Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
6 December 2020
Today’s gospel is “the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – the first eight verses of Mark’s gospel. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no birth narrative of Jesus. He begins with the enigmatic identity and mission of John the Baptist. John appears in the wilderness. He wears a garment of camel-skin and lives on locusts and wild honey. This description evokes the memory of Elijah the Tishbite who prophesied to Ahaziah the King of Samaria who was sure there was no God in Israel and who came looking for good news, finding none. John is portrayed as the fulfilment of prophecies in the Book of Exodus and in Second Isaiah – a voice crying in the wilderness preparing a way for the Lord, making his paths straight, bringing good news to those who are sure that there is no God other than the God of Israel.
John Donahue and Daniel Harrington tell us: “The(se) initial verses of Mark’s Gospel offer many possibilities for preaching and actualization: the rooting of Christian faith in the Jewish Scriptures; joy over the good news; the ambivalence of the wilderness as the place of testing, rebellion, and renewed love; the role of John as one who prepares the way related to the corresponding vocation of the Christian to prepare for the gospel; the presentation of Jesus as the stronger one in a contemporary world which seems fragile and threatening; recollection of baptismal adoption; and the beginning of a journey to renewed discipleship.”
In a time of pandemic emerging from lockdown as we are, we would do well this Advent to focus on “the ambivalence of the wilderness as the place of testing, rebellion, and renewed love”. I’d like to do it through the lens of Pope Francis. This week Francis published a little book entitled Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. He describes three COVIDs or wilderness experiences in his life. The third was his time at Cordoba after he had completed many years in Jesuit leadership in a very divided province in Argentina. He had been novice master, then provincial, and then superior of the major house of formation for students studying theology. This is the way he describes this wilderness experience:
“This time had its roots in my way of exercising leadership, as provincial and then rector. I’m sure I did a few good things, but I could be very harsh. In Cordoba they made me pay [they sent me the bill] and they were right to do so.
“I spent a year, ten months and thirteen days in the Jesuit residence there. I celebrated Mass, heard confessions, and gave spiritual direction but hardly ever left the house, just to go to the post office. It was a kind of lockdown, self-isolating as so many of us have done lately, and it did me good. It helped me to develop ideas: I wrote and prayed a lot.”
He describes how he had been very settled in his way of life as a Jesuit superior: “So an uprooting of that kind, when they send you off the soccer field and put you on the bench, turns everything around.” During that time he, for no apparent reason, read all 37 volumes of Ludwig Pastor’s History of the Popes: “It was as if the Lord was preparing me with a vaccine. Once you know the papal history, there’s not much that goes on in the Vatican curia and the Church today that can shock you. It’s been a lot of use to me!”
“The Covid of Cordoba was a real purification. It gave me greater tolerance, understanding, the ability to forgive, and a fresh empathy for the powerless. And patience: a lot of patience”.
He reflects on all three ‘Covids’ in his own life when he was forced into isolation for long periods not knowing what the future held, those times in the wilderness. He learned that “you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out better. But if you dig in, you come out worse.”
At Christmas six years ago, I travelled to Argentina with a Jesuit mate. We arrived in Buenos Aires which used to be described as the Paris of the South. It is a city of magnificent boulevards and grand public buildings from a past era. In 1900 Argentina was more prosperous than Australia. Now there is much poverty. Decades of military rule and incompetent governments have cheated the ordinary people a lot. The Buenos Aires opera house is one of the best in the world. When Pavarotti performed there in 1987, he told a press conference, “There is a problem with the acoustics in the building. They are perfect.” The opera house was fully restored in the last decade at a cost of US$100 million.
We followed two sets of Jesuit footprints – one set from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the other from the twentieth century. The first were the footprints of the Jesuits who came to put a buffer between the Spanish and Portuguese colonisers and the native people. The second were the footprints of Jorge Bergoglio who took the name Francis when he became pope.
