Among various news reports leading to the recent papal election, there was one in particular, widely reported, that caught my attention—because it was funny!
Apparently, as the cardinals were gathering on March 4 to prepare for their conclave, a man wearing a bishop’s cassock and black fedora, girded with a purple scarf and accompanied by an entourage, tried to sneak into the closed session by presenting himself as a “Bishop Basilius.” He successfully made it beyond the first level of security and was photographed with at least one legitimate cardinal, but was stopped just outside the Sistine Chapel as Swiss guards observed—his cassock was too short! After further investigation, he was identified as “Ralph”—a self-appointed bishop from an apparently fictional German religious order called Corpus Dei. He was consequently quickly escorted away.
One could say a lot of things about this imposter. We’ll just say, “Nice try, Ralph!”
Yet Ralph’s M.O. is not something to sneeze at. Indeed, it’s characteristic of the behavior of many in the quest for recognition, power, esteem, privilege, favoritism and/or wealth, and/or the desire to be “where the action is.” The internet is loaded with photos of ordinary folks hobnobbing with celebrities, sports figures and politicians. (Remember the couple who crashed President Obama’s first White House state dinner?!) And social media mixed with photoshop can depict any “friend” rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. It’s about pretending to be something you’re not!
Not as obvious—and certainly not even on the radar of secular media—is the spiritual dimension to such behavior. It is (dare we utter the totally intolerant and judgmental word) hypocrisy—by definition, “the pretense or affectation of having virtues, principles or beliefs that one does not actually have.” The Greek root “hypokrisis” was a term historically connected to actors in the theater.
When Our Lord was on His way to Jerusalem and the Cross, He delivered some rather serious “woes” to those who pretended to be religious. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:37-38).
During Great Lent—our “school of repentance”—the Church offers its annual refresher course on how to adjust our behavior to better conform to the Gospel of Christ. It begins by realizing where bad behavior originates: in the heart. As much as appearances seem so important to modern men and women, it’s still “what’s inside” that really counts—in David’s words, a “clean heart and a right Spirit.”
Jesus teaches clearly in Mark 7:21-23: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”
Great Lent provides the “tools” to help us redirect and strengthen our wills to resist and reject temptations through enhanced prayer, fasting, almsgiving, confession, and forgiveness. These tools can’t just hang idly over our toolbench! This requires much difficult, “heartfelt” work as it goes against the grain of the recognition, power, esteem, privilege, favoritism and wealth held in such high regard in contemporary society. But, in the Kingdom of God, the stakes are much higher, and the goal more lofty, than a celebrity photo-op or gaining entrance into a place where we don’t belong.
Liturgically, during Holy Week, we pay considerable attention to the parable of the virgins anticipating the coming of the Bridegroom to the marriage feast (Matthew 25:1-13). We even have a service titled “Bridegroom Matins.” Briefly, the wise virgins had sufficient oil to keep their lamps lit while waiting for the Bridegroom. The foolish did not (and were refused borrowing from the wise—but that’s for another lesson). While the foolish were away, buying more oil, the wise enter the marriage feast with the Bridegroom, Who then shut the door. When the foolish returned and knocked, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” He replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Ouch!
This parable, as Lent itself, reminds us that our “oil” is virtue—spiritual fruits and good deeds that help keep the Light of Christ burning brightly in us (see Matthew 5:16). And it sounds like when we pretend all is well and there’s plenty of time to do whatever we wish—and thus fail to look ahead and run out of this “oil”—the Light is extinguished and we’ve forsaken Christ: “I do not know you!” At that point, even crying “Lord, Lord!” and knocking on the locked door of the Kingdom won’t work.
But maybe at least some eccentric angel will be amused by our futile effort and say: “Nice try, Ralph!”