From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has frequently spoken of God as the "God of surprises." In his words on Easter Sunday this year, he referred to God's intervention in history, which culminated in the Resurrection of Christ, as all acts of the "God of surprises." Most recently, on the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, the Pope asked the question of his audience in Rome, "Is our faith open to surprises from God? Because God is the God of surprises!" Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that many times we judge God in terms of what we expect and are surprised when he acts in a different way outside of our boundaries.
In this context, it is not so surprising that Pope Francis has shown himself to be a "Pope of surprises." This has been obvious on many different occasions in which the Pope seems to delight in surprising people and acting in a manner not expected of the Pope. Not living in the papal apartments, carrying his own briefcase, riding about in a small car, having a celebration with pizza and children for his birthday and in so many other ways, many significant, has the Pope demonstrated his being a "Pope of surprises." This certainly demonstrates his joy in being open to God's presence in his life as the "God of surprises" and his willingness to follow the Lord wherever He leads.
The Pope has shown his inclination to surprise in regard to celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage. On January 23 of this year, he took many by surprise when he married a couple on a flight from Chile back to Rome. This was the first time a marriage was performed in the air and certainly the first for the Pope. His surprise caused a great deal of wonder and discussion but he made clear his intention was to demonstrate the sacredness of marriage and the importance it holds as a representation of God’s life. More recently, on July 7, the Pope performed another surprise marriage. This one was not on a plane but in the Church of St. Stephen of the Abyssinians in Vatican City. A Swiss Guard and his Brazilian wife-to-be were quite surprised to see the Pope appear unannounced before them to celebrate their marriage. Father Renato dos Santos, who was scheduled to marry the couple, was also quite surprised to have the Pope unexpectedly appear in the sacristy and request to do the wedding. The priest remarked, “I saw him as a true parish priest who takes care of his own sheep in the parish. He’s always done it this way.” Father dos Santos also emphasized that, “The Pope has great love for this Sacrament, which helps start a family and which wants to put God at the center.”
In the homily for the wedding Pope Francis emphasized three verbs which he explained are needed to be able to live a marriage in its fullness. These verbs are, “to begin, to stop, to resume the journey.” It is not surprising that the Pope emphasized three words in the homily as he gave advice to the young couple. Pope Francis frequently uses three words to emphasize his point as a practical and down to earth teaching device to assist those who hear his message in remembering it. He has done this in other marriage homilies emphasizing the importance of the words, “please, thank you and sorry.” He gave very detailed examples of how to live these words as he gave his homilies. He emphasized three words in his Ash Wednesday homily this year as a means of advice for the Lenten season as well as for life. The words were, “pause, see, and return.” He likewise gave very detailed explanations of the use of these words in his homily. However, in his homily to the young couple he recently married, no further explanation of the three words was reported.
Without the Pope’s explanation, I began to reflect upon the ways in which the three verbs are applicable to marriage. Certainly there are many. In trying to research if there were more reports available on the surprise marriage which may have given more details about the homily, I could not find any. However, I was surprised to learn that these words are also those of a program in the corporate and business world to help companies work together in teams and in following through on projects for the most successful outcome of a program or corporation. Tutorial sessions are actually given in regard to "start, stop, and continue,” in a professional manner to optimize the outcome. As I read through the processes, I realized that the Holy Father's advice to the young couple was excellent not only for a marriage but for any aspect of life. Once again, the Pope was most successful at surprising and in apparently using a corporate allusion for his marriage advice.
Basically, we need to be committed “to start” something because it is worth the start and it is something that we need to follow through on. This certainly applies to a marriage but also many other aspects of our lives such as school, work, recreation and other relationships. As we start a project, we need to also realize what we need “to stop” whatever in the project which is not of benefit. Certainly, many things in a marriage need to be stopped when they are directly related to jeopardizing the marriage. We need in all aspects of our lives to stop what is harming us and not causing us growth and progress, especially in our spiritual lives. Many times this takes a concerted and honest effort. Finally, we need “to continue” what is working well and bringing fruition to our lives. This certainly is obvious in the life of a marriage as well as it would be in other aspects of our lives.
The "Pope of surprises" not only surprised the couple when he unexpectedly married them but he also surprised us with his words which are found in good business practice. A further reflection on these words would certainly relate well to the message of Christ as He calls us to “start, stop and continue.” I can think of no better ones than those at the beginning of His public ministry, "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
Thank you Holy Father for being a "Pope of surprises" and always pointing us to the "God of surprises!"
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
August 31, 2018