Significantly, the inauguration of Pope Francis was on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the patron of the universal Church. In his homily at the inauguration Mass, Pope Francis emphasized the role of Saint Joseph as the protector of the Holy Family and the Church. The Supreme Pontiff as the Vicar of Christ is the protector of the Faith of the Church, which has been given to us by Jesus Christ. Pope Francis argues that the mission of protection extends to every human person:
The vocation of being a “protector,” however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.
Here Pope Francis echoes the theme of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate concerning the need to respect the “human ecology:”
[The Church] must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits (no. 51).
If people focus solely on the theme of protecting the environment in the homily of Pope Francis, they will miss the fundamental point that the crown of creation is the human person. Creation has been entrusted to humanity as a gift from God. We are called to be good stewards of the created order as we exercise dominion over it (cf. Genesis 1:28).
The Book of Genesis clearly has a hierarchal structure that directs our attention to the unique value and dignity of the person, who has been created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ addresses the need for humanity to serve the least of our brothers and sisters (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). Following this common biblical message, Pope Francis highlights in his homily our need to protect people, “especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.” Saint Matthew clearly states that our judgment depends not only on how we love God, but how we love our neighbor (cf. Matthew 25:40-46).
The relationship of our love for God and love for neighbor is intimately connected according to St. John (cf. 1 John 4:20). Drawing upon the wisdom of St. John, Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, argues that these two loves are so “closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether” (no. 16).
One of the challenges that we face as a Church in the 21st century is to proclaim the unity between these two loves that are oftentimes seen as mutually exclusive. Christ’s self-giving love in the Eucharist directs each member of the faithful to give of themselves in love to their neighbor. Otherwise, the Eucharist becomes “intrinsically fragmented.”
When we do not respond to our vocation to protect what has been entrusted to us in creation, Pope Francis prophetically warns the world: “the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened. Tragically, in every period of history there are ‘Herods’ who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.” The “Herods” of today have indeed been relentless in their attacks on life and love. The continual battles against abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and the redefinition of marriage demonstrate that “Herods” continue to impose their will upon the cultural landscape.
On June 22, 2010, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio) wrote a letter to the Carmelite Nuns in Buenos Aires asking for the their prayers as the people faced a bill which would legalize same-sex marriage:
The identity of the family, and its survival, are in jeopardy here: father, mother, and children. The life of so many children who will be discriminated beforehand due to the lack of human maturity that God willed them to have with a father and a mother is in jeopardy. A clear rejection of the law of God, engraved in our hearts, is in jeopardy.
Long before his pontificate began, Pope Francis had earned a reputation as a stalwart defender of the true identity of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Additionally he has not hesitated to speak out against other injustices towards life and love.
We are being urged on by the Holy Father to “hope against hope.” (Romans 4:18). Despite the darkness of a culture of death, according to Pope Francis we are called to “protect creation, to protect every man and every woman…especially the poorest.” Ultimately, this means we must cling passionately to Christ Crucified. Ave crux, spes unica! From the Cross, Christ will give us the grace to be transformed and renewed in holiness. In his first homily after the conclave, in the presence of the cardinal electors, Pope Francis reminds us of our need to respond generously to the call “to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the cross of the Lord.” This will require faith, hope, charity, humility, and courage. In continuity with his predecessor, the Supreme Pontiff directs our attention to the primacy of virtue in the Christian life.
The faithful are clearly outnumbered by those who have a different worldview – one that sees humanity apart from God’s love. Pope Francis exhorts all of us to join him in protecting the gifts of life and love: “In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!” In the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Francis models for us the need to begin by entrusting ourselves to the intercession of our Lady and to be men and women of constant prayer.
St. Joseph, the just man, protected the gift of the family – the life and love that had been entrusted to him. Often we forget that the fundamental social justice issue is the protection of innocent human life. Pope Francis now takes up the mantle of protecting the faith, and with it, the gift of human life and the family– the crowning goods of creation.