Bishop's Column

In the Spirit of his Namesake, Pope Francis Treads the Path of ‘Joyful Martyrdom’

"I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope!"

I felt tremendous happiness after hearing the announcement, "Habemus Papam!" last week – which was soon followed by the surprising, and deeply moving, first appearance of Pope Francis.

I was overjoyed to receive Pope Francis as our new shepherd. But my joy, and that of the whole Church, is touched with sorrow – marked with the Sign of the Cross. Joy is paradoxical in the Christian life, because our joy comes through the suffering of the Cross.

There is triumph for the Church in the election of Pope Francis. But there is sadness, too, in the start of a papacy. Pope Francis is taking up the heaviest Cross, the greatest human responsibility. The Successor of St. Peter is called to a kind of martyrdom.

Before they make their debut to the world, newly elected popes pray alone for a few minutes in a small room outside the Sistine Chapel. The room is the place where the Cross of the papacy can be felt—and it is aptly named the "room of tears."

In the eyes of the world, joy and suffering are opposites. The world sees the "room of tears" and the "great joy" announced from the balcony of St. Peter’s as contradictory.

The notion of a "joyful martyrdom" is counterintuitive, by worldly standards. But for those who follow the Lord Jesus, the mystery of this paradox is the cause of the deepest kind of joy.

For Christians, suffering and joy are not opposites. They are inseparably joined in God’s plan.

St. Francis of Assisi was willing to dive headfirst into the paradoxes of the Gospel. In the words of his biographer, G.K. Chesterton: "Francis devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold."

The Franciscan founder spent his last years sick, nearly blind, his body stricken with the "stigmata" – Christ’s own wounds. But for St. Francis, this deep suffering was "perfect joy." He found more joy in suffering with Jesus, than in possessing riches and pleasures without him.

"Rejoice in the Lord always!" "Take up your Cross and follow me!" Reading the Gospel and sensing an apparent contradiction, Francis sought to pick up his Cross, and to rejoice always—and he did.

St. Francis never came close to becoming Pope. But the paradox of last week’s election – the "great joy" and the "room of tears" – echoes the paradox of his life and the "perfect joy" of his pain.

Pope Francis has taken the name of a saint known for supernatural joy and Christ-like suffering.

He probably expects, even desires, to endure suffering for his spiritual children—the Church. Like his namesake, he is ready to suffer in a spirit of profound happiness. And Pope Francis is inviting us to follow him, to walk with him on this path of joyful martyrdom. His first homily stressed the need to walk in the footsteps of our suffering Lord, if we are to know Christ’s glory.

"When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord," he said in that homily.

He warned against false attempts to follow Jesus "on other terms, but without the Cross."

The message was meant for all of us – for everyone who had welcomed the "great joy" of his election.

Pope Francis expressed his hope "that all of us, after these days of grace, will have the courage… to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified."

Perfect joy belongs only to those who suffer with Christ, in hope of Resurrection. It belongs to those who say to God: "Not my will, but yours be done."

Pope Francis, like his namesake St. Francis, knows the secret of "perfect joy." It is found only by following Christ on the Sorrowful Way of the Cross the Via Dolorosa.

The beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate is also our chance for a new beginning. Perhaps we have made the mistake of trying to follow the Lord "without the Cross."

Or perhaps we have made the opposite mistake – bearing our Cross without also seeking joy in the friendship of Jesus.

But the Gospel challenges both of these approaches. It says: "Rejoice in the Lord always!" and "Take up your Cross and follow me!"

Now is the time for us to embrace this paradox. The paradox of the "great joy," and the "room of tears." The paradox of St. Francis, whose perfect joy was found in suffering.

Now is the time for us to become "joyful martyrs" in the spirit of St. Francis and Pope Francis. As we begin the holiest week of the liturgical year, let us take up our Crosses – and rejoice.

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Bishop Conley

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