Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thinking, Living, and Loving With the Church

The reactions to the Pope's video, at least in the comboxes of various YouTube sites where it is posted, have been decidedly mixed.

Many (both Protestant and Catholic) were very touched by the personal and "heartfelt" quality of the appeal. As far as its content goes, Francis was only presenting in a fresh way (and through a new medium) the "ecumenism of charity" that Vatican II called for, and that the popes have practiced energetically in many ways since the Council. Perhaps Francis succeeded in opening some hearts to take up this journey, and giving inspiration and focus to those who are already on the path.

Some comments, however, came from fundamentalists who are convinced that the Pope is the antichrist, and they warned people not to be "taken in" by the attraction. Some said it was a deception of Satan, and that everyone must flee from the snares of the whore of Babylon. Such comments were painful to read; I can only feel great sorrow to see people so trapped by their ideologies that they cannot recognize a genuine human gesture full of simplicity and love.

And then some of my Catholic brothers and sisters did not help the situation by expressing their anger at the Pope for "speaking to heretics and not trying to convert them." He was criticized for appearing without the regal symbols of his authority (including a crown), for speaking to non-Catholic Christians "as if they were equals." The Council of Trent was invoked as if it somehow mandated righteous hostility toward people who are seeking to follow Christ in good faith, people whom "the Catholic Church accepts...with respect and affection as brothers" (Decree on Ecumenism 3:1).
Those who want to know the fully Catholic character of Pope Francis's gesture should begin by reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ##817-822.
So the comments chattered, with the occasional atheist chiming in and declaring that it's all nonsense. Christians being nasty was certainly no witness to the atheists.

A lot of loneliness and pain gets poured out into comboxes. The fact that some fundamentalist Protestants think the Pope is the antichrist is not surprising. It is a sad thing, and I have no desire to heap vituperation on them in turn.

The insults and disdain expressed by some Catholics toward the Holy Father, however, is something that should stop.

There are even Catholics who question whether Francis is a true pope. These unfounded doubts, unfortunately, have been spread so scurrilously that Pope Emeritus Benedict has felt it necessary to answer in writing several questions posed to him in a letter from an Italian journalist.

“There is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry,” Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote from the Mater Ecclesiae monastery. He emphasized once again that his resignation was not in any way coerced, but was entirely his own free decision. "Speculation regarding its validity is simply absurd," he wrote. His responses, of course, were published in La Stampa and quickly circulated around the world to be picked up by every secular media outlet so that the Church might look foolish.

I hope that Benedict has closed this speculation. The fact that he felt it necessary to reaffirm publicly, in writing, the action that he carried out clearly and unambiguously a year ago is a shame. This is what happens when Catholics allow and even cultivate an atmosphere of casual disrespect -- a condescending and mocking attitude -- toward our present Pope. It is disgraceful.

I speak forcefully here, but I do understand that for some in the Church this has been a difficult period. When I was young, I suffered from some difficulties like this myself. In my career I have come to know many, many churchmen. They are flawed men. Sometimes churchmen do inexcusably bad things. There are scandals; more scandals than we realize. There always have been scandals.

But Jesus is still risen from the dead, and he is still with us. In particular, Jesus has promised that he will lead us and guide us in the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, the Pope. In the midst of whatever confusion, I hold fast to that promise, and I am willing to allow that promise to open up my life to God's design, which is something infinitely greater than my understanding.

I trust that Jesus is working through the Catholic Church as she is present in the world today. I haven't always had that trust. I've struggled. I used to assume that I was obligated to suffer anxiety about the Pope and the Church in the post-conciliar era because I couldn't see with my own mind the coherence of certain things; I couldn't see how they fit into my preconceived categories about what the Church should be. I had years of back-and-forth arguing with others, myself, and God, but those years are long behind me.

What changed me was that I met something in reality that was greater than any of my ideas. I met people who were full of joy, who loved Jesus, who loved the Church, who loved the Pope. What changed me was that a point of reference greater than myself took hold of my life. I found that Jesus was a real Person, that he loved me, really, personally. Following the Church, and following the Pope, was not a game of mental gymnastics; it was a matter of staying with the living God who gives me my being, redeems me, and draws me to himself. As Pope Benedict XVI said, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (Deus Caritas Est, 1).

Following Jesus in the Church with my freedom and also with my intelligence has enlarged me as a human being, and enabled me to be faithful to the truth without being afraid to be open to reality in all its facets and surprises and also in the difficulties and the suffering that simply cannot be resolved by anything in my power.

I can admit that ecumenism is not easy for me. (Is authentic ecumenism easy for anyone?) But that does not justify my rejection of the path that Jesus is marking out for the Church today. On the contrary, it is a challenge to me to seek a deeper understanding through a living adherence, which means looking to Jesus and asking him to shape within me an obedient and humble heart, a docility toward God's wisdom.

Of course, the teaching of the Council of Trent is definitive. The Catechism reaffirms this clearly. It does not follow, however, that the pastoral practice of 500 years ago is appropriate for today. Nothing in the teaching or pastoral practice of the popes today regarding ecumenism contradicts Trent. I am fully capable of arguing this point by point, showing that their actions are defensible. But this is not enough for me, and all too often those who insist on such arguments are not willing to be convinced. I do not want to suspend my adherence to Jesus in the Church and my desire to follow him concretely in order to first make sure that all of this fits in with my limited perspective and flawed logic. If I stay within my mind, I will get stuck there and end up going around in circles.

I don't want that. I want to stay with Christ, and this means that I want to follow the judgment of the Vicar of Christ for what is needed here and now for the good of the Church.

It is not my responsibility to watch the Pope, decide whether or not his gestures correspond to what I think the Church should be like, and then decide whether or not I want to follow him. He is, in a unique way, Christ's presence on earth, the continuation of Christ's human voice concretely guiding his people. In following Christ, therefore, I follow the Pope, making every effort to understand his gestures as part of thinking and living the mystery of the Church (sentire cum ecclesia).

The alternative to following Jesus present in the Church today is following my own judgment. Following my own judgment, or following others who are just generating their own ideas from an ideology (even an allegedly "Catholic" ideology that they have constructed from their own perception of the Church), has never produced anything worthwhile or fruitful in my life. What has changed me and given me joy even in the midst of many afflictions, is following Jesus present in the Church.

Thus, I follow the Pope. He is given the grace to watch over this "people" who belong to God, these particular people here and now. This Pope is given abundantly the grace of his office, to be the representative of Jesus Christ at this present moment. I am confident that he will be led rightly by the Holy Spirit to shepherd the Church, and if he makes mistakes, he will be led so as to overcome them in time (and thus I shall also be led). I love the Pope, and I pray for him.

What I propose here is not an argument. It is a witness. It is at the heart of my faith, and all that has truly sustained me in my life. Jesus in the Catholic Church is my hope.