Recently, Pope Francis visited the United States, and Philadelphia was a main stop. (I live in the city's Western suburbs.) As anyone in my area knows, this was a BIG DEAL! For months, the news was full of plans: His route through the city, the outdoor mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and the seemingly extreme security provisions. And, many questions: Would he visit any of the many ethnic parishes? What officials might he call on? Would he comment on immigration? Would he visit a homeless shelter? Each stop or visit would not just be protocol or a courtesy, but also a symbol of religious concern and importance. (As I write, the pope has returned to Rome, and the entire US visit was considered most meaningful and a success.)
A major visit on the pontiff's Philadelphia agenda was to a prison in the city, the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, a facility the pope himself chose to visit. At the prison, Pope Francis met and talked with inmates, gave a talk, and received a specially crafted chair designed and made by Curran-Fromhold inmates in a vocational program. In the weeks leading up to the pope's visit most folks applauded the pontiff's wish to visit a prison, but one person was put off by such a visit and was angry enough to write the following brief letter to the editor of Philadelphia's main newspaper:
"Can someone please tell me why, out of all the deserving people and places the pope can visit, he chooses to visit inmates in prisons?Letters to the Editor section, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 14, 2015, page A15.
I couldn't believe the letter-writer even gave her name and hometown! "She just doesn't get it!" I wanted to shout. At my gym workout that morning, some friends had seen the same letter. "She probably considers herself a Christian but doesn't even get the core of Jesus' gospel message!" one said. "And, no wonder many people dismiss Christianity as full of a bunch of hypocrites," another added. I went home ready to lambaste the letter-writer and answer her "Why".
But, I eased down from my self-righteous perch and thought a bit. Obviously, the letter-writer doesn't "get" Jesus' message, but do any of us really get it? Do any of us get and internalize the full gospel message?
Even Jesus' disciples who broke bread daily with him, listened to his teaching, and followed him down the dusty paths didn't always get it. The gospels contain many passages of the disciples' lack of understanding: "The disciples did not understand any of this." (Jesus predicting his own death: Luke 18:34.) "But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it." (Again, Jesus predicting his death and rising: Mark 9:32.)
Sometimes Jesus seemed plain frustrated that those closest to him didn't get it: "Do you still not understand?" (After feeding the four thousand: Mark 8:21), and "Are you still so dull?!" (When they didn't understand a parable: Matthew 15:16.) And, we have the famous rebuke of Jesus to Peter when Peter cannot accept his master's talk of his suffering and death: "Get behind me, Satan!" (Mark 8:27-33.)
Perhaps the letter-writer who couldn't understand the pope going to visit prison inmates might be thinking as the disciples did: "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (John 8:60-66.)
Over the centuries, many who profess to be followers of Jesus and his gospel didn't seem to get it. Christian kings sent knights to slaughter thousands under a holy charge to win back the holy lands. American slave holders (and their pastors) used scripture to defend that horrible institution: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling." (Ephesians 6:5). I have a hard time thinking that the television-preacher Rev. Pat Robinson "got" Jesus and the gospel when he proclaimed that the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti was a result of those people's pact with the devil.
What about me? Do I get it? I smile and nod at the well-dressed businessman on the street, but look away from the homeless guy with the tin cup and cardboard sign. I spend more emotional energy worrying about the downward plunge of my IRA than I do wondering what God might be speaking to me in this morning's scripture reading. Jesus said something about looking at "the lilies of the field," and I wonder whether I really do get it? Maybe I get it more than the woman who didn't understand the pope wanting to visit a prison; but, do I get it? Really get it?
And, perhaps if I really do get it, maybe there is another more important question. Once I get it, what do I do with it? Does getting it make a difference? Does getting Jesus make a difference in my life?
There can be a difficulty when we begin to "get" Jesus: We can start holding thoughts, values, and driving forces contrary to the world's view of things. Perhaps views different than that of friends and colleagues; different than those of our families; maybe even of those sitting with us in the pews ... maybe even different than the views of our church. Getting Jesus can bring a cross to bear.
Maybe we can turn this last thought on its head. IF we think we get Jesus and still have views about the same as those groups mentioned, perhaps we don't get him at all.
