Now, to give credit where credit is due, the Holy Father said some very fine things in his homily for the Mass of the Holy Family. Indeed, his pronouncements nearly always contain much that is good, true and spiritually helpful. He could surely never have been elected to the highest office on earth if his track record revealed that most of what he said was foolish, mistaken, superficial or heterodox. Nevertheless, it will only take a small drop of venom to make a rich and delicious Christmas cake highly dangerous for your health. Likewise, just one shocking affirmation in a papal homily can make its overall effect deeply unsettling and dangerous for our spiritual health.
In this case, the Pope has said something which makes many of us shudder; for it is something which it is not easy to exculpate, at least at the objective level, from the charge of blasphemy. Intentionally or otherwise, he has spoken words which, taken in their natural, unforced sense, imply that the Son of God himself has committed sin.
Consider these words by which His Holiness, preaching in Italian, commented on the Gospel incident: "We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, provoking great suffering (provocando una grande pena) to Mary and Joseph, who were unable to find him. For this little 'escapade' (questa 'scappatella'), Jesus probably had to ask forgiveness (dovette chiedere scusa) of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it."
Now, I can already hear the immediate, almost instinctive, response of those Catholics whose default position is to spring to the defense of the Holy Father no matter what he says or does. They'll be insisting right away that since popes should always be given the benefit of the doubt, a benign reading of his December 27 homily must be the correct one.
Now, I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt too, when the doubt seems reasonable. Especially the Holy Father. But just how much of a "doubt" can reasonably be found here? "Oh," my neo-Catholic critics will protest, "You're putting the worst construction on his homily! The words 'little escapade' show that the Pope doesn't consider the Child Jesus' action to be anything seriously blameworthy." Ahem. Seriously blameworthy? Excuse me, but even venial sin, if charged to the Son of God, is already a massively big deal! It's an utterly unacceptable charge against the perfect divine holiness. Moreover, does an alleged sin that "provoked great suffering" to the Mother of God and St. Joseph really sound like something trivial?
"Well," I will be told, "Maybe Francis doesn't mean to ascribe any sin at all to our Lord. We should assume he means that the 'forgiveness' Jesus sought was the kind you ask for when you've made a completely innocent mistake that has unintentionally turned out to harm somebody else".
Sorry, but that won't work either. In the first place, if that's what Pope Francis really meant, couldn't he have said so clearly? Is it really expecting too much of the Vicar of Christ to say that he should be more sensitive to the fundamental revealed truth that his Lord and Master is "without sin?" (cf. Heb. 4:15, 2 Cor. 5: 21, and many other biblical texts)? Sensitive enough, that is, to anticipate that certain words might well be taken to cast doubt on this revealed truth and so scandalize the faithful? Sensitive enough, therefore, to either not use those words at all or carefully explain the orthodox sense in which he's using them?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the above whitewash won't wash in any case. If the Pope had in mind a completely innocent mistake on the part of the Child Jesus, he could scarcely have called it an "escapade" - a word Webster's dictionary defines as "a reckless adventure or prank". Recklessness is always at least a venial sin against the cardinal virtue of prudence. Finally, the context also makes the whitewash quite implausible. For Francis goes on in the very next sentence to liken this imagined forgiveness-seeking on the part of Jesus to that which takes place in our own homes and families: forgiveness-seeking, that is, which is occasioned by our sins. He says, "Moments like these become part of the pilgrimage of each family; the Lord transforms the moments into opportunities to grow, to ask for and to receive forgiveness, to show love and obedience. In the Year of Mercy, every Christian family can become a privileged place on this pilgrimage for experiencing the joy of forgiveness."
In short, these rationalizations attempt to excuse the inexcusable. Like the child who recognized that the Emperor had No Clothes, any child will also understand that when you say someone "had to ask forgiveness", you mean they had done something wrong.They sinned.
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But enough of that. It's still the glorious Christmas season, so let me try to restore the joy to this mystery by offering an alternate explanation of the Finding in the Temple - one which upholds the stainless innocence of both Jesus and his holy Mother. Of course, we don't know all the circumstances (crossed wires, misunderstandings, or whatever) that led to his being left behind in Jerusalem. But our Catholic faith itself gives us certainty that there was no sin of disobedience, imprudence or negligence on the part of Jesus or Mary. There was very probably no sin on the part of St. Joseph either.
One possible scenario that occurs to me derives from Jesus' own question to his parents, in response to the Blessed Mother's question as to why he had "done this" to her and Joseph. He asked, "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" We can suppose that young Jesus was so intimately and deeply conscious of his own unique and intimate Sonship in relation to the Father that, at the level of his developing human knowledge (from which he sometimes temporarily 'blocked' out his divine omniscience, so as to share more fully in our human learning experiences), he ingenuously took it for granted that Mary and Joseph would understand that as well, and would thus naturally seek him first in his Father's house, the Jerusalem Temple.
As to why he was not with the caravan at the time it set out for Nazareth, we can of course be sure it was not because of disobedience to an instruction on the part of his parents to be at a certain time and certain place in order to begin the journey. For such disobedience would have been sinful. There was no accurate method of telling the time anyway in those days, and if there was a misunderstanding or uncertainty about when the caravan was due to set off (dawn? mid-morning? noon?), young Jesus may well have felt called by his Heavenly Father to visit the temple while waiting for the caravan to get under way, assuming his parents would fetch him there when it was time to go. (Prayerful people in modern times will often visit an airport chapel when they have quite a while to wait before their flight starts boarding.) It is also possible that Jesus asked a companion to tell Mary and Joseph where he would be waiting, but that the message never got through.
