“Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another.”
— Pope Benedict XVI at his installation Mass (24 April 2005)
“And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert, for the space of forty days; and was tempted by the devil.”
— Luke 4:1-2
At Mass yesterday for the first Sunday of Lent, we heard of Christ’s temptations in the desert (cf. Luke 4). Although severe, Our Lord’s temptations were not limited to that episode. As Hebrews 4:15 teaches, Christ was “tempted in all things like as we are, [yet] without sin.”
As the Vicar of Christ, the pope is no less subject to such temptations: the temptation to carnal pleasures and self-satisfaction (Luke 4:3); the temptation to megalomania and demagoguery (Luke 4:6); the temptation to abuse rightful authority for personal or political gain (Luke 4:9ff). And so on. The Holy Father is undergoing Lent “as we are.”
Now, while, on a day to day basis, many of us typically focus on things like “giving up chocolate” or “reading the Bible more,” we must not forget the larger import of Lent in the plan of salvation. Just as every Advent participates, mystically, in the past longings and wanderings of Israel in expectation of the coming Messiah and the Promised Land, and just as every Christmas participates in the fulfillment of Israel’s longing–specifically, in the holy joy enjoyed by Our Lady as “Daughter Zion“–so every Lent and Easter partake of the larger mysteries which they recall.
Lent, then, is not only a time of personal mortification, but also a period of mystical immersion in the trials and sufferings of Christ for the Church as a whole. Lent is the annual reverberation, on a higher plane, of Israel’s wandering in the desert, before being led into “the Promised Land” of Christ’s Resurrection and glory in Heaven. With so much at stake, Lent is also a time of personal and collective harassment from that “great red dragon,” “the accuser of our brethren,” who would topple “the woman clothed with the sun” and devour her holy, saving Child (cf. Revelation 12). As OnePeterFive’s own charter reminds us:
6 Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation: 7 Casting all your care upon him, for he hath care of you. 8 Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. 9 Whom resist ye, strong in faith: knowing that the same affliction befalls your brethren who are in the world.
The self-denial and service of others we perform during Lent is assured a harvest of consolation and joy in the Eastertide. But we must first leave behind our taskmasters (besetting sins), cross the desert of increased self-denial, and gaze upon the Crucified One until we are healed (cf. Numbers 21). All the while we must us pray for one another, and, above all, for the Holy Father and our shepherds. As Benedict XIV (sic) wrote in a letter dated 30 May 1741:
The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.
In a sermon I heard about the Devil the other day, I was reminded that few of us merit the attention of the Devil itself (sic); we are dealt with by lesser demons quite handily enough. The Devil’s heavy artillery is pointed at the bastions of the Church, at the main girders of “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The powers of darkness know that if they can compromise leading prelates, the effect will be cast over the Church at large, a strategy far more effective than by attacking believers individually.
In the light of Providence, then, it is no small coincidence that Sunday (February 22) was both the first Sunday of Lent and also the feast of the See of St. Peter. God uses such connections to remind us that the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of Peter, undergoes the Lenten woes — including satanic attacks — in a special way, and therefore needs special support. I was recently struck by the fact that, in the traditional liturgical calendar, the following day (today, February 23) is the commemoration of St. Peter Damian, a Doctor of the Church. This other saintly Peter was known not only for his great personal piety and asceticism, but also for his vigorous efforts to uproot the power of sodomitical clerics who had gained much curial power over many years. Even more interestingly, St. Peter Damian was not only consulted by seven different popes, but also “induced two antipopes to withdraw their pretensions to the Holy See.” He often said:
We can never restore primitive discipline when once it is decayed; and if we, by negligence, suffer any diminution in what remains established, future ages will never be able to repair the breach.
Once again, in the light of Providence, we are reminded that he who sits in the Chair of Peter is buttressed by our prayers as well as by another Peter whose graces seem remarkably well suited for our times.
As Fr. Michael Rodriguez pointed out in October 2013 (skip to 16:30), the epic battle which the Church is waging with evil manifests itself even “in the person of the pope.” Pope Francis is well known inside and outside of the Church for his repeated, vivid references to the Devil (much as in Argentina, while still a cardinal, he famously [albeit in a private letter] called same-sex marriage a ploy of the Devil). Might this emphasis of his not be because he, especially now as pope, is aware of the constant prowling of the Enemy? As as if battered by strong winds, he does at times seem pulled in different directions.
I recently noted that Pope Francis is easily led astray by his pastoral heart strings into encounters which largely end up giving comfort to anti-Catholic movements and leaving the moral waters muddier than we’d prefer. Yet at other times, as his scorching denunciations of organized crime and transgender ideology show, Francis is able to denounce sins, and even entire “groups” who are wedded to certain kinds of sins, in the strongest terms.
In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils, G. K. Chesterton noted that “Evil always takes advantage of ambiguity.” I will leave you with two “data points” which highlight how the Enemy continues to take advantage of the Holy Father’s knack for pushing the Church to the pastoral “margins”:
1) “Local priest forms all-inclusive Roman Catholic Church in San Diego” by Maria Arcega-Dunn (18 Feb. 2015), with emphasis added:
“One of the earliest statements the Holy Father made about equality and about gays and lesbians in the world is, ‘Who am I to judge?’” Rodgers said. “And a whole theology is being formed from that very statement, so not only to affect the LGBTQ community, but also divorced and remarried people and other people who feel excluded from the traditional Catholic Church.” …
“Bishop Dermot Rodgers and the group associated with him are not affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of San Diego, and therefore [?] we have no comment,” the diocese said.
Bishop Rodgers isn’t surprised that local church officials have little to say. He expects push back in the coming months as the parish comes together. He said he and other Catholic priests will use Lent as a time to pray and plan locations and find the faithful. …
“Our goal [explains Rodgers] is simply to reach out to the 30 million non-practicing Catholics with an option that might be suitable for them to hold on to their Catholic faith without having to deny who they are, or to try to alter a very difficult situation that cannot be altered.”
How sad that some clerics are using Lent, of all times, as a means to exploit the Holy Father’s pastoral vision:
I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths. …
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage. …
We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.
2) “Pope Francis: An Agenda Behind His Back?” by Andrea Gagliarducci (23 Feb. 2015), with emphasis added:
As he carries out his plan of renewal for the Church, one that is based on the purification of hearts, on pastoral efforts and on evangelization through attraction, many individuals are trying to exploit his spontaneity, and also his naivete, in order to advance their personal, political agenda for the Church. …
During the 2013 Conclave, supporters of this renewed “sixties” agenda used widespread criticism over the functionality of the Curia, and the push among Cardinals toward a needed renewal, as impetus to find a candidate able to back their plan. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was considered the ideal candidate. The space for a behind-the-scenes manipulation opened when the new Pope expressed his wish to go to peripheries and to foster pastoral care for the marginalized, on which – he recently explained to the new Cardinals – the credibility of the Church depends. …
Only as a result of a coup was it possible for paragraphs that did not attain the Synod’s consensus to be kept in the final report. This happened as a result of Pope Francis’ intervention. But who advised him? …
It seems that Pope Francis is driven mostly by a peculiar kind of behavior, rather than a specific agenda, and that this behavior is what lies behind his words, behind his sometimes controversial gestures…. It also seems that his choices for church government are mostly intended to follow the mandate he believes he received from the Cardinals prior to his election. This is probably the reason his positions seem to fluctuate from one statement to another, from being hyper-conservative to being hyper-progressive, from being devotional, but at the same time from being so careless with Church tradition.
Let us continue to pray for one another and for the pope. As 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us, there’s a lot more being fomented behind-the-scenes in curial politics than the typical “behind-the-scenes”!