Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
May 31, 2013
One of the greatest learning experiences of my life was to study for three years with the papal Latinist, Fr. Reginald Foster, during my studies in Rome. A Carmelite from Milwaukee, he was a pedagogical genius who was as eccentric as they come.
I think he sought to prophesy against the hypocrisy of externalism in the Church, probably dating from his time as a young religious when one could be permanently booted from the seminary or novitiate for taking a cigarette puff or reading the Bible with a flashlight under the covers after lights were supposed to be out.
He would often say and do outrageous things to make a point.
Instead of his Carmelite habit, he would wear a blue jumpsuit that made him appear like a garage mechanic, because he really didn’t think the clothes one wore mattered as much as being simply vested.
He would claim occasionally to celebrate Mass early in the morning in his underwear in his monastic cell — rather than in priestly vestments in a chapel — to highlight that the most important part of the celebration of the Mass was prayerful unity with Christ rather than one’s apparel. We were never sure if he was telling the truth, but no one ever asked to serve his daily Masses!
He would say shockingly irreverent things in the classroom — about the Church, the Gregorian University where he was teaching, the Carmelite order, various countries — to startle his students to go beyond appearances, common wisdom and nonchalant acceptance of the status quo.
Once he fulminated about how much he “hated” going to papal events in St. Peter’s Basilica. Such an iconoclastic declaration caught, as he knew it would, all his students’ attention — not only priests, seminarians and religious but also the many non-Catholics who would come to study with the best Latinist in the world.
The reason he loathed papal liturgies, he declared, was because as soon as the Pope entered the basilica, everyone would lose their minds screaming “Viva il Papa!,” climbing over people to take pictures, giving their infants to total strangers in the hope that the Pope might embrace them, and behaving in such a way that if they comported themselves like that at any other Mass, they would immediately have been visited by a team of ushers.
“But,” Fr. Foster thundered, “nobody goes into a frenzy for the presence of Jesus Christ! No one shouts, ‘Viva, Gesù Cristo!’ They’re all focused on the Pope coming down the main aisle while ignoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament chapel. Vast crowds come to acclaim the Pope but no one goes to acclaim Jesus. How much sense does that make?”
When I heard him say this for the first time, I recognized that he was making a valid point, such that at many papal liturgies and events there seemed to be more enthusiasm for the Pope than for God.
When he said it a second time — he would in fact make the point routinly— I engaged him in conversation because, I thought he was missing the fundamental motivation for why people cheer the Pope. He always relished these give-and-takes with students, especially in Latin.
I asked him whether he thought that the crowds did this because they liked to cheer Poles in general. “Of course not!,” he replied.
How about because they liked figures dressed in all-white cassocks? “Stultus,” he retorted, “crazy.”
Because the masses have read John Paul II’s phenomenological personalism and just couldn’t restrain themselves? He smiled and asked me what my point was.
“Do you think it’s possible that they’re cheering for the Pope because of faith in Jesus rather than instead of faith in Jesus?,” I asked. He looked at me quizzically.
I told him of my experience as a guide to St. Peter’s tomb, that after a 90 minute visit about half of the pilgrims would get deeply emotional when I would describe the history of the altars being built over the fisherman’s grave or made the case that the bones discovered within the monument actually belong to St. Peter.
The reason why I believe so many adults would break into tears, I said, is because they intuit that if the tomb and bones at which they were looking really belonged to Simon Peter of Galilee, then that would mean that he really existed, and if he existed, then his remains and tomb would mean that Jesus likewise existed. The bones and monument were an indication that the Christian faith that perhaps they had taken somewhat for granted wasn’t a morality fable but true. And that validation would lead to their rediscovering the faith they once had, or discovering a faith they never had.
One of the reasons that faithful Catholics go nuts in the presence of the Pope, I suggested, is not because of his celebrity status but because they recognize in his presence a direct link to Peter and through Peter to Jesus.
He paused for a few seconds to consider the argument. He conceded that it could explain the behavior of some but never one to want to lose a debate, he said in his opinion the majority treat the pope as a rock star more than as a successor of the rock on whom Jesus had built his Church.
He then exclaimed that, no matter what the reasons are that get people to hail the pope, it doesn’t alter his main point that there should be more enthusiasm for Jesus himself than for one of his ambassadors.
He then looked at me and added, somewhat triumphantly with a grin, “Quid dicis?,”for “What do you say to that?”
I smiled back — and not one who likes to lose a friendly parley either — said, “Well, Fr. Foster, there’s never any shame in losing an argument to you, especially when in order to win, you need to take the bushel basket off of your Eucharistic piety and love for the Lord Jesus!”
His round face reddened with embarrassment at having had his carefully concealed faith exposed before all his students. He couldn’t hold back a smile, however, when everyone started laughing at the true Fr. Foster.
I thought of this conversation with the one we affectionately called “magister noster” after the extraordinary Pentecost vigil of prayer that Pope Francis held in St. Peter’s Square with members of the new movements raised up by the Holy Spirit.
During his 38-minute homily, after stressing that Jesus is the center of our faith, Pope Francis said, “I would like to take the opportunity now to make a small, but fraternal, correction, among ourselves, alright? All of you in the square have shouted out: ‘Francis, Francis, Pope Francis,’ … but, where was Jesus? I want to hear you shout out. ‘Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and He is in our midst.’ From now on, no more ‘Francis,’ only ‘Jesus.’ Alright?”
And as he was leaving St. Peter’s Square, that’s precisely what the crowd of 200,000 did. Instead of hailing the Pope, they cried out, “Jesus is Lord,” “Praised be Jesus Christ!,” and “Viva Gesù Cristo!”
Fr. Foster, who has since returned to Milwaukee to deal with various health issues, must have been smiling.
Pope Francis’ words and Fr. Foster’s objections give us all something to think about as we approach Sunday’s feast of Corpus Christi.
If Pope Francis were coming to downtown New Bedford on Sunday to walk through the streets, the whole city would be mobbed with Catholics. Probably everyone reading this column would want to be there.
While Francis won’t be there on Sunday, Christ will be, as he traverses the streets in Eucharistic procession. Will we be there with even more enthusiasm than for his vicar?
Likewise, if we knew that the Pope would be in our parish Church one work day this week, most of us would absolutely rearrange our schedules to be there. Each of the days this week, however, Jesus is coming, to be with us at daily Mass and in Eucharistic adoration.
If we’d be there for the pope, how much more should we be there for his Boss?