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The Donkey

The Donkey - Jerusalem, Rome, and Buenos Aires

    James Carroll, who in Constantine's Sword chronicled anti-Semitism in the Christian church, wrote subsequently of the Catholic Church's struggle with modernity in Toward a New Catholic Church.  In this latter book Carroll expresses his fondness for an ecclesiastic of his youth, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the down-to-earth self-deprecating prelate of Boston famously praying at President Kennedy's inauguration.  Carroll celebrates Cushing's refusal to affirm a specious doctrine bandied about by some elements in the church, the belief that there is no salvation outside the church. The cardinal's sister was married to a Jew, a warm and wonderful human being, and Cushing refused to believe the God he worshiped would shut his brother-in-law out of heaven.

    I know it's none of my business but I can hope nonetheless that Francis I will manifest a similar openness to the obvious... a spirit amply evident in a predecessor, my Man of the 20th Century, Angelo Roncalli, better known as Pope John XXIII.

   We arrive at Palm Sunday, that most ambiguous of Christian celebrations, and I am thinking of Cardinal Cushing because of a remark credited to him, on a Palm Sunday in Latin America years and years ago. He was preaching. As I recall the anecdote, the good cardinal explained to the faithful that morning that on the first Palm Sunday Jesus came riding on a jackass.  And today, Cushing continued, Jesus comes to you aboard  another jackass, all the way from Boston.

   Let's consider the donkey as we wave our palm branches. 

    The donkey is the humblest of farm animals. Its ears are too long and its legs too short.  Most pictures of Jesus on Palm Sunday show the Galilean's feet dragging.  That is to say, the donkey has much to be humble about.

    Which is probably why Jesus, no MacArthur or Lafayette he, chose the creature for his parade.  No one should mistake such bypassing of pomp and circumstance from the rider who alone understood where the Palm Sunday route would lead inexorably. But, of course, they and we did and do continue to make the mistake, unable to get it, his way, of peace not power, of service not domination, of giving not getting.  Whether it be the lost sheep or the little child, the sore wounded leper or the blind beggar, the cowardly Peter or the treacherous Judas, Jesus fills his arms and his heart with the brokenness of the human condition.  And the cross, the heavy cross, Jesus carries it too... like a beast of burden, for whom the glory is in the faithfulness, being useful, and the spending of oneself.

    Thus I pray for Jorge Bergoglio.  The advance notices portray him as a humble man.  In Buenos Aires he prepared most of his own meals.  His apartment was spare.  He rode buses to work. To choose the spiritual mantle of Francis of Assisi for his tenure hints at where his heart is... with the poor and despised of the earth.  Maybe the donkey and Richard and Angelo will enjoy a second coming.

    But culinary skill, ascetic personal habits, and favoring public transportation are hints, not substance.  Would he come to my table were I to invite him, or would he invite me to his? would he engage me in conversation were I to sit beside him on the bus? would he remember my name and a handful of details of my life?: those are indicators of humility far more than a simple diet and parsimonious living habits. For humility isn't simply keeping a low profile and avoiding bragging.  Humility involves the submission of self to the stories of others.  Genuinely.  As such, humility is, contrary to what may be assumed, the issue of a strength of ego, a certainty of self, that frees its possessor to launch out fearlessly into the tangle of the lives of other human beings.

    Which explains Francis of Assisi's joy among the poor and dispossessed.  Which explains Pope John XXIII's "Risorgimento" and his confidence that opening the church's windows of tradition would let the Holy Spirit in and out.  Which inspires the hopes of many in the world, including this worn-out Protestant pastor, that a new Francis will go at his work with what theologians call hilaritas, a cheerful confidence, open to the world and ready to embrace it with compassion; and then, and only then, with a mouthful of good sermons.  

    Like Jesus, whom the Apostle Paul commends to us in his Letter to the Philippians for his humility, Jesus, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross."  That verse is the context in which to read the puzzling response of Jesus to the fellow who addressed him as "Good Master."  Jesus responds with, "Good? Why do you call me good.  There is none good save God alone."  There's an eternity of self-emptying in that remark.  Tamping down the nearly irresistible impulse to pump oneself up in another's estimation, that takes a wisdom and courage of which a thirty year old like Jesus would seem incapable.  Especially if you are the Prince of Heaven!  But Mary and Joseph's boy, God's Son too, freely, happily, and wholeheartedly empties himself for our sake.  The cross is the culmination and consummation of that self-emptying; but all the days of his earthly life before Calvary are infused with that humility.  Which is why we love him.  He knows us, what tickles our fancy and scares the hell out of us.  He enters and affirms our lives. That may sound like the description of someone who truly likes people; and it is.  But it's something more, the willingness to let the other's light shine and his complaints to be heard.  


    Go for it, Francis.

    And keep your eye on the donkey when the Hosannas are sung.  


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