Pope Francis opening “doors of mercy”, December 8th, 2015, St. Peter’s, Rome
Photo: Maurizio Brambatti/European Pressphoto Agency
FROM the very beginning of his pontificate, when he refused the pomp that often accompanies the papal office, Francis has not failed to stir controversy. With deliberation, the Holy Father has purposely tried to model a different kind of priesthood to both the Church and the world: a priesthood that is more pastoral, compassionate, and unafraid to walk among the fringes of society to find the lost sheep. In so doing, he has not hesitated to sharply rebuke his confréres and threaten the comfort zones of “conservative” Catholics. And this to the glee of modernist clergy and the liberal media who intoned that Pope Francis was “changing” the Church to become more “welcoming” to gays and lesbians, divorcées, Protestants, etc. eg. Vanity Fair, April 8th, 2016 The rebukes of the Pope toward the right, coupled with the assumptions of the left, has led to a cascade of downright anger and accusations toward the Vicar of Christ that he is attempting to alter 2000 years of Sacred Tradition. Orthodox media, such as LifeSiteNews and EWTN, have openly questioned the Holy Father’s judgment and rationale in certain statements. And many are the letters I’ve received from laymen and clergy alike who are exasperated with the Pope’s soft approach in the culture war.
So the question we must ask and carefully answer as this Year of Mercy begins to draw to a close is, what does it mean to become a more “welcoming” Church, and does Francis intend to change Church teaching?
Before I add any commentary, let me begin by stating, in his own words, what the Pope’s vision is at this hour…
THE PAPAL VISION
The tactical approach of Pope Francis is actually no surprise. In a homily to his fellow prelates shortly before his election, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio signaled exactly the kind of pontificate he believed necessary at this time:
To evangelize implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick… The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out… Thinking of the next Pope, he must be a man that from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing. —Salt and Light Magazine, p. 8, Issue 4, Special Edition, 2013
Evidently, his fellow Cardinals agreed, electing the man as the 266th pope. Peter’s successor wasted no time painting a picture of what he felt to be the Church’s mission at this hour:
I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up. —POPE FRANCIS, interview with AmericaMagazine.com, September 30th, 2013
Thus, in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis began to unravel practically how such a “field hospital” should be run. The healing of wounds, he said, begins with the Church, not necessarily the sinner, taking the ‘first step’:
The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. —Evangelii Gaudium, n. 24
For the sake of brevity, let me add one more insight from the Holy Father’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, that seeks a Church with…
…a positive and welcoming pastoral approach capable of helping couples to grow in appreciation of the demands of the Gospel. Yet we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness. Many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery. —Amoris Laetitia, n. 38
So, we have been given a vision for what the current holder of the Keys of the Kingdom believes is paramount at this time. The key to interpreting this vision, however, is not in-flight papal interviews, off-the-cuff remarks, purported telephone calls, unrecorded magazine articles, or even spontaneous remarks during a homily. Rather, as Cardinal Burke rightly said:
The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia [and other papal statements] is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. —Cardinal Raymond Burke, National Catholic Register, April 12th, 2016; ncregister.com
And here is the reason why, clearly enunciated 2000 years ago by St. Paul:
If anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed! (Gal 1:9)
Thus, the purpose of this meditation is to make it absolutely clear to the reader that which is the only possible meaning of what it means to become a more “welcoming” Church.
When Pope Francis speaks of reaching out to the “peripheries” of humanity, ‘those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery,” here he is speaking, in some respects, of all of us. For who of us is not affected by their own sin, pain, ignorance and misery? But he is also identifying with precision the “state” of the world’s soul at this hour: one that is numb to the concept of sin, and thus immersed in the depths of sin. It is a world that has virtually thrown off all restraint and is therefore reaping the misery of mortal sin, that death of the spirit which is the greatest wound of modern man.
Let me ask: when you have committed a sin, what do you long for at that moment when you are beating yourself up, accusing, berating and condemning yourself? Is it a harsh word… or a word of mercy? What heals you most in the confessional? To be scolded by the priest—or to hear that Jesus Christ loves you, even still?
This is what Pope Francis means when he says we need to heal the wounds first: it means to heal the gaping wound of guilt and condemnation.
…the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden… [Adam] answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” (Gen 3:8, 10)
How did the Father heal this wound of fear in the human race? He sent His Son Jesus Christ to cover our nakedness with His mercy:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him… Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners…. What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? (John 3:17, Mar 2:17, Luke 15:4)
And so, the pastoral approach has already been set. Jesus has given us the paramount model of evangelization, of what the Church ought to look like everywhere and at all times:
Whoever claims to abide in him ought to live just as he lived. (1 John 2:6)
Francis is calling every single Catholic to become another Christ at work, in the marketplace, our schools and homes. He is calling us to show the mercy and love of Christ to those most in need of the mercy and love of Christ. The example the Pope cites himself is the Samaritan woman at the well.
