Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Readings: Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; Psalm 145(146):6-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12
29 January 2023
Pope Francis has been letting loose this past week. He had some very direct advice for those of us who give homilies each Sunday: “Eight, 10 minutes, no more! And always a thought, a sentiment, and an image. Let people take something home with them.”
On Tuesday, he responded to the three-pronged assault he had suffered in recent weeks from theological conservatives worried about the direction in which he is taking the church. First, there was Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Pope Benedict’s long-time private secretary. Gänswein decided to leak all sorts of confidences including the contents of a note sent from Cardinal Christoph Schönborn to Joseph Ratzinger during the conclave when it was clear that the voting was going Ratzinger’s way. Schönborn said, “I don’t think it’s right to publish such confidential things, especially not on the part of someone who was his private secretary.” Then there was Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller who had been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). He lamented, “There is a kind of magic circle that gravitates around Santa Marta (where Pope Francis lives), composed of people who, in my opinion, are not prepared theologically.” Miffed at being terminated as head of the CDF, he said that “over time the pope has cultivated a form of distrust, of aversion to German theologians, academics”. Then we had our own Cardinal George Pell’s posthumous publication in The Spectator describing the forthcoming synod as a ‘toxic nightmare’ as well as posthumous confirmation that he was the principal author of the memo released last year under the pseudonym ‘Demos’ circulated to various cardinals describing the present pontificate as ‘a disaster’ and ‘a catastrophe’, and outlining the priorities for the next pope: “restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition”.
At the outset of his papacy, Francis said, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.” Gänswein, Müller and Pell are representative of those Catholics worried that Pope Francis has been forfeiting the certainty of dogma based on truth and tradition, while pursuing pastoral solicitude for those who live in the Church, availing themselves of the sacraments and the teachings as faithfully as they can while living complex lives as best they can.
Seven years ago, these three started sounding the alarm in their private conversations when Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in which he said, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.” He went on to say: “For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families’.” He said, “[I]t is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” In a footnote, he added: “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’.”
Many of us breathed a sigh of relief and thanked God when Francis said these things. He was telling us that God’s mercy is always able to trump the Church’s dogma. I readily concede that Francis’s predecessors John Paul II and Benedict had not said such things. Each has been a pope for his times. For the last five years, Cardinal Pell was urging priests like me to take more interest in what was happening in the Vatican. I used to joke with him, “I have more than enough pastoral work and advocacy to do in Australia without worrying about what might be going on in the Vatican. I’ve always thought that too close attention to the goings on in the Vatican would be a challenge to my faith.”
This Sunday, we hear the Beatitudes of Matthew. I have no doubt that clerics like Müller, Pell and Gänswein meditated on these Beatitudes often, being consoled by Jesus’ teaching: “Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied”; and “Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
In the wake of the leaks, the circulation of an anonymous list of grievances, and the posthumous publication of an indictment against him, Pope Francis decided to respond in a manner, not usual for a pope. He gave an exclusive interview, not to a Vatican-controlled media outlet, but to Associated Press. It was a freewheeling interview. He told AP: “You prefer that they don’t criticise, for the sake of tranquility, but I prefer that they do it because that means there’s freedom to speak.” He reflected on the surprise caused by the election of a South American pope ten years ago, saying in relation to the avalanche of criticism from these three, “I wouldn’t relate it to Benedict, but because of the wear-and-tear of a government of 10 years.” His critics became uneasy “when they started to see my flaws and didn’t like them”. “The only thing I ask is that they do it to my face because that’s how we all grow, right?” When asked about the recent blast of criticisms, he said it was “like a rash that bothers you a bit”. “If it’s not like this, there would be a dictatorship of distance, as I call it, where the emperor is there and no one can tell him anything. No, let them speak, because the companionship, the criticism helps us to grow up and things to go well.” When asked about Cardinal Pell whose requiem mass we will celebrate at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on Thursday, he said, “Even though they say he criticised me, fine, he has the right. Criticism is a human right. He was a great guy. Great.”
I daresay Pope Francis will be reflecting on these Beatitudes today: “Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted”; “Happy the merciful: they shall have mercy shown them”; “Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
May Cardinal Pell rest in peace, and may Pope Francis’s journey to South Sudan and Congo this week be peaceful and fruitful. Wherever we line up on the perennial tension between dogma and mercy, may we all strive for Zephaniah’s promise:
Seek integrity, seek humility:
You may perhaps find shelter
On the day of the anger of the Lord.
In your midst I will leave
A humble and lowly people…
They will be able to graze and rest
With no one to disturb them.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He was appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.
 Antonio Spadaro, ‘A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francis’, America, 30 September 2013
 Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, #304
 Ibid, #305
 Ibid, footnote 351
 There are various reports of the Associated Press interview, 24 January 2023, including https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/16487/pope-outlines-resignation-plan-and-appeals-for-dialogue-with-critics and https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/governance-authoritarianism-the-rupnik-affair-pope-francis-responds-to-criticism/17222