Anyone who has seen the movie The Mission knows that the Jesuits did remarkable work in South America protecting the native people (the Guarani) from the depredations of the colonisers, especially the Portuguese who wanted to enslave them. Between 1609 and 1768, Jesuits from throughout Europe came to run the Reductions which were like small towns for the natives being provided with security, education and spiritual care. The headquarters for this operation was in Cordoba. We stayed in the old Jesuit house there which had been built in the seventeenth century.
For that one year, ten months and thirteen days after he had been in charge of the Jesuits in Argentina, Bergoglio moved to historic Cordoba. He stayed in a small room close to street traffic in a very spartan tacked-on annex out the back of the old Jesuit house. He mostly kept to himself during this time. Then he was called out of the wilderness. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. He started a whole new life, not having much to do with the Jesuits whom he had led during the difficult time of the dirty war. There had been a lot of tension in the Jesuits about how best to live committed to faith and justice in a Catholic country where almost everyone, including the military, was Catholic.
When Francis was appointed Pope, one of the serving Jesuit provincials in another Latin American country wrote:
“Yes I know Bergoglio. He’s a person who’s caused a lot of problems in the Society and is highly controversial in his own country. In addition to being accused of having allowed the arrest of two Jesuits during the time of the Argentinian dictatorship, as provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them. It was an absurd situation. He is well-trained and very capable, but is surrounded by this personality cult which is extremely divisive. He has an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power. It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See. He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us.”
Like all of us, Francis has feet of clay; he is a sinner; there are things in his past that he regrets. As Francis himself admitted shortly after becoming pope:
“My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.”
He is a man who has learnt much by his mistakes; he is a sinner who has grown and thrived through his experience in the wilderness. As he says:
“My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordoba. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems. I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins.”
Having gone into lockdown and isolation during the Covid pandemic, Francis has not been idle. Engaging in many free-flowing conversations with his trusted biographer Austen Ivereigh, he dreamt aloud about the path to a better future. The result is his hope-filled, accessible book Let Us Dream which gives compelling insights into what makes a pope from Argentina tick when it comes to confronting issues like climate change, inequality, and the irrelevance of the Church to young people.
Drawing on his own experience, Francis outlines three moments for the pilgrim who decenters and transcends: a time to see, a time to choose and a time to act. A listening pope rather than a proclaiming pope, he shows us how to “confront complex problems that cannot be resolved simply with norms, using instead a kind of thinking that allows you to navigate conflicts without being trapped in them”. Reflecting on conflicts in the Church and in the world, he shows us how to confront two temptations: “On the one hand, to wrap ourselves in the banner of one side or the other exacerbating the conflict; on the other, to avoid engaging in conflict altogether, denying the tension involved and washing our hands of it.”
Then comes the call to action. If you want to be part of the same Church as Pope Francis, you need to keep close to the peoples of the earth who are struggling for dignity and freedom. You need to serve the people, not try to organise or direct them in a paternalistic fashion: “The only time it is right to look down at someone is when we are offering our hand to help them get up. We need to walk with those who are seeking land, lodging and labour for all. Like John the Baptist, we proclaim: ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.'”
Francis provides us with a handbook both for internal spiritual renewal and a revitalised program for the just and fair transition to sustainable life for all on our planet. The path to a better future is clear: “In the post-Covid world, neither technocratic managerialism nor populism will suffice. Only a politics rooted in the people, open to the people’s own organisation, will be able to change our future.”
That one ‘year, ten months and thirteen days’ which Francis endured at Cordoba has produced abundant fruit thirty years on during the seven years of his pontificate when he has provided us a path for seeing clearly, choosing well, and acting right.
A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert….Here is the Lord coming with power…He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.”
If you think you’re abandoned in the wilderness, do not despair. The time will come when you can both recognise and share the fruits. But it may take some time. That’s the lesson of COVID. That’s the example of Francis. That’s the message of Advent.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).