When Mary and Joseph never came to fetch him on the day of the caravan's departure, Jesus prudently remained in the temple until they eventually found him there. Going somewhere else in the big city, where, as a Galilean child, he may have known nobody, could have been very unsafe as well as making him even harder to track down. The scribes and doctors in the temple would of course have fed and looked after this prodigiously wise and learned boy, after he had explained to them that there was a misunderstanding about the departure of his caravan destined for Nazareth.
How the caravan got to set off without the Child Jesus, but also without any fault of negligence on the part of his parents, or at the very least, on the part of Our Lady, is another point on which Luke's Gospel account is silent. But there certainly was some explanation. Now, historians tend to frown on imaginative possible reconstructions of events that involve something that seems unlikely. They usually prefer the principle of "Occam's razor": the simplest, least complicated, most plausible explanation, they'll say, is most likely the true one.
But the fact is, life brings us many "improbable" events and experiences - both good and bad. Take the following true example. Several years ago I flew from St. Louis to Atlanta, having made a prior arrangement with friends to pick me up at the airport. I had given them, of course, my flight number and time of arrival. I made the plane journey, and, shortly after the flight arrived on time, I was duly in my friends' car heading out of the airport. Now, if that is all the data that a historian was given about the incident, what would he conclude? Why, that nothing unusual happened, of course! I met my friends as planned and all went exactly as we expected.
Well in fact, that wasn't the case at all! Occam's razor, if applied by our historian in this case, would shave off a large and remarkable slice of reality. For what in fact happened at the Atlanta airport was more complicated and totally improbable. My flight landed on schedule at Atlanta, but my friends somehow went to the wrong baggage claim area to meet me, some distance away in another part of that very big terminal. After I had waited a few minutes, with no sign of my friends, another priest came up to me. He saw me in my clerical suit and noticed that I was looking around waiting for someone. He said to me, "Hello, Father. I don't suppose that by any chance you are waiting for José and Mercedes Pérez, are you?" Surprised, I answered, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am!". "Well," the priest went on, "I happen to be the pastor of their parish, and by coincidence I met them a few minutes ago when we were all coming into the airport.
We said hello, of course, and they told me they had come to pick up a priest friend who would be visiting with them for a few days. We split up when they told me they were going to the Delta baggage claim to meet him. It just so happens that I've come here to the United baggage claim to meet a friend of mine who's arriving about now." Pleasantly astonished at this little serendipitous gift of divine Providence, I thanked the very priest very much and went on down to the Delta baggage claim, where, sure enough, my friends were awaiting me! We all laughed and thanked the good Lord for helping us all avoid a long and possibly fruitless search for each other. But the main point of this anecdote is its inherent improbability. A writer of fiction would not have invented such an incident, with its string of unlikely coincidences, because he'd think it would make his story too implausible and artificial. Yet I assure you, dear reader, that it all actually happened just as I have described.
Therefore, it should not be too hard for us to believe that divine Providence allowed certain other seemingly improbable events to take place, without any culpable parental negligence on the part of Mary and Joseph, that resulted in the departure of the caravan without its most important Member. We need to remember several things. First, as among many Middle Eastern peoples right up till today, men and women did things in segregated groups. Secondly, extended family groups tended to play a bigger role in that culture than in ours, which for centuries has been centered on the 'nuclear' family: a husband, wife and their children. Finally, it could well have been that this pilgrimage caravan included a lot more people than just the folks from Nazareth. For greater security in age when brigands and wild animals often endangered travelers, several of the nearby Galilean towns quite likely banded together for this Passover trip to Jerusalem and back, in which case there could have been a thousand or more people in the entire caravan.
We can envisage, then, a scenario in which two distinct groups, composed of men and women respectively, each included hundreds of people, and were travelling separately. As regards the children, in a culture that didn't necessarily expect them to be under the direct supervision of their own parents in such situations, the custom was for the older boys to travel in the men's group, while the smaller ones would travel with the girls in the women's group. Now, the Child Jesus, at 12, was just at that age when it would have been quite reasonable for him to have traveled in either the men's or the women's group. St. Luke tells us (2: 44) that during the first day, Mary and Joseph both thought that Jesus was safely in the caravan. Evidently, then, each of them assumed he was in the other group. And the assumption might well have been supported by mistaken testimony: someone assures Our Lady confidently that they've seen Jesus up ahead in the men's group and she accepts that calmly, seeing no need to look for him prior to their encampment that evening, when families will be mixing again. Meanwhile, Joseph, not seeing Jesus in the men's group, assumes he is with the women. Possibly - remember the implausible, but real, coincidences from my Atlanta airport experience! - he too was reassured by a mistaken report to that effect.
There could of course have been other seemingly unlikely combinations of circumstances that led both our Lord's holy Mother and his foster-father to continue through the hours of that first day's journey assuming, without blame, that Jesus was safely there in the big caravan. Divine Providence, in any case, permitted this misunderstanding so as to leave all future Christians with a precious and unique testimony from our Lord's boyhood as to how early in life he manifested his supernatural wisdom and consciousness of being the Son of God, whom he calls "My Father", in a completely unique way.
It is deeply disappointing, and indeed, profoundly shocking, that the Successor of Peter himself should purge this Joyful Mystery of its joy by daring to pronounce words which, taken in context and in their natural, obvious sense, cast doubt on the spotless sinlessness of the Son of God himself.