I had the gift of two unusual blessings last week. The first was a moment to greet Pope Francis in Rome after his Wednesday, September 18, general audience. We had met and served as delegates to the 1997 Special Assembly for America. Sixteen years have passed, but this Pope has a remarkable memory to match his generous spirit. He recalled a friendly conversation we’d had in great detail, and the events of those days that helped shape both of us as young bishops.
The second blessing was being away from the United States on September 19 when Jesuit magazines around the world released the Pope’s remarks to Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J. Thanks to my schedule, I couldn’t read the full interview until I was on the plane home, four days after it appeared. But the emails I received about it – some of them happy; some of them angry; some of them gloating; some of them from Catholics feeling confused or even betrayed – were instructive.
Some people grasped at the interview like a lifeline – or a vindication. One person praised the Holy Father for stressing that the “Church must focus on compassion and mercy, not on enforcing small-minded rules.” She added that “we’re at last free from the chains of hatred that have ruled the Catholic Church for so many years and led to my unease in bringing my own children into that Church.”
More common though were emails from catechists, parents and everyday Catholics who felt confused by media headlines suggesting that the Church had somehow changed her teaching on a variety of moral issues.
I heard from a mother of four children – one adopted, another disabled from birth — who’d spent years counseling pregnant girls and opening prolife clinics. She wanted to know why the Pope seemed to dismiss her sacrifices. A priest said the Pope “has implicitly accused brother priests who are serious about moral issues of being small minded,” and that “[if you’re a priest,] being morally serious is now likely to get you publicly cast as a problem.” Another priest wrote that “the problem is that [the Holy Father] makes all of the wrong people happy, people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.”
We can draw some useful lessons from these reactions. First, we need to be very careful in taking mass media coverage of the Catholic Church at face value. Second, we need to actually read the Holy Father’s interview for ourselves, and pray over it, and then read it again, especially in light of the Year of Faith. A priest here in Philadelphia asked for a show of hands at a Mass last Sunday, and nearly everyone in the church, which was full, had heard about the Pope’s interview. But only five persons had actually read it. Third and finally, we need to open our hearts — all of us — and let God lead us where he needs us to go through the words of the Holy Father.
Pope Francis does not at all turn away from Catholic teaching on matters such as sexuality and the sanctity of human life. How could he? We should remember that Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day – two women with an intimate, passionate devotion to the poor – also saw abortion as a brutal crime against the poorest and most defenseless of the poor: the unborn child.
Among the many vital things the Pope reminds us of in his interview is the new and drastically different condition of the modern world that God seeks to save. It’s one thing to argue about abortion and sexuality when both disputants in the debate share the same basic moral framework and language; the same meaning to words like “justice;” the same set of beliefs about the nature of the human person. But it’s quite another thing when we no longer have that common vocabulary. The modern world is mission territory. It’s morally fractured. Our politics, as Alasdair MacIntyre once famously wrote, is civil war pursued by other means. The modern heart can only be won back by a radical witness of Christian discipleship – a renewed kind of shared community life obedient to God’s Commandments, but also on fire with the Beatitudes lived more personally and joyfully by all of us.
There’s a passage from the Pope’s interview we need to remember in a special way in the weeks and years ahead:
“Proclamation of [Jesus Christ] in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: This is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel . . . The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
The Holy Father asks none of us to abandon the task of bringing the world to Jesus Christ. Our witness matters. Every unborn child saved, every marriage strengthened, every immigrant helped, every poor person served, matters. God calls on us to help him sanctify every aspect of our shared lives – at home, at work and in the public square.
But if, as the Pope describes her, the Church is a “field hospital” for the wounded in a cruel world, then the goal of our witness is to create a space of beauty and mercy; to accompany those who suffer; to understand the nature of their lives; to care for and heal even those who reject us. We need to speak the truth, and work for the truth, with love. And we need to realize that nothing we do – either as individuals or parish communities — will bear fruit unless we give ourselves to the whole Gospel with our whole heart.