successfully navigate that kind of preacher’s curve. “A preacher has to contemplate the Word, but he also has to contemplate his people” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” 154).
Prayer cannot help but draw us into the paschal mystery. People have commented, and I have noticed, that when the pope celebrates Mass, there is very little change in his facial expression. He is intensely present to the mystery, especially as he approaches the altar. And yet he is profoundly aware that he is not alone, that there is a throng around him. It is as if he wants us all to be present to Christ in his sacrifice and be aware of the many who are with us, and aware also of the many who are not with us.
This is the kind of intensely focused gaze I have sensed when the Holy Father celebrates the Mass. It is also the gaze of his attention as he prays to the Mother of God. To try to explain the Holy Father’s devotion to the Virgin Mother of God would be futile — and in some ways disrespectful. Love is love, and it resists being understood apart from our own contemplation in the midst of love. He speaks of how he learned from his grandmother how to love the Virgin. But there at the Basilica of Guadalupe, it was so clear: Mary’s house, the dwelling place of God in the flesh, the assembly of those related to him because he chose to be related to her.
And so it is that the Holy Father shows us a way of prayer that is transparent and translucent to the provocative appearance of the Word made flesh. The narrative of the Gospel is the Lord’s plea to us to drink deeply of his compassion. Whether at Mass or in our rooms with the doors closed, the vista of the Lord is what we are offered if only we take the first step and respond to him by saying, “Lord, I want to see.” And he draws us into the mystery of his crucified flesh, raised in glory and even now drawing his people into his very own gaze, transforming us into agents of his grace.