When quoting a prophet got a pope in trouble

Two Popes Who Quoted the Prophet Isaiah: John Paul I and Francis

Recently, Pope Francis spoke about God’s love during a homily at a morning Mass in the chapel at the Casa Santa Marta at the Vatican. It was nothing unusual for the pope; for practically his entire pontificate he has repeatedly talked about its importance for people in today’s world. To emphasize his points, he turned to the prophet Isaiah and quoted him; the pope repeated Isaiah’s words on how much God loves his people, that he loves us not only as a father would, but as much—and maybe more—as a mother does.

In so speaking, the pope evoked the love of parents for their child, seeking to conjure up the image of God's parental love, concern and protectiveness. Nothing unusual there. The press and the media reported it without fanfare; as far as reporters and commentators were concerned, it was typical papal audience discourse and their attentions and pens moved on to await the next papal news story.

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People may not know that Pope Francis wasn’t the first pope to utilize this particular quote from Isaiah, or that when it was first used, it created a media and theological uproar—and it got a predecessor pope into theologically hot holy water. 

The first pope to actually use this quote from Isaiah was Pope John Paul I, during a Sunday Angelus talk back on Sept. 10, 1978. It is surprising when you think of it that it ever created a controversy in the first place. And it is also surprising when you realize that when Pope John Paul I made his remarks, he did so when a crisis was brewing in the Middle East (do things ever change?) and people were wondering what was going to happen. At the time, leaders were in discussions which eventually resulted in the Camp David Accords in which Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat took the bold step in actually recognizing the existence of the State of Israel and Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, agreed on his part to end their mutual hostilities—a first for the Jewish state and an Arab nation.

In remarks that only took up 360 words, Pope John Paul I elaborated on his hopes for peace in that part of the world by noting that the men involved—including the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter—were all, despite their political avocations, men of faith. The pope used biblical allusions to describe the faith of each man and when he came to describing Prime Minister Begin, it was then that he spoke of the words of the prophet Isaiah, on how God can never forget or forsake his creation, that if even a mother can somehow “forget” her own child, God “will never forget his people.” 

It was at this point of his talk that Pope John Paul I made the father/mother comparison, using the words of Isaiah: “Also we who are here have the same sentiments; we are the objects of undying love on the part of God. We know: he has always his eyes open on us, even when it seems to be dark. He is our father; even more he is our mother. He does not want to hurt us; He wants only to do good to us, to all of us. If children are ill, they have additional claim to be loved by their mother. And we too, if by chance we are sick with badness, on the wrong track, have yet another claim to be loved by the Lord.”

Pope John Paul I’s words created a firestorm, at least in theological circles. Theologians and scriptural experts were scurrying about with all kinds of theories and speculations as to whether the new pope was making some kind of new proclamation about the personhood of the Godhead—of which he was doing no such thing. The pope was unperturbed by the kerfuffle; he wondered why a “controversy” should have erupted over his simple, heartfelt words. “I was merely quoting Isaiah,” said he. And indeed he was. The humble “Supreme Pastor” taught the “experts” something they had long forgotten—or maybe didn’t understand—that in their positions as theologians and scriptural scholars, they not only wrote and spoke about God, but in so doing, they were also writing and speaking to God.

Unknown to him—and to all the world—by the time the former Patriarch of Venice uttered these words at that Sunday Angelus, he would only have 18 days left to live and he would leave behind the memory of a loving presence and a joyful smile which bespoke of his faith, his Christianity. He was only pope for some 33 days and in those days he had no time to write any great encyclicals or any letters of instruction to the faithful. But he did speak from the heart of many things, things of which the present Pope Francis often speaks about—love, mercy, kindness, humility and hope. 

Pope John Paul I ended his Angelus talk with these words: “With these sentiments I invite you to pray together with the pope for each of us, for the Middle East, for Iran, and for the whole world.” When you consider what he said and when he said it, you realize two things: that whoever is the pope at any given time, the essentials will always be preached and whatever time in history we find ourselves in, prayers will always be needed.

And, sometimes, just quoting a prophet may—or may not—get you into “trouble.”

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