The Pact of the Catacombs, and understanding Pope Francis better

Pact of the CatacombsPope Francis seems to be the spirit of Vatican II personified.  In the couple of months in which he’s been our pontiff, we have experienced one new breath of fresh air after the next.

Can you boil down his message, as a person, to a phrase or two?  I’m not sure that it would do him or his charism justice, but what pops out the most to me is the word simplify.

Simplify the way to live.  (He’s at the Vatican guest house, Casa Marta, not the papal palace. Forget the ermine laced cape, the red shoes, the gold cross – take all of it down quite a bit to a more ordinary level.)

Simplify the paths to holiness. (A homily this week talked about “removing obstacles” which some in the church put in place between the people of God and the sacraments; on a somewhat similar vein, he spoke of meeting non-believers and atheists in the place of “doing good”, and that Christ has redeemed all of us.)

Simplify the faithful’s access to him. (The popemobile is without bullet proof glass. He says Mass for the employees of the Vatican – they do not have to “get tickets” like everyone else.  He drives his security detail crazy by mingling with people.)

There is much more, of course. But the simple approach is in line with his “poor church, for the poor” spirituality.  And it is 100% in line with the Pact of the Catacombs, signed by a few dozen bishops and theologians near the close of Vatican II.

To better understand the Pact of the Catacombs, I commend to you an article from 2010 – please read all of it, but here’s a helpful, brief excerpt:

On November 16, 1965, just days before the close of the Council, about 40 conciliar fathers celebrated a Mass in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla. They prayed to “be faithful to the spirit of Jesus,” and at the end of the celebration signed what they called “the pact of the catacombs”.

The “pact” is a challenge to the “brother bishops” to live a “life of poverty” and to be a “poor and servant” Church as John XXIII wanted. The signatories, including many Latin Americans and Brazilians, who were later joined by others, agreed to live in poverty, reject all symbols and privileges of power, and place the poor at the center of their pastoral ministry. The text would have a strong influence on the theology of liberation that sprouted up several years later.

Does this sound familiar? It should.  What we see in Pope Francis, and what was visible in him previously as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is this “life of poverty”.  The cardinals who elected the former Cardinal Bergoglio knew exactly what they were doing – inviting in the spirit of poverty and the spirit of service where in all of recent memory we’ve instead had the spirit of ruling monarch.  Here we have “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” lived beautifully.  The Pact of the Catacombs was signed almost 50 years ago, but we are seeing it alive in our day.  How fortunate we are to witness it.

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