Pope Francis’ Surprise in Philadelphia


Let me start with this and please bear with me – it isn’t rocket science.

In the movie, The Princess Bride (1987), Inigo Montoya, the Spanish swordsman, hidden on a bridge directly in front of the king’s castle, along with the giant, Fezzik, and desperately desiring to confront his archenemy, the ruthless and sadistic Count Rugen, is faced with a dilemma:

Inigo: “Where is Count Rugen…”

Fezzik: “He’s in the castle with the prince. But the castle is guarded by thirty men.”

Inigo: “How many men do you think you can handle?”

Fezzik: “I don’t think more than ten.”

(A long pause while Inigo counts with his fingers)

Inigo: “Leaving twenty for me.”

Counting on Your Fingers

I remember a time, long ago when I was a child, before I learned the logical system of arithmetic progression (add, subtract, multiply, divide), where I counted on my fingers. A simple and natural abacus counting frame that helped many of us before we attended elementary school just as it did Inigo in calculating the strength of his enemies in The Princess Bride.

And, it made me think of Pope Francis’ Sunday Mass homily concluding the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Why? Because there was no deep theology in what he said. Yet his words left a deep impression upon me. His reflections on the first reading (NM 11:25-29) and on the Gospel (MK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48), his demeanor, and his catechesis were all surprisingly simplistic. He was counting on his fingers. And for good reason:

“Today the word of God surprises us with powerful and thought-provoking images. Images which challenge us, but also stir our enthusiasm,” Francis began.

An image, a picture in our mind, speaks to us in a way words cannot. We all know this. We’ve all experienced the persuasive power of powerful images. Images that let us come to our own conclusions based on our gut reactions to them, not on what is explained to us.”


“In the first reading, Joshua tells Moses that two members of the people are prophesying, speaking God’s word, without a mandate. In the Gospel, John tells Jesus that the disciples had stopped someone from casting out evil spirits in the name of Jesus. Here is the surprise: Moses and Jesus both rebuke those closest to them for being so narrow! Would that all could be prophets of God’s word! Would that everyone could work miracles in the Lord’s name!”

Pope Francis is taking us back to the beginning. To a time when we counted on our fingers. When “Jesus encountered hostility from people who did not accept what he said and did. For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God’s chosen people seemed intolerable. The disciples, for their part, acted in good faith. But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (MT 5:45) bypassing the bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.”

Is Francis talking about the Pharisees and Sadducees of today? The Vatican insiders and the magisterium of the church, perhaps purposely pitting orthodoxy and juxtaposing it against heterodoxy? Or about the dominant influences of the media, movies, television, and tenured academia? Or government officials and elected or appointed judges and czars of all kinds who dictate policy? Perhaps it is all of these that cause and promote scandal in our society:

“Once we realize this,” Francis continues, “we can understand why Jesus’ words about causing ‘scandal’ are so harsh. For Jesus, the truly ‘intolerable’ scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!”

In other words, if I may, let go of our desire to pontificate. Condemnation and our immediate tendency to damn anything foreign to our belief system is contrary to God’s will. We are His subjects, not His public relations firm. Let Him do His work. Pray for all sinners, including Francis and ourselves. This is not meant to deny our mission to proclaim eternal truths, nor to deter us from joyfully witnessing our faith, only to understand where exactly these truths come from.

The Window

“Our Father will not be outdone in generosity and he continues to scatter seeds. He scatters the seeds of his presence in our world, for ‘love consists in this, not that we have loved God but that he loved us’ first (1 JN 4:10). That love gives us a profound certainty: we are sought by God; he waits for us. It is this confidence which makes disciples encourage, support and nurture the good things happening all around them. God wants all his children to take part in the feast of the Gospel. Jesus says, ‘Do not hold back anything that is good, instead help it to grow!’ To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not ‘part of our group,’ who are not ‘like us,’ is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!

Faith opens a ‘window’ to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. ‘Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,’ says Jesus (cf. MK 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the quiet things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done my mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures.

Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.”

Surprise. When the world closes a door, the Holy Spirit opens up a window. A window of hope and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit does not shut doors and engulf us in the darkness of sin without providing us with an open window where light can shine through and fill us with the promise of a new day.

I don’t know how the Synod that assembled in Rome over the last few weeks, and debated issues pertaining to the family will have in store for us. We’ll just have to wait for the pope to publically pronounce his views and proclaim his vision. I just hope and pray that they will provide us with a window. A great, big, back-door window with an eastern exposure, that let’s in plenty of sunshine so that we might see the truths of our Lord’s words in the New Testament, which fulfills and completes the wisdom of the prophets in the Old Testament and in the psalms, and the eternal truths of marriage and the family brilliantly reflected and confirmed in the morning dew of a new dawn that beckons us today. Something we can live by, in simplicity, because a sacrament is never complicated, like counting on your fingers or saying your beads to achieve victory over an enemy with faith and prayer, courage and sacrifice.

Right now, we could use a good, warm and comforting hug. Something simple we can count on.


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