Francis’ desire to show Gospel’s cross-cultural message

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Thursday, December 19, 2019

Members of the Filipino community in Rome approach the altar in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica during the offertory procession Dec. 15, 2019, as Pope Francis celebrates the first of the “Simbang Gabi,” a novena of nighttime or pre-dawn Masses in preparation for Christmas. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — In St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 15, Pope Francis celebrated the Simbang Gabi Mass for the Filipino community in Rome. Simbang Gabi is a Filipino novena where people attend Mass either in the early morning or evening for the nine days leading up to Christmas. It was the first time that a pope had presided over such a liturgy, and comes in the same month Francis celebrated a Mass in the Zaire rite for the Congolese in Rome.

The Zaire rite is an approved liturgy that includes elements of sub-Saharan African culture. Both liturgies are signs of Francis’ desire to show the cross-cultural message of the Gospel, which is not confined by one particular context or time.

In the Catholic Church of the early 21st century, there is an increasing tilt toward Asia, the continent where two-thirds of the world lives. Francis has visited Asia four times during his pontificate and is likely to go again next year.

Another significant shift to the East has taken place recently with the pope’s decision to appoint Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle as the new prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, also known as Propaganda Fide. This is arguably one of the most important personnel moves of the Francis pontificate.

Cardinal Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, Philippines, is taking over the 400-year-old Vatican office that is responsible for much of the church’s work in Africa, Asia and Oceania. It has a large budget, the power to nominate bishops for certain regions and its prefect is known as the “Papa Rosso” (“The Red Pope”).

The Filipino cardinal, known as the “Asian Francis,” is very much in step with the agenda of this pontificate. He is a brilliant communicator who has hosted hour-long television programs in the Philippines on the Bible and questions of faith.

Under the pope’s proposed restructuring of the Roman Curia, Propaganda Fide is set to be merged with the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, turning it into a super-dicastery focused on evangelization. It means the 62-year-old cardinal is set to occupy the second most important position in the Curia, as under the proposals of the Vatican restructuring, the new department is going to be the preeminent dicastery in the Curia, which is the church’s central administrative offices.

Cardinal Tagle’s appointment is also significant as many news accounts have noted that it cements his position as “papabile” and a strong contender to succeed Francis, who just turned 83. Cardinal Tagle wrote his doctorate on the history of the Second Vatican Council under the tutelage of Father Joseph Komonchak at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Rome is getting ready for the Christmas season. The streets are decorated with lights, while in St. Peter’s Square a Christmas tree and Nativity scene have been set up. This year the tree and the crib were donated by three dioceses from northern Italy: Trento, Padua and Vittorio Veneto.

This Advent, the pope has paid close attention to the significance of the Christmas crib. At the beginning of the season, he went to Greccio, where his namesake St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene, visited an exhibition at the Vatican of 100 Nativity scenes and then issued an apostolic letter on this popular devotion. It was a gritty, earthy reflection on the Incarnation. 

“To our astonishment, we see God acting exactly as we do: he sleeps, takes milk from his mother, cries and plays like every other child,” the pope wrote in “Admirabile Signum.” “As always, God baffles us. He is unpredictable, constantly doing what we least expect.”

In Italy, there is a tradition of adding additional figures into the Nativity scene, most famously in Naples where there is a famous display that has included President Donald Trump, the Beatles and Lady Gaga. It reflects how the birth of Christ has a message for everyone, with the pope writing in his apostolic letter that even those “who know only the wealth of the heart,” have “every right to draw near to the infant Jesus.”

On the third Sunday of Advent, the pope blessed statues of the infant Jesus brought by children to St. Peter’s Square, a tradition known as “Bambinelli Sunday.” In this season, Francis told the crowd, we need to “convert the idea that we have of God,” seeing that God, in Jesus, “became humble and merciful.” He added: “the child who lies in the crib has the face of our most needy brothers and sisters, and of the poor.” To all readers of Chicago Catholic: Happy Christmas. 


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