Pope Francis, love him or not, has a gift – personal charisma. His papacy might have been an indisputably great one if he had stuck mostly with his extraordinary ability to reach out to people – and had avoided theological and moral questions that are manifestly not his strong suit. Case in point: his pilgrimage to L’Aquila in central Italy yesterday for the Feast of Forgiveness was truly moving. He didn’t announce his resignation, as some anticipated. But he did something that might almost serve as a touchstone for his best days as pope. He brilliantly dramatized the need for mercy and humility, at all times and places, but especially now in our postmodern and deeply troubled world.
The Celestine Feast of Forgiveness (Perdonanza) in L’Aquila has a long and interesting history. It was instituted by St. Pope Celestine V in 1294, making this year the 728th anniversary. Yesterday was the first time in all those many years that a pope came and opened the Holy Door (Porta Santa) of the L’Aquila Basilica. Pilgrims who pass through that door during the feast days, as the pope did himself, and completing the usual requirements, can receive a plenary indulgence.
The event has even gotten attention in the secular world. UNESCO put the feast on its “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list in 2019.
In 2009, L’Aquila was hit hard by an earthquake that immediately killed around 300, wounded thousands, and left over 60,000 homeless. Benedict XVI visited the town a few weeks after the devastation and spent significant time at the tomb of Celestine. Yesterday it was clear that the region is still hurting and much in need of encouragement and consolation.
It was quite something to see Francis pushed up to the Holy Door after the Mass in a wheelchair, helped to his feet by a quite large Swiss Guard, knocking loudly with an olive-wood staff, and then painfully inching his way on foot across the threshold into the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. Despite all the controversies and turmoil of the past decade, it was a quintessential Catholic moment. His prayer in front of the tomb of St. Celestine, for anyone with a Catholic sensibility, reminded you of how short our time is on earth – and how long eternity.
Officials estimate that 10,000 people showed up along the route from the airport and for the papal Mass. And there was palpable enthusiasm among the crowds. In his homily, Francis argued that our view of Pope Celestine is skewed because Dante put him on the edge of Hell among “the indifferent.” In Inferno, Dante refers to someone who “made the great refusal” without naming him. It was usually assumed when the Divine Comedy first appeared that he was speaking of the last pope to resign before Benedict XVI, namely Celestine. Abdicating his papal responsibilities, in Dante’s view, earned him an ignominious, anonymous, marginal place in Hell, disdained by both the saved and the damned.
Modern scholars question whether it’s even Celestine that Dante left in shameful anonymity among the indifferent. What we know for sure is that he was named to the papacy on July 5, 1294. A famous Benedictine monk and hermit, it was thought that he could heal divisions among the various factions then vying for the papal throne, which left the Church without a leader for two whole years. (Yes, such things happened even in the High Middle Ages).
Not really suited to running an institution like the fractious medieval Church, Celestine carried our important reforms then resigned only five months later. Dante had strong personal reasons to lament his resignation. Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII, was a political schemer, one of the main figures who got Dante exiled, under a death sentence, from Florence. The great poet never tires of predicting that Boniface will wind up in Hell, buried upside down among the simoniac popes, with the flames of the Holy Spirit eternally burning the soles of his feet.
Among his other misdeeds, Pope Boniface basically undid Celestine’s reforms as well. But a subsequent pope, Clement V, canonized the saintly Celestine in 1313.
In his homily, Francis denied that Celestine had said a wrongful “No” by resigning. In Francis’ reading, Celestine said “Yes” – to humility, “no logic or power was able to control him.” The Feast of Forgiveness that he created should remind everyone, he said, that one of the names of God is Mercy, which is the heart of the Gospel.
(In an off-the-cuff remark, the pope compared God’s patience in looking for a way for his light to penetrate our darkness to an experience he’d just had in coming to L’Aquila. It was too foggy to land and the helicopter pilot had to circle until he saw an opening in the clouds. The relentless mercy of God arrives similarly, as an unexpected gift to each of us – one that we can pass on to others.)
On such a day, controversies seemed best put into parentheses for the moment. But in retrospect, some further reckoning has to follow. And probably will in coming days. All the talk of mercy started to shade off into sentimentality. Like too much in contemporary Christianity, there was a great deal of psychological talk – of our darkness and feelings of guilt – and of what our individual turmoil does to society, especially how it leads to war. But there was no connection of human misery to things like truth – or to a word quite present in the Gospels and the subsequent tradition: Sin.
It’s almost as if Jesus had never said the hard things about our sinfulness in addition to the words of consolation and forgiveness. It may be a good strategy not to talk about “sin” as such to a world in general that no longer believes in it. But to a crowd of 10,000 Catholics, who came expressly to be with the pope of Rome on a very special day?
Indeed, when the words of Jesus at the Last Supper were invoked at the Mass, it came as something of a shock:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Without that central concept, it sounds like our troubled lives and the wars of humanity are just the kind of mediocre human stumbling around that you see in a modern movie about relationships, rather than a radical separation from God requiring not only recognition of his mercy, but fundamental reorientation.
There’s also been a strange thread running through modern Catholicism about forgiveness and mercy as the way to peace and true justice in a world often riven by divisions and war. There’s some truth in that proposition, of course, but not the whole truth. And with the Russian aggression against Ukraine on the Eastern edge of Europe, it was a pointed message – one that very much needs to be heard. But in itself it’s incomplete.
Francis has come into no little criticism for applying that spiritual message overbroadly to the Ukraine war, going so far as to imply that there’s virtual moral equivalence between the two sides. Just last Wednesday he said during the general audience in Rome: “The madness is on all sides because war is madness, and nobody who is in a war can say, ‘No, I’m not crazy.’”
It’s a sad reality about our fallen world, but that’s simply not true. It blurs the proper moral distinctions between aggressors and their victims. The relative responsibilities for a conflict – even in a place like Ukraine – are not always neat or perfectly clear. Nonetheless, the Catholic tradition has always recognized the tragic need for the proper use of defensive force.
And by the criteria of just war – both in going to war to defend itself and in the conduct of the war – Ukraine is right, and Russia is wrong. By contrast, Francis has at points in recent years come close to saying that all war is unjust, even defensive war. He’s even called for a recasting of the concept of “just war.” That’s a utopianism that can lead to terrible consequences.
These are debates for other days – in particular, perhaps, today and tomorrow when the Cardinals and pope will be in discussions for two days at the “extraordinary consistory.” There are Roman rumors that some sensitive, even explosive, topics will be broached. It will be interesting to follow what the Cardinals, who finally meet as a College again now after seven years apart, will have to say.
*Image: Pope Francis opens the Holy Door in L’Aquila