OFM: Easter Letter of the Minister General 2019
This year I would like to share with all of you a message inthe context of the celebrations of 800 years of the encounter between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt al-Malik al-Kamil. This commemoration has offered the Church and the Order an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on and study the topic of open and respectful dialogue with Islam and, of course, with other religious faiths.
I want to invite you to experience the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord considering this event based on what I wrote last 7th January in a letter to the entire Order about this important anniversary. It urges us to abandon fear and literally open the doors of our mind, allowing God to operate in an unprecedented way in the hearts of men and women of good will who fight without distinction to promote social justice, moral good, peace and freedom to the benefit of all (cf. Nostra Aetate 3).
Allow me, then, to look at a gospel passage that we will hear on the second Sunday of Easter. It is one of the appearances of the risen Jesus not only to a few but to all the disciples gathered in the upper room “on the evening of that day, the first of the week,” according to St John’s account (cf. Jn 20:19-31). This passage tells of two appearances separated by eight days. I think that these two moments will help us to establish a context to understand better a progression in the faith not only of Thomas but of all the disciples who have the privilege of contemplating the presence of the risen Jesus with their own eyes.
The doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews.
The text begins with the expression: “when it was evening on that day.” This phrase is not there by chance but is part of the narrative style of the evangelist, who likes to present natural scenarios of contrast. In this case, we can imagine a room without much light, where it becomes difficult to even recognise the faces of others, even those closest. This expression could represent uncertainty, discouragement and, consequently, the fear faced by those gathered together. Fear of the future, of the different, of risk, of change, perhaps thinking that something might be lost and, therefore, they have the “doors locked tightly.” The feeling of the disciples is quite understandable, having seen what happened to Jesus on the cross. Maybe they need time to assimilate, or something to stimulate their desire to be freed, to go out, to seek the light, the desire to transform that first day of the week that is ending, into a prolonged thanks for a new hope that they cannot yet see. The sign of the closed doors represents a very human situation to protect the few securities that they have as well as their very selves.
Jesus came and stood among them.
Without going into theological or exegetical debates about Jesus’s appearance, passing through the walls with a body of unique characteristics, I think instead about Jesus’s power to “enter” that place despite finding the doors closed. In this, as in so many other episodes, we see the narrative strategy of a changed situation, characterised by a transformation of circumstances, generally the result of divine initiative. In our text, after Jesus speaks the words: peace be with you, and having shown them his hands and his side, the gospel emphasises that the sadness and fear that overwhelmed them was transformed into joy when they saw the Lord (v. 20). The text is so splendid that it shows a kind of roadmap for someone setting out on the adventure of faith. Jesus could have chosen a different occasion to appear and even other circumstances. However, he chose a moment characterised by the apostles’ fear and the absence of one of their number, Thomas. He will be one of the central characters of the passage, and I would like to pause for a moment to consider Thomas while we examine the second appearance.
Eight days pass! Why did he let so many days pass? Why not remove all doubt in the shortest time possible to dispel Thomas’s uncertainty when he heard: we have seen the Lord? The name Thomas means twin brother. Didymus is a Greek word that the evangelist used to translate the Aramaic Ta’oma’. Behind this translation game, as the fourth gospel frequently shows, there is a theological purpose. Didymus means twin. The twin is a double; he is one that resembles another and, in the text, Thomas plays a role marked by two moments: he is dominated by doubt that he later resolves when he meets the Lord and is at the same time our twin because he represents us directly in the story. It is he who can meet the risen Lord on our behalf face to face after an episode of disbelief, making the highest profession of faith that the Gospel of John could record: My Lord and my God. Thomas has seen and touched the wounds of Jesus. The text speaks of the sign of the nails; the risen one has a body marked by a story of pain and death. So, Thomas is our twin, he touches the wounds on the body and recognises not only that he is a healthy man, but that he is also God in person.
A history of pain and death that is repeated whenever human beings are unable to recognise the differences and richness of diversity. A history marked by a dominant mindset that has used the name of God to reaffirm itself and believe itself the repository of the absolute truth about God, even attacking and killing to defend a doctrinal position. That was the dramatic scenario of the Middle Ages in confrontation with the Islamic religion, and sadly we see this even today in some countries where minorities are not well regarded.
Let us listen to our Holy Father Francis.
Probably many think that a reflection of this nature, or the significant approaches that the Church and Pope Francis have made, do not correspond to the harsh reality that still exists today in countries where Christians and Muslims live together. There are those who think that talking about dialogue or demonstrating openness to an eventual encounter is a sign of weakness and a lack of reaffirming our identity. Pope Francis has been harshly criticised in certain parts of the Church for his gestures of openness towards other faiths, saying that this weakens the image and reputation of the Church and Christians in general.
Regarding such opinions, I would merely like to affirm that a simple gesture of union and openness turns out to be more powerful, eloquent, effective and prophetic than the desire for self-promotion often based on self-centeredness.
Speaking recently about his trip to Morocco, the Holy Father affirmed that there is no need to be frightened by the differences between the different religions but what should scare us is the lack of fraternity between the different faiths (General Audience, 3 April, St Peter’s Square). As you all know, the Holy Father wanted to join actively in the celebration of the eighth centenary of the encounter between Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, and this trip, as well as that to the United Arab Emirates, is a clear example of this. The powerful call for dialogue and the building of an open, plural and supportive society, as well as the response we must give to the severe migration crisis were issues that he placed at the heart of his message. The Pope made an energetic call to walk a path together to help us overcome tensions and misunderstandings by opening ourselves to a spirit of fruitful and respectful collaboration. (Cf. Address of the Holy Father: meeting with the Moroccan people, the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps, 30 March 2019)
I would like, therefore, my beloved brothers, to invite you to experience Easter this year in the light of this notable event. It is true that an option such as that proposed by the Pope may represent a certain risk and may generate fear and uncertainty; something like what the apostles experienced in the upper room behind closed doors. However, the Pontiff encourages us in his encyclical: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (EG 49). I dare to make this invitation to all my brothers of the Order, to my beloved Poor Clare and Conceptionist sisters and to all men and women of good will who are close to the spirituality of the Saint of Assisi. Let us go forth, let us go to meet what is different, let us open the doors so that new air may enter, the breath of the Spirit (cf. Jn 20:22) who wants to open our eyes to a reality that is new and also fascinating. Do not think that this is a sign of weakness or rejection of our convictions; instead, believe that a world as plural as ours has urgent need of eloquent and prophetic signs that invite people to a healthy and civilised coexistence.
The poor man of Assisi was a sign for his time and remains so after eight centuries. I think we cannot be content with the idea of commemorating an event like this if our heart does not open to the experience of the other. Living the Passover this year will mean following the proposed itinerary of John’s Gospel. Without ignoring the trepidation and the desire to lock doors out of fear, it tells us how the event of the resurrection of Christ can transform our sadness into joy (cf. Jn 16:16) and our fear into courage to profess in word and with our lives, that Jesus has risen and that he is our Lord and our God (cf. Jn 20:28).
I wish you all a blessed and Happy Easter!
Rome, 14 April 2019
Br. Michael Anthony Perry, OFM
Minister General and Servant