No doubt, the biggest headline of Pope Francis’ recent trip to the Philippines was the final Mass on Sunday January 18th. It was the largest gathering of human beings for anything, ever. With reportedly 6 to 7 million people attending the outdoor Mass despite heavy rainfalls all day, it obviously garnered a lot of interest worldwide.
There were some other headlines, too, that people seemed to clamor onto, some that were trying to be political or newsworthy (“Francis in favor of limiting ‘free speech’” – no he isn’t – read here for more on that). Some focusing in on his reaffirming Catholic teachings and “what that means...” But my take away from the entire event, watching at quite a distance on my laptop here in New Jersey, was something much more simple, something much more beautiful that Pope Francis did - he showed the heart of a priest.
It was at a smaller Mass on Saturday Morning (smaller meaning only about 500,000 people attended!) in Tacloban City. It was a special Mass in “ground zero” of a Typhoon that hit the region 14 months earlier where over 10,000 people died and massive devastation crippled the communities. You could see it on the face of the Holy Father - the compassion he had for these people who, in spite of their losses, their grief, their pain, they braved typhoon conditions again - standing in the rain and winds just to hear the Pope speak. And you could see the Pope’s heart moved... to the point that his prepared homily, written in English, (a language the Pope struggles with, so one has to imagine that a lot of time and effort went into writing, translating even going over it to be able to deliver it) – he asked the people if they minded if he put it aside, spoke from the heart in his native Spanish and had it translated by a priest standing by.
Just that humble gesture, which had been met by sounds of approving applause, was moving. But then he spoke so simply and gently... No platitudes. No trite sayings. No well-meaning but theologically horrible thoughts (like “God only tests those he loves to prove how strong they are”). Instead he said:
“So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart. Many of you have asked the Lord – why lord? And to each of you, to your heart, Christ responds with his heart from the cross. I have no more words for you. Let us look to Christ. He is the lord.”
So often, when I’m speaking with young men who are discerning priesthood, they get so caught up in their worthiness, their abilities – focused on how unworthy, unable they think they are to respond to Jesus’ call to follow Him, to lay down their lives, to be His priest. And so often, I find myself at a loss to convince them how normal those feelings are. How I wish I could give them transcripts of my discussions with my Spiritual Directors over the years where I struggle with that reality. But in a lot of ways, I realize that wouldn’t be effective. It’s not something I can tell someone. It’s something you have to see and hear with the eyes and ears of the heart.
Seeing and hearing Pope Francis visibly moved, somber at the pain of those gathered, and probably desperately hoping to have the magic words, the ability to lift that pain for the people. Trying to imagine he faces the same temptations I’ve found as a priest at times – to go with some prepared words that at least would try to look and sound good - but instead seeing him simply saying in his native tongue with brutal honesty: “I don’t know what to say to you...” Pope Francis showed the heart of a priest who so often struggles on a daily basis with the variety of things priests are called to encounter... usually on much smaller stages, but no less profound in loss and pain:
A loved one has suddenly died.
A child is sick.
A wife has lost her job.
A husband is struggling with an addiction.
We priests see the real pain of real people. And so often, we don’t know what to say either. But the love of the priest compels us to be with the people - to be the presence of Christ and to remind them of His presence, just as the Holy Father did. In fact, Pope Francis said that the motivation to travel to the Philippines was born as he watched the images of the typhoon destruction 14 months ago in Rome and felt compelled to go and be with the people who were suffering.
Someone once said, “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.” The beauty of the priesthood is that he uses us, and so often uses our weaknesses in order to effectively shed his light on humanity. Priesthood isn’t about simply doing the things we like to do. It’s about serving His people by pouring ourselves out for them.
It’s just one more blessing that we can take from this past week’s coverage. Seeing how Pope Francis could demonstrate his own limitations in the face of such considerable pain and grief, and observing the profound affect that had on thousands upon thousands of people. Can you be humble enough, willing, open enough – to have the heart to do the same?