Do we protect like St Joseph, or "plot death" like Herod?
Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass homily emphasizes tenderness and protection, but both require strength.
My brother-in-law, a finishing carpenter whose detail work boggles my mind, has taught me that it takes a great deal of strength to be gentle with wood: mental strength of concentration but also physical strength of self-control. Hacks like me should never handle a scroll saw. Ever.
Pope Francis, I’m sure, would agree. In his homily Tuesday morning, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph and also the inaugural Mass of his already historical pontificate, the Holy Father spoke of St. Joseph.
Quoting Blessed John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos (“Guardian of the Redeemer,” which could also be rendered “Protector of the Redeemer,”) he reminded us that St. Joseph is both protector of the Holy Family and of the Universal Church. And then he asked a question. Pope Francis’s questions always invite us to reflect; I am transported back to a class at Regis High School in New York when my Jesuit teachers would ask questions to make me pause and reflect, to let the truth sink in.
“How does Joseph exercise his role as protector?” Humbly, silently, faithfully, in good times and in bad.
This protection extends to all of creation, the Pope says, and is a duty of us all, not only us Christians but all human beings. And we exercise this calling to be protectors by being attentive to the nature of things. St. Joseph was attentive to God’s will, and this made him more sensitive to the needs of others. He was conscious of following a plan that was not his own.
“Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!”
As my brother-in-law would say, no two pieces of wood are the same, and to work well with them, you have gently to follow the grain. Be attentive to the nature of things, and to the Author of things.
To build a house, to build the temple like Solomon, we have to build God’s house, not ours. And we must built it in fidelity to His plan.
When we are out for our own plan, when we build for ourselves and not for God, we are not Josephs, but Herods. “Tragically, in every period of history there are ‘Herods’ who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women,” Pope Francis stated.
The Pope seems to think that the world today identifies tenderness with weakness. He challenges us not to fear goodness or tenderness. We must counter the Nietzschean sucker-punch that sees the Übermensch as the paradigm of power.
I recall the scene in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List when, on Amon Goeth’s balcony after drunken revelry, the concentration camp Kommandant remarks to Oskar Schindler that he is impressed that Schindler drinks, but doesn’t get fall-down drunk. “You have control, Oskar. Control is power.” And Schindler reminds him how the Roman Emperors could often decide the fate of a prisoner, and were able even to grant pardon. He shows him how mercy is more powerful than control, how inducing gratitude is more powerful than inducing fear. The Kommandant tries this for a while, but simply has not the inner strength to live it out. It is the pivotal moment of the film.
Pope Francis preached to dignitaries and heads of state from hundreds of nations today, and challenged them to be less like Herod and more like Joseph, to exercise their power with mercy and tenderness, in order to be protectors and not destroyers of life on our planet. (I wonder if St. Francis himself said something similar to the Sultan in his day.)
“Only those who serve with love are able to protect!” was the Pope’s sound-bite for today. He asked for prayers so that he too may exercise the power of his Petrine ministry through service – above all to the poor and marginalized, the tender power of service with love.
Let us pray for our Pope, so that his message of tenderness may melt hearts to exercise power with service.
And, if you have a moment, raise a prayer for my brother-in-law too, who will be received into the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil next Saturday night.