Returning to the roots, to the source. Not out of nostalgia, but in order to move forward, to face life’s challenges. In two separate liturgical events on the third day of his penitential pilgrimage, Pope Francis made an invitation to reflect on how important and vital a healthy relationship with one’s own past, one’s own history, is.
The first moment was at the Mass celebrated in Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton for the Feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, Jesus’ grandparents. The Pope spoke about grandparents, reminding those present of two aspects: the first is that “we are children of a history that needs to be preserved. We are not isolated individuals, islands. No one comes into this world detached from others. Our roots, the love that awaited us and welcomed us into the world, the families in which we grew up, are part of a unique history that preceded us and gave us life. We did not choose that history; we received it as a gift, one that we are called to cherish”. The second point is that “in addition to being children of a history that needs to be preserved, we are authors of a history yet to be written. [...] Our grandparents and our elders wanted to see a more just, fraternal and solidary world, and they fought to give us a future. Now, it is up to us not to let them down. [...] Sustained by those who are our roots, now it is our turn to bear fruit. We are the branches that must blossom and spread new seeds of history”. The theme is “roots”, the image, “a tree”.
It is an image the Pope had already used on Monday, at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton, standing before the altar which is built on a large tree trunk. The Pope was reflecting on reconciliation and on Jesus, who “reconciles us with one another on the cross, on the ‘tree of life’, as the ancient Christians loved to call it. You, my dear indigenous brothers and sisters, have much to teach us about the symbolism and vital meaning of the tree. Joined to the earth by its roots, a tree gives oxygen through its leaves and nourishes us by its fruit. It is impressive to see how the symbolism of the tree is reflected in the architecture of this church, where a tree trunk symbolically unites the earth below and the altar on which Jesus reconciles in the Eucharist in ‘an act of cosmic love’ that ‘joins heaven and earth, embracing [...] all creation’ (Laudato Si’, 236). [...] On the cross, Christ reconciles and brings back together everything that seemed unthinkable and unforgivable; he embraces everyone and everything”.
In his speeches on the third day, seemingly on other topics, the Pope returned to the central theme of this journey-penitential pilgrimage. Speaking about grandparents, the Holy Father noted that “they bestowed on us something that can never be taken from us and that, at the same time, allows us to be unique, original and free. From our grandparents we learned that love is never forced; it never deprives others of their interior freedom”. He was speaking to peoples who were wounded precisely because they had been subjected to a process that had sought to erase their identity. “Let us try to learn this, as individuals and as a Church. May we learn never to pressure the consciences of others, never to restrict the freedom of those around us”, the Holy Father prayed.
These constraints and forms of oppression happened precisely in a place where they should never occur: school. At Sacred Heart Church on Monday, the Pope recalled that “education must always start from respect and the promotion of talents already present in individuals. It is not, nor can it ever be, something pre-packaged and imposed. For education is an adventure, in which we explore and discover together the mystery of life”. School is a place where the past and the future intersect. And they must always be intertwined; young generations must not be led towards the future in a way that uproots them and erases their past. This is the tragic and senseless drama that played out in residential schools in Canada. It is like pushing grandparents to one side, like “removing” them at the moment one starts to grow. The Pope instead shows us the value of “sources”, of the inexhaustible wellspring of affection that begins with our grandparents: “in this history we can find consolation in moments of discouragement, a light to guide us, and courage to face the challenges of life”. It is the future which provokes the past, making it resurface as a fundamental resource, if one has but the humility and strength to turn to those who went before. Our grandparents’ “school” cannot fail, which is why when the future presents itself to us, relentless and unsettling, we must always return “to that school, where we first learned how to love. It means asking ourselves, when faced with daily choices, what the wisest of the elders we have known would do in our place, what advice our grandparents and great-grandparents would have given us”.
In the second encounter on Tuesday, at Lac Ste. Anne, the Pope again spoke about roots and sources: “we are here, silently contemplating the waters of this lake. This too helps us to return to the sources of faith. Indeed, it allows us, in spirit, to visit the holy places: to imagine Jesus, who carried out much of his ministry on the shores of a lake: the Sea of Galilee”. The pilgrimage here becomes a journey of the imagination. “So we can think of that lake, the Sea of Galilee, as a place teeming with diversity: fishermen and tax collectors, centurions and slaves, Pharisees and the poor, men and women from a wide variety of origins and social backgrounds, all coming together on its shores. It was precisely there that Jesus preached the kingdom of God: not to a select religious congregation, but to various peoples who then, as today, flocked from different places; in a natural theatre such as this, he preached to everyone. God chose that richly diverse context to announce to the world something revolutionary. [...] This lake, with all its diversity, thus became the site of an unprecedented proclamation of fraternity; not a revolution bringing death and injury in its wake, but a revolution of love. Here, on the shores of this lake, the sound of drums, spanning the centuries and uniting different peoples, brings us back to that time. It reminds us that fraternity is genuine if it unites those who are far apart, that the message of unity that heaven sends down to earth does not fear differences, but invites us to fellowship, in order to start afresh together, because we are all pilgrims on a journey”.
All on a journey, but as pilgrims; not as rulers of the world, but as people who have received the world as a gift and who happily traverse it, moved by gratitude for the gift received. Everyone moving together: “horizontally”, with our peers, different from us, but still our brothers and sisters; and “vertically”, with those who preceded us and those who will follow, ready to receive from us that wisdom that we, in our time, received from that safe and affectionate “school” of our ancestors.
By Andrea Monda