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A Spirituality of Encounter. Pope Francis and the Woman Who Anointed the Feet of Jesus

By Deacon Keith Fournier
September 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Woman whose story is told even to this day, as Jesus promised it would be, saw Jesus for who he is and was changed in the encounter with Him. It was not about her, it was about Jesus. She was emptied of self and thereby able to be filled with Love. This encounter is capable of changing all men and women. It is the woman of prayer who teaches us of the absolute necessity of living faith and points us to the path to walk upon if we want to receive faith as gift and cultivate it as a fruit. She is a model for all who want to experience living faith as a light for real life.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The Gospel for Mass is St. Luke's account of two people who have encounters with Jesus. One involved a Pharisee who failed to see because his field of vision was darkened by pride. The other involved a humble woman who had clear vision because she knew the secret of prayer and adoration. In the account we can find a key for our own lives and discover the path to such prayer: 

A certain Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner." Jesus said to him in reply, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Tell me, teacher," he said."Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days' wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?"

Simon said in reply, "The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven." He said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."  He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." The others at table said to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" But he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Lk. 7:36-50)

The Evangelists Mark and Matthew also record the encounter, adding this statement of Jesus about this woman, "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." (Mark 14:9, Mt. 26:13) I am helping to fulfill their prophetic observation with this homily, standing on the shoulders of others who have done so throughout two millenia of Christianity.
 
One of the words used most often by Pope Francis is the word encounter. In one of his homilies (4/29/13) he spoke of the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, as an encounter with Jesus who always awaits us and takes us as we are, offering us his love and healing. This word encounter is the theological ground of all of his sacramental theology.

This word encounter illumines the path he proposes toward full communion with Eastern Christians not yet in union with the Holy See. He invites us to build with them a culture of encounter. His commitment to peace, recently demonstrated by his call for a global day of prayer and fasting to quell the Syrian conflict, is rooted in his bedrock conviction that we must reject all forms of violence, war and conflict, embracing instead dialogue and encounter as the path to peace. 

This word encounter is a key, a lens, what theologians call a hermeneutic, to understanding this Pope, his way of sharing the Gospel and his way of incarnating the Gospel in his witness of life. He is always reminding all who bear the name Christian that Christianity is about an ongoing encounter with the Risen Jesus Christ.

The Risen Jesus always comes to encounter us - in prayer, word, sacrament, one another, the poor, suffering, struggle - you name it. In all of these we can encounter Jesus, even if initially hidden, when we open our hearts to His Mercy and Love, by living faith. Pope Francis also invites us, living now in Jesus Christ, to encounter one another - and the whole world which Jesus loves. To live a way of encounter.

This word encounter also explains his ecclesiology, or theology of the Church. The Church is the place of encounter. It is not some-thing but Some-One, the Body of the Risen Jesus. Jesus is the head of His Body and the head and the Body cannot be separated. Through our participation in the mission of the Church we participate in His continuing redemptive mission. 

Francis is currently giving daily reflections on the Church in homilies, reminding us that the Lord invites all men and women to this encounter with Him, seeking to embrace them as a mother awaits her children, in His Church. This Pope is expounding and re-presenting a Patristic image of the Church, one which holds enormous promise on many fronts.

This spirituality of encounter is a beautiful spirituality, a profound theology, and a treasure for this barren age. It comes at a moment when the whole Church - and the world into which she is called - desperately needs this spirituality of encounter more than anything else. It will be seen as the true treasure of this papacy.  

In explaining the emphasis Pope Francis places on encounter, some observers point to his relationship with the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation whose founder, Fr. Luigi Giussani, used the word encounter at the heart of the spirituality of the movement. He properly insisted that Christianity, at its heart, is an encounter with Jesus Christ.

In his first encyclical letter, the Light of Faith  - which Francis acknowledges was written with Pope Emeritus Benedict -  we find the word encounter woven throughout the text. That is because Pope Benedict similarly emphasized the centrality of an encounter with Jesus. He regularly taught that Christianity is not some-thing, but an encounter with Some-One, the One who lives no more to die and who is encountered through living faith. In the Light of Faith, we read:

"Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us." (Light of Faith, #4)

Both Simon the Pharisee and the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment and tears,  had an encounter with Jesus. However, only one of these encounters shows us the way to be set free and opens us up to participate - even now - in the eternal communion of love for which we long. 

The Woman whose story is told, even to this day as Jesus promised it would be, saw Jesus for who he is and was changed in this encounter with Him. It was not about her, it was about Jesus. She was emptied of self and thereby able to be filled with Love. This encounter is capable of changing all men and women. It is the woman of prayer who teaches us of the absolute necessity of living faith and points us to the path to walk upon if we want to receive faith as gift and cultivate it as a fruit. She is a model for all who want to experience living faith as a light for real life.

That path of encounter proceeds along a life of prayer, adoration, contemplation and love. Her posture before the Lord, her response to Beauty and Love Incarnate, her honest self-understanding, her quick repentance; these are our Gospel lessons today. Let us come before the Lord, who is truly present to us as we receive Him in the most Holy Eucharist, and experience the encounter of encounters. Let us take Him into ourselves and become what we receive. Let us discover the spirituality, the way, of encounter. 

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