After begging my friends for months to write guest posts, someone has agreed to be the first victim. Enjoy!
“Reflections on the world’s most famous seagull”
Everyone probably knows by now that a seagull alighted on the “white smoke” chimney of the Sistine Chapel during the papal conclave, supposedly almost around the time the cardinals were choosing Francis as our Holy Father. Some said the bird was perched on the roof to protest that only cardinals got to vote for pope. I saw it a different way.
St. Francis of Assisi, whose legacy our Holy Father certainly was evoking when he chose his pontifical name, is often depicted with birds. For a long time, I’ve often disparaged that imagery of St. Francis, since it depicts him as a softy or a flower child. He was neither. He was a stringent and forcible voice for conscience and reform (much like his namesake Papa), once telling priests in his order that if they celebrated the Eucharist unworthily they were guilty of the Blood of Christ. St. Francis, remember, was not a priest because he thought himself unworthy of the vocation, and was horrified that men who were graced with ordination would abuse their station in life. He did not beat around the bush, but went for the jugular.
So the bird thing softens St. Francis’s image, and I’ve frequently disliked this. But, as I was considering the seagull incident, I was reminded of the Baptism of Our Lord, when God sends a bird down from heaven to tell the crowd that +Jesus is the Son of God. I also remembered when God sent Noah a dove, symbolizing the end of the floods and the beginning of a covenant of peace. Those images brought to mind, the bird’s alighting on the chimney took on a whole new, and powerful, meaning. Peace, renewal, and salvation will come through this Pope who took the name of the humble man of Assisi.
And, speaking of this bird, why a seagull? The Lord chose doves for the imagery in the previous two scenes, and the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove. If God was really trying to send us a message in sending a bird to the roof of the Sistine Chapel, why did He choose a seagull? Seagulls are gross. Nobody likes seagulls.
But then the Holy Spirit told me the answer: that seagulls are gross and unpopular is exactly the point. Our Blessed Lord was despised and unpopular. St. Paul stressed again and again the indignity +Jesus suffered at the hands of the Roman and Israelite authorities. Saint after saint, mystic after mystic, has stressed the importance both of embracing the pariah status true-blooded Christianity will undoubtedly bring upon a believer, and of seeing the face of Christ in the most vulnerable members of our society.
And nobody showed us this more clearly than +Jesus himself. In the Gospel a couple of weeks ago, we saw the scene of the Samaritan woman. A bit of historical context will show just how profound that scene is. First of all, we have a Jewish man (+Jesus) engaging a Samaritan woman in conversation. This violated two social barriers: Samaritans were considered an inferior race, and woman an inferior sex. Furthermore, this woman was living in sin, probably many times over. The Lord tells her, truthfully, that she has had many husbands, and is now living with a man who is not her husband. She came to the well, notably, at midday, in the heat, when nobody else would be there. And yet, +Jesus was there, and she is the first person in the Gospel of St. John to whom the Lord reveals His true identity as the Messiah of God. Why would the Lord want to go and do this? He reveals himself to a thrice-condemned person, an outcast within a tribe of outcasts who belonged to an inferior sex.
(He also reveals Himself to each of us in the Eucharist and in the sacrament of penance, and who among us can say we’re doing a whole lot better than she was?)
Again, that’s just the point. The Lord tells us, with no holes barred, that the poor are to be blessed, and that which we do for and to the least of His people we have done for and to Him. We are that poor, the least of His people, and we need to pray for the grace of daily conversion. We are not doves: we need doves to alight upon us and carry us, as St. Therese desired to be carried by her Eagle, to Heaven, because we cannot get there on our own.
That said, I don’t think it too much of a stretch that the Lord would send a seagull to signal His blessing upon our new Holy Father, especially when the new pontiff has taken the name of the holy man of Assisi who is the universal champion of the downtrodden. The life St. Francis led was not glamorous, and neither will the work facing Pope Francis be glamorous. The work of salvation is hard and tiresome: St. Paul reminds us in Philippians to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. But, in the same letter, he tells us to rejoice in the Lord, for with Him we can do all things.
So pray for our Holy Father, and pray that we can, each of us, grow in holiness day by day so our prayers may support him in his ministry and give glory to God.