All right. I confess: I, too, have been taken over by Popesteria, a disorder I would define as a complete and total fixation on the words, actions, and teachings of Pope Francis. Popesteria always carries with it a fair amount of denial. For days on end I told myself that I could not be bothered to stand with 11,000 people on the White House lawn for three hours waiting for his holiness to arrive. Then on Tuesday I said to Kathy, “Well, I might as well pick up my ticket just in case.” And then on Wednesday morning, at 5:30 a.m., I found myself walking down to the White House and then milling around with the gigantic crowd until the ceremony started almost four hours later. It doesn’t matter that I could neither see Pope Francis nor even hear him very well. When you suffer from Popesteria you take what you can get. It was enough just to be in roughly the same zip code with the man.
I confess to having Popesteria even though I am probably the most jaded person there is when it comes to being around famous people. There are very few celebrities I would walk around the block to see. But Pope Francis is something else. He’s an actual Christian person who has somehow found himself leading the world’s largest church. His personal authenticity, his intellectual and theological depth, his obvious empathy and compassion—all of these traits combine to make him an inviting face for the gospel in the 21st century. And from what I’ve seen of the coverage of his visit, I know his trip to America has been as transformative for our nation as it has been for me and my fellow popestericals.
We respond so powerfully to Pope Francis because he incarnates our highest aspirations and deepest values. It’s not only that he articulates the faithful Christian response to the world’s besetting social problems; it’s also that he lives the way all of us who follow Jesus aspire to live. He takes the gospel seriously. He actually does what Jesus advises us to do—living not only simply and generously but also joyfully and expansively. He treats both individuals and classes of people as bearers of God’s image in the world. Listen again to his words to Congress last Wednesday about how we together might respond to the crises plaguing today’s world:
Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. [Pope Francis Address to Congress, September 24, 2015]
By his very being, Pope Francis is teaching us what it means to be a Christian person. Now I’m spending all this time talking about him not to imitate a high school book report but as a way into saying something about Cathedral Day. Once a year, on the last Sunday in September, we here at Washington National Cathedral pause to observe the founding of this cathedral on September 29, 1907, and we take the occasion to think together about what a place like this is for. In a world of gross inequality and suffering—not to mention selfies, snapchat, and the Kardashians—what possible meaning can a gothic edifice like this have? It seems to me that the answer to that question lies not in a set of ideas but in a person. Pope Francis tells us not only what it means to be a Christian human being. He shows us what it means to be a Christian church, and by extension, a Christian cathedral.
On Cathedral Day we always read the gospel account [Matthew 21:12-16]: of Jesus entering the Jerusalem temple and casting out the money-changers. As Matthew tells it,
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’ [Matthew 21: 12-13]
When Jesus tells us that we are turning a house of prayer into a house of thieves, we usually infer that he is criticizing commercial transactions. (Given that Washington National Cathedral has a store, a café, and that we charge for admission, reading Jesus’s words as a proscription on any money changing hands would be very bad news for us indeed.) But the word Matthew uses is the Greek word lēēs which in English really means something more like “brigand”. A brigand is not only a thief: a brigand is part of a gang which lives by looting and pillage. Translation: Jesus implies that by institutionalizing and commodifying sacred transactions, the money-changers are hijacking the mission of the temple itself. It’s not so much that selling doves for sacrifice sullies the holiness of the place; it’s rather that the entire temple system of sacrifice which presumes to guarantee holiness has become a caricature of what the life of faith is really all about. As the prophet Hosea reminds us [Hosea 6:6], God desires “mercy, not sacrifice”. In promoting a culture of worship disconnected from human need, the temple system has bought into the false idea that one can pray to God while ignoring human suffering. The temple has become an impediment to the life of prayer.
So Cathedral Day, if it means anything, recalls us to what the mission of a place like this is all about. Are we called to be a beautiful edifice where prayers are said flowers are arranged, and beautiful music is heard, or are we called to be something more? Who, if we are honest with ourselves, are the real money-changers in this temple? By serving a vision of holiness disconnected from the pains and injustices of the world, how are we hijacking the gospel mission of a house of prayer?
We get some help in answering this question in the same address Pope Francis gave to Congress. In that speech, his holiness cited four exemplary Americans—only two of them Roman Catholics. Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights leader are well-known. The two others are less familiar to most of us. Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement and spent her life working among and for the poor. Thomas Merton was a Cistercian monk who wrote about prayer and its connection to the issues of the day. In his summative words to Congress, Pope Francis said this:
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton. [Pope Francis Address to Congress, September 24, 2015]
Defending liberty, establishing rights, striving for justice, sowing peace: these are the marks of a great nation. They are also the marks of a great cathedral, particularly one that calls itself the “spiritual home of the nation”. In aspiring to be the nation’s church, do we not thereby seek to embody America’s highest national affirmations? We cannot stand for both gospel truth and American values simply by being beautiful. If we are to be a “house of prayer” in the way that Jesus means it, we must embody the commitments of the four Americans Pope Francis cited in his speech. We must work for the freedom of all. We must stand for the rights of all. We must agitate for justice, especially in regard to poverty and race. We must work for peace not only internationally but in our city streets. As beautiful as it is, a building like this is a sentimental fantasy if all we do here is bury presidents, welcome tourists, or applaud ourselves for being a national treasure. A cathedral lives out its holiness not only by being pious. A cathedral lives out its holiness by standing with and for the people God cares most about: the poor, the sick, the grieving, the oppressed, the prisoners, the hungry, the lonely, the lost. The beauty of a place like this does not consist primarily in its stained glass, its wrought iron, or its carvings. The beauty of a place like this shines forth from what it stands for.
As an American, I will always be grateful to Pope Francis for his visit among us, recalling us to our essential vision of ourselves as a nation. As a Christian, I will likewise be grateful for his life as a constant reminder of what it means really to follow Jesus. On this Cathedral Day, let all of us who love and serve Washington National Cathedral rededicate ourselves to the vision of a holy place aspiring to be not only a “house of prayer” but also a house of justice. May our piety shine forth both in prayer and in action. May our love for God shine forth not only from this building but in lives dedicated to defending liberty, establishing rights, striving for justice, and sowing peace. Amen.