One thing I can say about observing the first six months of Pope Francis’ pontificate is that it has stretched me in ways I surely was not anticipating. It’s been amazing to watch both the Catholic and mainstream press interpret for us exactly what Pope Francis meant when he said, “(fill in any single sentence from Pope Francis).”
As a deacon, I’ve been asked for my thoughts a few times about something Pope Francis said. But for the most part, what I’ve been trying to do is simply be open to the man that was elected Pope by the process that the Church established for that purpose. Just … be … open … and come along for the ride with the Vicar of Christ now with us on earth.
I’d like to share two observations that I’ve made over the last couple of months.
It’s amazing to me how many both within and outside the Church have turned into the equivalent of biblical fundamentalists when it comes to observing Pope Francis. They select one quote from one article in one publication targeted to one audience. They then extrapolate that one sentence into a full theology for which they claim Pope Francis is now advocating. What?!? Few disagree that it’s dangerous to take one passage of scripture out of context and interpret it on its own. We have to look at any passage and ask questions like:
- Who was the author?
- Who was their audience?
- What was their motivation for writing the entire letter, book, etc.?
We know better than to pull individual verses of scripture out on their own and use them as “proof texts.” But wow, that’s exactly what many are doing with all the articles and interviews Pope Francis is giving.
From what I can tell, Pope Francis has no desire to nor will he change settled Catholic moral teaching (e.g. abortion, gay marriage, contraception, etc.). However, I do believe that Pope Francis is calling us to make some radical changes, just not in the areas the press and some Catholic commentators seems to be focusing on.
As I observe, read, and pray about the many articles that have been written about Pope Francis, my thoughts keep returning to the episode in the Gospel of John – Jesus encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the well. Rather than any thought of change to or even de-emphasis of Catholic moral teaching, I believe Pope Francis is challenging the Church (you and me included) to take up a more radical model of engagement with the world.
Let me explain through the lense of Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman. The Jews and the Samaritans hated each other and avoided engagement with each other whenever possible. For Jesus to engage in an extended conversation with a woman, no less a Samaritan woman, that would have spoken volumes to first century readers. Throughout the Gospel, many criticized Jesus for the choices he made in who he chose to involve himself with. Look at how Pope Francis is reaching out to those outside the Church and/or those not actively practicing their Catholic faith. He’s visited adults in prison, washed the feet of children of young men and women incarcerated for their offences. He’s calling people directly on the phone, including atheists who are willing to enter into respectful exchanges with him. He’s reaching out to all people of good will who are willing to engage him.
What is Pope Francis doing? He’s doing what Jesus did when he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well. With everyone Jesus encountered, his first move was to establish a relationship of trust. He acknowledged in some way their innate dignity as human beings. Jesus did this with the Samaritan woman and in doing so he gained her trust. She knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus was genuine; that he cared about her and had her best interest at heart. She trusted him and as a result was open to listen to him later in their exchange.
I believe Pope Francis is challenging us to use this model of engagement as we encounter the people God places into our lives each and every day. Think about it. If our first move with people is to confront or call out the sin in their lives, they will likely withdraw and we lose an opportunity to win them over to the truth of the Gospel.
This is not (in spite of what the media or even some Catholic commentators say as they wring their hands) ignoring the reality of sin, either in the general sense or in the personal sense. Jesus did not ignore the sin in the Samaritan woman’s life, nor did he ignore the sin present in the lives of others that he encountered. But, he didn’t go there first! He didn’t confront the Samaritan woman immediately with, “You do know adultery is an abomination to God don’t you?” No! He entered into a relationship building dialog with her that recognized her dignity as a human being. And only after he gained her trust did he then move forward to help her understand God’s plan for her life. But because he had first engaged her in this spirit of acceptance (of her person-hood, not her lifestyle) and respect, she was open to hear Jesus’ explanation of how her choices had resulted in separation from the beautiful vision of the life God had in mind for her.
I believe this is one radical change that Pope Francis is calling us to consider and take up. Oh, and how it will stretch us. I know it is stretching me already. This model of engagement takes way more work than merely engaging people with a catechetical/apologetic model that most often ends in red-faced arguments and closed minds. But this is not to minimize the need for good catechesis and apologetics either. There will be time enough for those discussions, but we want to have people in relationship with us so they are open to hear the truth of the Gospel.
This model of engagement means I need to be willing to enter into dynamic relationships and be willing to journey in friendship with people with whom I may have great differences of opinion on the key issues of life. That’s hard for me to think about. But Jesus himself went and hung out with the outcasts, the downtrodden, as well as the rich and the lost. Without ignoring the sin in their lives, he engaged them and they experienced the genuine care he had for each of them because he truly sought to be in communion with them. This approach generated a spirit of trust with those he encountered that allowed them to be open to hear the truth come through in those deeper and harder conversations.
As disciples, we are called to do no less than the Master. I believe Pope Francis is modeling this form of evangelization before our very eyes and it’s stretching many of us and making us feel uncomfortable. But I believe it’s a discomfort that is very good. It’s like good exercise that builds up muscles. It’s hard work but oh my goodness, look at the results that can occur. Hearts can be won, lost souls recovered, and the Body of Christ can be built up.
I think this is an exciting time to be Catholic and I’m looking forward to the future with great hope and anticipation. Keep stretching us Pope Francis!