Final Note: A fellow from Philadelphia did respond to the letter about why visit prison inmates. He simply quoted scripture:
"Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them;" (Hebrews 13:3). Or, "and when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' " (Matthew 25:38-40).Letters to the Editor section, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 20, 2015, page C5. (Apparently, this letter-writer used the New Revised Standard version of the bible.)
The Pope's 'Local' Holy Spirit:
I think I watched just about all of the pope's visit to the U.S. on TV, telling some friends that I had over-dosed on Pope Francis. His visits, speeches, sermons, and actions in Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia captivated me. With the "face" he puts on Christianity, although not a Catholic, I felt proud to be a Christian. I was also fascinated by the Holy Father's Vatican entourage that was with him -- during a mass, in a receiving line, in the pope-mobile, and as he reached out to the homeless and small children -- they were always there.
I was especially captivated by his ever-present translator Msgr. Mark Miles. He was everywhere with the pope: providing a formal translation of a sermon, trying to get Francis' off-script comments into English, and leaning beside the pope facilitating communication in a receiving line. Some news stories called Miles the pope's "wing man". I thought of him as the pope's "local" Holy Spirit. Let me explain: (click the Monsignor's picture.)
Resources Related To this Reflection
If you saw any of Pope Francis' recent visit to the U.S., you most likely saw his ever-present translator Monsignor Mark Miles. Although the pope can speak several languages (Spanish, Italian, German, French), he does not feel proficient in English, and other than in a prepared speech, such as that before congress, he prefers his native Spanish.
Prior to his visit to the United States, the pope worked on his speaking and understanding English with a Vatican translator Mark Miles. On the visit, the pope relied heavily on Miles not only for translating major sermons and speeches, but also during brief one-on-one conversations and in receiving lines. During most conversations, Miles' head can be seen leaning between the pope and someone to facilitate the two-way conversation.
Monsignor Miles is a 48-year-old native of Gibraltar and speaks both Spanish and English fluently, the latter in definite British accent. Little is known about Miles as he declines any interviews, although the Vatican reports that he attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome, the training ground of Vatican diplomats, and had official postings in Ecuador and Hungary. They further describe him as "affable, bright and hard-working, sings well and likes to cycle." A difficulty of Miles' job is that his interpretation has to be instant. He's earned kudos for a style that's almost akin to Method acting, mimicking the pope's emphases and inflections and laughing in the same places. The Monsignor's good looks also generate a strong female following.
As I watched and listened to the pope and the always-present and active translator, I thought about the Holy Spirit, that somewhat mysterious presence of the Trinity. While I know about the Holy Spirit (or as some translations say the Holy Ghost), and have even taught about the Spirit, I must confess that I could never get my head (and heart) around the Spirit as something real and personal. The Spirit was not only mysterious, but more of an abstract idea, nothing concrete. I had trouble viewing the Spirit as a "Person" of the Trinity.
But as I listened to the pope speak, I realized that I eagerly anticipated Miles' translation. I saw the pope's smile and his gestures as he spoke; but just what was he saying? Miles' translation, with the appropriate inflections and emotions, made it all clear. And, it also gave me a flesh and bones image of a key role of the Holy Spirit: The Spirit helps us understand what God is saying!
In the examples I gave earlier where even the disciples didn't "get" what Jesus was saying or meaning, later when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they understood! As I struggle trying to understand what God might be saying to me through reading scripture or just pondering the world around me, it is the Spirit, perhaps like Monsignor Miles leaning over my shoulder, who says, "Here is what God means!"
When the pope was shaking hands and listening to someone talk to him, I would notice Francis turn to his translator. He would then listen to Mark Miles' words and then perhaps smile, nod, and speak to the other person. I thought of that wonderful passage in Romans where Paul describes the Spirit, through our prayer, communicating to God what is on our heart, even when we cannot put our thoughts into words. (Romans 8:26) Perhaps when I have difficulty praying or don't know the words to say, I can mentally visualize that black-robed translator listening to my heart and giving my words to God. And maybe God nods, smiles, and says, "I understand."
I realize, like any analogy or model, there are limits to my description of the pope and his translator portraying the work of the Holy Spirit. It speaks nothing of the power that the Holy Spirit gives us to be able to face life's challenges and do that which we could not do on our own. It also gives divine-like traits to mere humans. But, if you are like me and sometimes need something concrete to hold on to, this picture of the Spirit as an active translator just might be helpful.