Tonight we celebrated the Chrism Mass for the Priests of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Cardinal Wuerl gave an insight that he shares partially on his own blog, and developed a bit further in the homily tonight.

Let’s begin with what he posed on his own blog regarding the election of the Pope:

What a joy it was when that plume of white smoke came out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel announcing the election of a Pope.  Almost an hour passed between the emergence of the smoke and the arrival on the balcony of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran to announce “Habemus papam!” (“We have a Pope!”).  Yet already in the Square during that wait there were roars of “Viva il Papa!” (“Long live the Pope!”).  Without even knowing who was chosen to be the new Pope the crowd, estimated at about 100,000 people, were already rejoicing and wishing him well.  This scene said something quite profound.  We wish well the Pope whoever he is – because he is the Pope – the Successor to Peter.

How true this is. We Catholics were prepared to love the Pope and support him long before we knew his name. Somehow, for faithful Catholics,  we instinctively know, despite all the anti-authority attitudes of Western culture, that the Pope is Christ’s true vicar and the one who unites us. Whatever his name, nationality or background, he represents Christ, and is the successor to Simon Peter to whom the Lord entrusted the task of uniting and strengthening us, whom the devil would sift (divide) like wheat. (cf Luke 22:31)

And thus, even before knowing the name of the Pope we cried out: Viva il Papa!

But as Cardinal Wuerl went on to develop in tonight’s homily, we must not overlook the “N” that is in the Eucharistic prayer. And thus we see reference to “N., our Pope,” and “N., our Bishop.” “N” of course stands for “Name.”

At first glance the “N” reminds us that the men in those offices come and go, though the office remains.

But we must also not forget that, except for brief periods, that “N” is filled in with a name of an actual person. “N” signifies a real man. For our allegiance to the Lord Jesus, through the Pope and  our Bishop, cannot simply be an abstraction. Our unity with the Lord and one another cannot only be a concept or idea. Rather it is incarnationally lived and experienced in union with the actual “N” who holds that office. I am not merely in union with the Pope or the Papacy, but rather with Francis our Pope, and, for me, Donald our Bishop.

This is important especially in the context of the Protestant notion of the (so-called) “invisible Church.” For most of them the “Church” is not something or anything to which they can actually point and say, “Now here is a manifestation of the Church.” Rather, for most of them, the Church is an invisible and hyper-spiritualized entity. In a way it can mean almost anything the individual believer says it means, and one can pretty much set their own parameters for what the Church means to them.

But Catholicism is incarnational. And while admitting that there are obviously spiritual dimensions to the Church, we insist on understanding the Church incarnationally and sacramentally.

Consider the sacraments for example. They convey spiritual realities, but are  mediated through physical and incarnational realities: Water, bread, wine, oil, the laying of hands and so forth. Ritual and human interaction are essential to faith in the Catholic, and I would argue biblical, understanding of faith and the Church. Christ Jesus does not merely speak out of the ether to individual believers in their rooms. He speaks through his Church, and through the Word, sacraments and rituals he inspired within his Church.

None of this is an abstraction or generality. Jesus is not just an idea and did not merely leave teachings behind. He is an actual person, Human and Divine. And rather than write a book or simply leave teachings behind, he founded an actual Church, with actual leaders, structures and sacraments. Jesus called actual men to be is Apostles, and an actual man, Simon Peter to unite and strengthen the apostles and all the faithful through them.

And so too today, there is an actual Church, actual successors to the apostles, and and actual representative of Christ, an actual vicar (or representative of Christ the Head) to whom we can point: Francis our Pope. There are actual successors to the apostles, whom we can name. For me it is “Donald” our Bishop.

So the Church is not some invisible or ghostly reality. And like any sacrament, the spiritual reality of the Church is manifest incarnationally through physical realities and actual people to whom we can point.

There’s something about the “N” in Eucharist prayer, something beyond the abstract, the general, something beyond a mere idea. Indeed, “N” is not merely something, it is someone: Francis, Donald, your own bishop’s name.

No “invisible Church” here. Quite visible (see photo above), quite incarnational.

There’s something, someone, about those “N”s

3 Responses

  1. Yae says:

    Thank you Msgr. Charles for your fine piece. It helped to confirm my faith in Christ and in the Holy Spirit that yes, through a living man, elected by the Cardinals, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can look to the pope as the visible head of Christ’s Church. A living man who breathes the faith in word and in deed.
    Long live Papa Francis! And God bless beloved Benedict too!
    I type this as I listen to “Tu es Petrus” What joy it gives me be living in this wonderful time for the Church. While there is much work to be done, I still rejoice!
    Have a blessed Holy Week and a Holy Easter and thank you again.

  2. RichardC says:

    Amen and well said. I talk to some of these ‘universalists’, sometimes. I have no idea how to bring them into the Catholic Church.

  3. Scotty says:

    Wonderful reflection! Palestrina’s “Tu es petrus” is one of the most beautiful compositions ever written. I had several opportunities to sing it with a polyphony ensemble during my college years. When the Sistine Chapel choir sang it after Pope Francis’ first post-Conclave Mass, chills ran up and down my spine.

Leave a Reply