I recently spent some time at my order’s Generalate in Rome. Being in Rome is always special. The city is filled with magnificent churches, hallowed archeological sites, great restaurants, and friendly people.
Everywhere we turned this time, it seemed, there were copies and representations of Pope Francis’ pectoral cross, available in every price range and medium―except gold!
The humble silver cross with the image of the Good Shepherd on it was made for Francis when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires by Giuseppe Albrizzi, who lives in the northern Italian town of Vidigulfo. In the May 2014 edition of Messenger of Saint Anthony, Renzo Allegri writes of its deep significance for the Holy Father. He describes the cross as Francis’ “inseparable companion,” always close to his heart:
“When he became the archbishop of Buenos Aires and later a cardinal and primate of the Argentine church, Archbishop Bergoglio continued to lead the lifestyle of a simple parish priest. He refused to reside at the Archbishop’s House, preferring instead to live in a small flat with a retired priest, and he cooked his own meals.”
“Whenever he had any free time available from his numerous duties as archbishop, he went to the slums of Buenos Aires (favelas). At that time, Archbishop Bergoglio did not even have a car. He just used the buses or the subway. During the trip from the Archbishop’s House to the favelas, located on the outskirts of the city, he would often clutch his pectoral cross―the symbol of his desire to shepherd the poor. The cross had more than a sentimental value for the man who wore it; it also meant something for those he visited. The outcasts of society in the favelas touched it too; they kissed it and bathed it with their tears while the archbishop listened to their stories.”
Pope Francis has frequently challenged his brother bishops and priests to avoid careerism, to live simpler lives close to the people, and to preach the gospel message clearly and unequivocally. I believe that his pectoral cross not only reveals much about his own personal story and predilections, but also about his vision of ministry.
Close to the People of God
The central image of the cross is the Good Shepherd standing amid the sheep, guiding them, unifying them, protecting them. In Jesus’ day, shepherds would often position themselves between the sheep inside the enclosure and predators and danger outside. The shepherd’s first responsibility was the safety and well-being of the sheep.
Pope Francis has said: “The priest who seldom goes out of himself . . . misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. . . . This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, lose heart, and become in a sense collectors of antiquities or novelties― instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’ This is what I am asking you―be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”
Caring for the Lost and the Vulnerable
The parable of the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep (Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:4-7) speaks to the tender care of the shepherd for the most fragile and frail among the flock. The Good Shepherd of the pope’s pectoral cross holds a sheep around his neck, gently supporting its legs with his hands.
Pope Francis reminds us that “we have to become courageous Christians and seek out those who are the flesh of Christ.” Last October, he said: “Every day we are all called to become a ‘caress of God’ for those who perhaps have forgotten their first caresses, or perhaps who never have felt a caress in their life.” And he has repeatedly called Jesus the “man for others.”
It isn’t difficult to identify the lost sheep of our age: the poor, the disfigured, the sick, the homeless, refugees, the unchurched, those struggling with belief, the young, and the elderly. Do we have the courage and the will to be the “caress of God” for them?
Praying for the Church
Those who first saw Pope Francis’ pectoral cross as he stood on the balcony of Saint Peter’s following his election thought it was black. Silver darkens as it is touched and kissed and exposed to the air. Archbishop Bergoglio believed, says Allegri, that “the world’s suffering had been impressed on it, darkening it.” On his way home, he would pray for the people he had met, asking God to grant them healing and comfort and to transfer their pain to the cross . . . and to his heart.
Father Anthony Schueller, SSS