JOURNEYING WITH THE SINNER
She was a woman living in an adulterous situation. When Christ met her at the well, two significant things happened before the subject of her state of sin comes to the forefront. The first is that Jesus asks her to give him water. This is a profound lesson for those Christians who “avoid” sinners precisely because they are sinners. How often do our prayer groups, bible clubs, parish associations, and parishes themselves become a place that is warm to only the pious? How often do we gravitate to other Christians while avoiding the rougher characters? How often do we walk around the degenerate, the poor, and the troubled so as not to trouble ourselves? To Jesus, this attitude is nonsensical and antithetical to His mission, which is now ours: Those who are well do not need a field hospital—the sick do! Why, then, are you leaving on the roadside those poor souls beaten and robbed by Satan, the destroyer of souls? The question is to us who know Christ, who claim to be His followers. And so, Pope Francis has shaken the Church in many quarters, exposing those hiding behind the fig leaf of their comfort zones. Why? He answered why when he threw open the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica declaring a “Year of Mercy” while citing St. Faustina. Because Francis knows well, as Our Lord revealed to Faustina, that we are living in a “time of mercy” that is going to come to an end. cf. Opening Wide the Doors of Mercy
The second important thing that happens at the well is that Jesus goes on to entice the Samaritan woman to look beyond the temporal, to go beyond her desires for pleasure and to thirst for something greater: “the living water”, which is life in the Spirit.
When we go without fear into the hearts of others and reveal to them the joy and peace that surpasses all understanding simply by reflecting our simple happiness, two things will happen: others will either thirst for what we have, or they will reject us. I think the reason that some Christians are angered by Pope Francis’ call to journey with gays and lesbians, divorcées and the like is that he has convicted them that they have neither the joy nor the peace of the Lord! And so, for some, it is much easier to simply hide behind doctrine, behind a wall of apologetics, rather than give a living witness of the Gospel that may cost them their reputation, if not their lives.
The gentleness of Jesus acknowledged, first of all, the dignity of the Samaritan woman. He did not look at her as a sinful worm, rather, as a woman created in His image with the capacity to love with His love. This hope, this divine optimism that drove Him to the Cross for her sake (and ours), is what moved this woman’s heart to seek the eternal. His love and mercy toward her opened her heart and healed the primordial wound of rejection she carried within her… and then… then she was ready to receive the medicine of the truth that would set her free. As He said to her:
God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
THE LIBERATION OF THE TRUTH
Pope Francis, much like Christ, has chosen not to emphasize sin, chosen not to, in his words, be ‘on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being pro-active in proposing ways of finding true happiness.’ Is this the right approach at this time, when the cultural war is becoming more and more hostile to Christianity? As Pope Benedict noted, the “moral consensus” that has kept nations civil and ordered is collapsing all around us. It is no small thing:
To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, December 20th, 2010; cf. On the Eve
When Jesus became man and walked among us, Matthew states that the Lord came to “a people who sit in darkness.” Matt 4:16 Were people’s hearts that much different? Christ came as a light to the world. That light was composed of both His example and His teaching. Now, He turns to us and says, “You are the light of the world”Matt 5:14—through your example and teaching.
Thus, to welcome sinners into the bosom of the Church is not to minimize sin. The reason they are sick is precisely because of sin! But Jesus shows us that the way to the sinner’s heart, so to speak, is to become the face of love for them—not the mask of condemnation. And thus Pope Francis exhorts the faithful to heal that wound of rejection first:
You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else… The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. —POPE FRANCIS, interview with AmericaMagazine.com, September 30th, 2013
Then we can talk about everything else. That is, then we can teach the saving truths of our faiths on the Sacraments, marriage, and morality. And this was the threefold approach of Jesus at the well: be present to the other, be a light to them, and then teach them if they are thirsty for the truth. Jesus said, quite plainly: the truth will set you free. Thus, the goal of the Church is not merely to make people feel welcome, as if gathering together in a spirit of camaraderie is our ultimate purpose. No, Jesus stated the goal:
…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matt 18:19-20)
Baptism is a literal and spiritual washing away of sin. Thus, at the very heart of the Church’s mission is leading the sinner out of the life of sin into the teachings of Jesus which alone will make them His disciples. Thus, Pope Francis clearly stated:
…a positive and welcoming pastoral approach [is] capable of helping couples to grow in appreciation of the demands of the Gospel. —Amoris Laetitia, n. 38
The demands of the Gospel are repentance from sin and conformity to God’s will, which is the source of joy and peace and balance, as much as the earth remains fruitful and life-giving by “obeying” the laws of gravity that keep it in a perfect orbit around the sun.
THE WELCOMING, REDEEMING CHURCH
In conclusion, to “welcome” others into the Church is to make known to them by your kindness, respect of the other’s dignity, and willingness to be present, the power and presence of Jesus. In this way, our parishes can become “a community of communities.” Evangelii Gaudium, n. 28 This is only possible if we ourselves know Jesus and have been touched by His mercy—a fruit of prayer and the frequenting of the Sacraments. As Francis said, it is ‘from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ [that] helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries.’ Salt and Light Magazine, p. 8, Issue 4, Special Edition, 2013
And yet, even if we are warm and welcoming, there will always be those who reject the demands of the Gospel. That is, our “welcome” has its limits defined by the free will of the other.
Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 170
Jesus was very clear about this. The Church, which is the kingdom of God on earth, is the refuge of sinners—but only those sinners who place their trust in the mercy of God, reconciling with the Father through the Son, allowing Him to clothe them with a new robe, new sandals, and the ring of sonship so that they may be seated at the Table of the Lamb. cf. Luke 15:22 For the Church was established by Christ not only to welcome sinners, but to redeem them.
When the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matt 22:11-14)
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