July 12, 2020

If you watched Fridays with Father on Friday, July 3rd, you saw me quote from a homily Pope Francis gave on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. The homily really resonated with me, personally, and as I look at the state of our public discourse, I think there are some helpful insights here. I want to explore the Pope’s thoughts a little more and connect them, as I did in the video, with a project of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the Civilize It Campaign.

The context for the Pope’s reflections was the first reading on the feast day from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 12:1-11). That passage described a terrible persecution in the early Church and how James, the brother of John, had been martyred along with many other Christians. Herod also had Peter arrested and put in prison. His miraculous escape illustrated how close the Lord was to the early Church, and how, through the continued strength of the Spirit, the Church thrived even in the midst of persecution.

What the Pope focused on, though, was not Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, but on the actions of the community of faith. In Acts 12:5, the text says that, “while Peter was kept in prison, the Church prayed fervently to God for him.” Reflecting on this verse, the Pope says that “unity is the fruit of prayer, for prayer allows the Holy Spirit to intervene, opening our hearts to hope, shortening distances and holding us together at times of difficulty.”

During these months of the pandemic and the past weeks of unrest following the killing of George Floyd, it seems appropriate to pray that the Holy Spirit intervene and open our hearts, “shortening distances and holding us together at times of difficulty.” Recently I have had conversations and email exchanges with a few parishioners that made me aware of how much we need to shorten the distances holding us together during this difficult time.

The Pope encourages us to pray instead of complain. There is a story from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in 2014 the illustrates how this homily comes from a long-developed principle in the Holy Father’s life. You may recall a controversy at the end of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family (the one in 2014 was called “Extraordinary” as it was in preparation for the “Ordinary” Synod the following year).

The controversy centered around two paragraphs that had been added to the final fourteen-page document summarizing the synod’s discussion. The paragraphs, which departed significantly from traditional teaching on marriage and the family, were added without the drafting committee’s knowledge or the Pope’s approval.

When the secretary of the synod alerted the Pope to these additions, the Holy Father said not to worry since the document was not supposed to be published and could be corrected before it was read out to the synod participants.

But, those opposed to Pope Francis leaked the report to the media before it was corrected, and these two paragraphs became the focus of an attack on the Holy Father. He was accused of manipulating the synod process to meet his own “liberal” agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. But, it didn’t matter because it supported the view of some in the church that Francis was taking the church in the wrong direction.

Austen Ivereigh writes in his book, Wounded Shepherd, that the pope took this in stride. Not everyone did. “When a synod staff member complained to the pope that (Cardinal) Burke’s well-oiled media operation was exploiting the outrage over those few lines to attack the synod, Francis just smiled and told him, ‘You need to pray more, no?’” (p. 260).

The unity that is the fruit of prayer is what the pope was encouraging in this staffer, and what he was encouraging in all of us in his homily on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. “Are we protecting our unity, our unity in the Church, with prayer?” the Holy Father asks. “Are we praying for one another? What would happen if we prayed more and complained less, if we had a more tranquil tongue?”

It is this more “tranquil tongue” that the U.S. Bishops encourage in their campaign, Civilize It. I encourage you to go online to civilize.org and take the pledge to dialogue civilly and respectfully in the coming months. May this commitment “shorten the distances holding us together in this time of difficulty.”

Fr. Gary Lazzeroni