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New Holy Father helps shepherd the church through these solemn days of Holy Week

As the season of Lent draws to a close, we enter with joy and hope into the holiest days of the year. As we celebrate the liturgies of Palm Sunday, the sacred triduum and Easter, we will be reminded of God's love for us sinners displayed so powerfully in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

More than simply being reminded, our own participation in this paschal mystery will be renewed. We recall the dying and rising of our own baptism, and we claim our place in the mystical body of Christ, the church, where we taste already the glory of the life to come.

The joy and hope we experience during this Holy Week are deepened by the election of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis. He was chosen by the cardinals at the recent conclave as they cooperated with the action of the Holy Spirit.

We all had the privilege of participating in the process by our prayer. Catholics instinctively know the importance of having someone occupy the throne of Peter, to be our universal pastor. It is interesting to note the joy and excitement expressed in St. Peter's Square and around the world as soon as white smoke appeared above the Sistine Chapel. Even before anyone outside of the chapel knew who had been chosen, we were already glad to know that we have a pope.

Like most of you, I am just getting to know Pope Francis. Just as it is essential to the life of the church that we have a pope, it also is important who the man is whom the Lord has chosen to guide his flock on earth. The Holy Spirit will be at work in his human gifts and limitations. And the Holy Spirit has been providing him with spiritual gifts ever since his baptism, preparing the man who is now our pope for this ministry of leadership and service.

In these early days of his pontificate, there is much speculation about the Holy Father's pastoral priorities or about areas of Catholic life that he may wish to highlight. It is best to let him speak for himself, as he has already begun to do in these early days. Let me point out some things that we have already seen and heard.

After Pope Francis was introduced to the world and appeared on the balcony overlooking the crowds in St. Peter's Square, he made a simple request. He invited the excited world to be quiet and to pray for God to bless him. Immediately that throng in the square, as well as many of us watching from a distance, fell silent and prayed. This was a powerful reminder to all of us of the importance of beginning any good work by quieting ourselves and asking God's help.

The Holy Father also is telling us something significant by choosing the name Francis, after the poor man of Assisi. We will learn more in the coming months and years about how the inspiration of this saint will shape the teaching and ministry of Pope Francis. A couple of things can be noted right away.

First, St. Francis was willing to listen to the Gospels in a fresh way. He found in the Gospels not only inspiring accounts of Jesus from long ago, but also he heard a personal invitation from Jesus to follow him, in his own time and place. As we struggle to participate in a "new evangelization" - hearing and proclaiming the Gospel in a fresh manner - St. Francis can provide welcome inspiration.

St. Francis also realized that if he were going to respond to the invitation of Jesus in the Gospel, he would have to change his way of life. He did so in a radical manner, becoming closely conformed to Christ in his body as well as his spirit. He remains so attractive centuries later because he was so Christ- like.

There are plenty of people who are offering advice to the new Holy Father about what they would like to see changed in the church. I wonder if you and I will be humble enough, as St. Francis was, to listen to the Holy Father speak to us, in the name of Jesus, about how we need to change, to be more closely conformed to Jesus? I hope so.

In his inaugural homily, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Pope Francis held up the example of St. Joseph. He applied St. Joseph's virtues to his own responsibilities as pope, and he also offered the saint's example to each of us, no matter our particular role in the church.

The pope reminded us that St. Joseph was faithful to the will of God, even when it was difficult to understand. He was able then to be an effective protector of Christ, who is at the heart of every vocation in the church.

The Holy Father urged us to imitate St. Joseph in being protectors, in God's plan, of all that is entrusted to us. First we must protect the gift of Jesus Christ in our own lives; then we are able to protect others, especially the weak and vulnerable, extending our protective care finally to all that God has created. In this regard, the pope encourages us not to be afraid of goodness and tenderness, in imitation of St. Joseph.

The excitement of recent days leads into the solemnity of the coming days, when we recall the events by which we are saved. It is good to have the Holy Father leading the church in prayer and worship through Holy Week and Easter. It is good that we join him in this great time of grace, in our own parish churches. We pray for Pope Francis wherever we celebrate Mass, not only because he needs our prayers, but also to acknowledge our unity through him, in Christ, as we celebrate the mystery of faith.

Count on my own prayers for all of you during these holy days. Thanks to the generous efforts of our priests, so many have come to the Lord during Lent in the sacrament of penance. What a joyful Easter it will be for all of us who have accepted the gift of divine mercy. May our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for our sake, now risen in glory, be close to you and yours this Easter.

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