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Posted: 10/9/2015
Past and Present, Many of Us Don't Understand Jesus
Jesus: Do Any of Us "Get" Him?
Pope at Prison
Pope Francis with inmates of Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Sunday 9/27/15.

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".

Pope with chair
Pope Francis receives gift of a chair crafted by inmates.

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 Pope handshake 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.)


Mark Miles 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.)

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Resources Related To this Reflection

Text of Pope Francis' brief message to prisoners 9/27/15.
Other Videos of Pope's Visit.
• ABC's Recap Philadelphia Visit
• Prison Visit Summary
• Full, (40 minute) video of Prison Visit. Perhaps appropriate as a meditation hearing the words and seeing the faces.
Prison Visit Full Video

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