At the request of Janet Hauter, Director of the American Catholic Council, I have focused this month’s column on how and why I came to have an “eye” on Francis. She also asked me to share with readers how I was able to transform my life after the death of my husband in 2012 in the journey of being a widow. The two are threads that weave together and not easy to convey in a short or concise article. I hope I do not bore you, dear reader….reyanna
By Reyanna Rice July 24, 2016
In crafting this month’s Eye on Francis, I would like to share with you how and why I came to have my “eye” on him. Like most stories, there is “history” involved. I need to start back a bit before the day Pope Francis came onto the world’s stage by stepping out onto the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica as the new pope on the evening of March 13, 2013. Just an upfront note: this will not be a short read.
The story begins with what I have come to realize is probably the biggest transformational event of my life. My husband, Steve, died on September 1, 2012, after an almost 4-year struggle with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. Diagnosed in 2009, he defied all the odds that he would survive as long as he died. AML is a very aggressive form of leukemia and the chemo is harsh. Upon his death, I, in a way, felt some relief that he would no longer suffer but also experienced the profound grief of losing my life partner of 40 years. However, knowing my husband as well as I did, I could hear his voice in my head telling me to get on with it and to not sit around in a puddle of tears. I also knew I had no other choice but to grab hold of my life since I live alone somewhat remote in the mountains of western Montana.
In thinking through all this while moving through all the needed things to do right after loosing a spouse, I came to realize I was not the person I was before I met Steve and I would no longer be the person I was when I was married to him. I knew I had to re-invent myself to some extent.
Retired from a long career in hospital laboratory medicine working as a clinical laboratory scientist, I felt that life was not calling me back into that line of work. I had become involved prior to Steve’s cancer diagnosis with a group, Concerned Catholics of Montana, formed locally by some good friends. Of course they were a good support network as I transitioned into widowhood. I slowly began to realize that this was a direction life was going to take me, working for reform in the Catholic Church. Then my good friend Rosemary, one of the founding members of Concerned Catholics was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and died within 4 months. Before her death, she insistently willed me the care of the Concerned Catholics Website and eventually the membership wanted me as their servant leader. But before this happened, Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto that loggia as Pope Francis.
I had watched the news on the conclave keenly and with a bit of apprehension, concerned that someone even more conservative than Benedict XVI would be elected. Bergoglio was not even considered a candidate but those who were did not leave a good feeling in me. Then there was the announcement of his election and the long delay until he appeared on the loggia. When he did, my first impression was not too kindly: “He looks like a deer in the headlights!” He seemed so stiff and wooden. There were no triumphant hand clasps above the head as Benedict and John Paul had done. As I watched him for the first few minutes, I began to understand that he was scared down to his shoe tops. I also noted, as did the rest of the world, that he was donned in only the plain, white cassock. No fancy brocaded red velvet shoulder cape was on him. “He is different even though he is unsure”. But then he took the microphone to speak. His seemingly dour and long face lit up in a wonderful smile. As the news announcer translated his words, I was astounded. He was speaking of the “People of God” and of himself only as “Bishop of Rome” and that the bishop and his people would now be on a journey together. I found tears coming to my eyes as I had not heard the words “People of God” coming from the Vatican in years. He was addressing us personally. Then he bowed to the people asking them for their blessing before he would impart his. The silence from the vast crowd in the piazza was deafening. This man indeed was something different in a pope. I was certain the cardinals in the conclave had no idea of the kind of man they had just elected.
As the next few days unpacked, there were many stunning stories of his actions: he paid his own hotel bill, he insisted on keeping his black shoes and black pants under the white cassock, he did not want to live in the Apostolic Palace. But there were also dark stories soon unearthed about him from his past as the very young Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina and what he did or did not do during the so-called “Dirty Wars”. Because of this seemingly dark history, I began to do a lot of internet research. I could not believe that this man who was out of the gate as our new pope acting in such compassionate ways toward other people and saying things about “mercy”, “God never tires of forgiving” and “God’s tenderness” and who seemed to want to lead the Church back out into the deep waters after being so long stuck in the shoals should be a fake or have baggage that would drag him down. In doing the research, I found out that the stories being told about him were blown out of proportion and events misconstrued. Eventually, in my reading about him, I discovered many more stories of how he actually saved people from certain death during the Argentine Dirty Wars. I uncovered a lot of remarkable things about this man. The more I read….and I have read all the major biographies of him….and the more I watched the video and photographic record of his actions, the more convinced I became that he would be able to lead the Church into a new and more hopeful future and that he had many good things for the entire world. The key piece for me was the interview done with him by Fr Antonio Spadaro that appeared in the world’s main Jesuit journals in September of 2013. Fr Jim Martin at America Magazine stated that when the manuscript in Italian came through, he thought his Italian might be faulty because he was reading things he thought no Pope would say. But when he got the English translation, this Pope really did say them! This interview laid bare the “Big Heart Open to God” and the soul of the man we now knew as Papa Francesco. It also gave us the first brushstrokes of what was his vision for the Church. It is a remarkable read and readily available on the America Magazine website. Here is the link: http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview
Then the “pushback” began from those in power who felt the threat of his papacy, starting with his call for two Synods to study issues surrounding marriage and family. I then found myself growing more and more committed to the process of reform in the Church. One thing led to another and I found myself personally committed to going to Rome to be present as witness to the Extraordinary Synod of 2014. And it was an astounding experience. I came away from Rome convinced that Pope Francis was empowering the laity in a big way. Subsequent events and his writings have reinforced that. If you have read my previous Eye on Francis columns, you know that this is a message I keep repeating. PF knows that he has this huge “block” to work around in the cohort of bishops in the world that we have been left with from the past two papacies. Most of them don’t have a clue what he is talking about when he speaks of a “Church with doors wide open”, “a Church that excludes no one” and, my favorite “a Church that is ‘Mama’s House’”. They have no clue when he says God’s mercy knows no limits. But Francis knows that the laity “get” his message. You can see it in the kinds of crowds he attracts and how he interacts with people everywhere he goes, especially young people. Find any “selfie” he has been in with young folks to be convinced of this. You can begin to see it in the ways, albeit slowly developing, that people have begun to interact in their parishes, doing things like working on social justice issues or forming dialogue and study groups on Laudato si’ or Amoris Laetitia. I sense a new ferment bubbling up from beneath, from the laity, slowly creating new wine and new wine skins. I sense bishops, like my own, beginning to feel the freedom to be pastors and not fearing the “temple police” will tattle on them to Rome, free to be once again the “shepherds” that they know deep down in their heart they are meant to be. All this has led me into a deeper and deeper conviction that I must act in ways that will continue to ensure the flourishing of the good seed that Pope Francis is planting in our Church and in the world. I must do all I can to nourish and water those seeds. It is up to me. That is called a “mission” in the words of Pope Francis, that deep abiding feeling that you have to act and to learn the skills to carry it out. I encourage you to think about what your “mission” could be to also keep this wonderful seed sprouting and growing. It doesn’t have to be big things.
As I began to be drawn more deeply into what I can only call the “phenomenon” of Pope Francis, truly given to us by the Holy Spirit, I found myself doing some interesting things. I taught myself Italian just to be able to access his writings and homilies sooner than the Vatican took to post the English translations on their website, sometimes weeks. In the process, I discovered some interesting things: those English translations often leave out significant sentences and words. Any translation in a way is an interpretation. But what I was reading of the Vatican English translations was just about total paraphrasing. The other interesting thing happening to me was a deepening of my faith life, moving me into a freedom to act and do things in a bold way. I began writing and publishing, such as this column and also commentary with the articles I was posting on the Concerned Catholics website. I have become a bold commenter to the articles on NCR, America Magazine, and PrayTell on line blogs. This freedom to act came as a result of a deepened trust in God. I am convinced it has come about due to the influence an elderly cardinal from Argentina who said “yes” when God tapped him on the shoulder to be the next pope, something he really did not want to do, but did so in a big-hearted, fearles way. It led me to do things in my personal circumstances that I would not have dreamed. My husband left me a garage full of wood working tools. I had always worked side by side with him building our home and doing things around our acreage. He was always good about teaching me things, almost like he knew I would be on my own someday. As a result, I have done things like building 52 feet of deck railing and re-decking a balcony on my own last summer. Never, never underestimate what you can do when you let fear fade from your life.
But the really dramatic thing I found myself doing was wanting to go back to Rome for the Ordinary Synod in October of 2015, but this time as a Vatican accredited free lance journalist. And I pulled it off. The regional newspaper in western Montana, although not paying me, vouched that I would be writing articles for them on the Synod, a total of 4, one a week for 4 weeks that allowed me to apply for and obtain my Vatican Press Office ID. There is no local diocesan paper so I was committed to provide a lay voice reporting to other laity on this important Synod affecting lay people. My first day sitting in the Sala Stampa press conference hall listening through a translation head set is hard to describe. Looking around the room, I saw the who’s who of Catholic journalism: Fr. Tom Reese, John Allen, Elisabetta Pique, Michael Gibson, John Tavis, Austen Ivereigh, Robert Mickens. Pique and Ivereigh each have written some of the most important biographies on Francis. Mickens and I have formed a friendship and spent a delightful afternoon at a Roman sidewalk café sharing lunch and a good bottle of red. Not being the shy retiring type, I would spend some time each day before the press conference going up to these journalists and introducing myself. And you know what? When I did so and told them where I was from, they all thought that it was really cool that some local paper would want to send a “reporter” to Rome to cover this story as opposed to some of the rabidly anti-Francis web bloggers who also managed to receive Vatican credentials. And what a story it was. If you have followed either the Concerned Catholics or the American Catholic Council websites, you may have read my reporting. If you are new to these sites, you can go back through the archives to find my daily blogs. I worked hard in my professional career, but with my time in Rome last fall I had never worked harder nor enjoyed it so much. As a result of this experience, I have now segued into doing translation work for an Italian journalist in Rome, a name many of you would recognize, who writes extensively and supportively about Francis.
So, not in a nutshell to say the least, that is how and why I transformed my life as a widow and came to have my eye on Franics. They day I closed my husband’s eyes in death, I could not have imagined this journey. In a way, our death, according to Ronald Rolheiser, should free our loved ones. Steve’s death freed me to be a widow. Widows have been historically key figures in many communities, especially in native communities, because they are free. Sometimes their voice is that of a true prophet. It is a vocation I am happy to have and happy to be able to use to serve those around me.