Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pope Francis Exhorts Us to Open Our Hearts

I'm hoping that you, dear reader, will give some attention to these excerpts and my reflections which follow upon them. I did not plan to spend most of the day writing these reflections, but here they are. I hope something I've written is useful or helpful to you.

"There are two paths in life:
the path exclusion of persons from our community
and the path of inclusion.

"It is not easy to include people,
because there is resistance,
there is that selective attitude... of those who judge,
who drive away people, persons:
‘No, no to this, no to that, no to that…’;
and a little circle of friends is created,
which is their environment.
It is a dialectic between exclusion and inclusion.

"God has included us all in salvation, all!
This is the beginning.
We with our weaknesses, with our sins,
with our envy, jealousies, we all have this attitude of excluding...."

Jesus, the Pope says, acts like His Father, who sent Him to save us; "He seeks to include us," "to be a family."

So what does the Pope challenge us to do?

"We think a little bit, and at least – at least! –
we do our little part,
we never judge: ‘But this one has acted in this way…’
But God knows: it is his life,
but I don’t exclude him from my heart,
from my prayer, from my greeting, from my smile,
and if the occasion arises I say a good word to him.
Never excluding, we have no right!
If I exclude I will one day stand
before the judgment seat of God,
I will have to give an account of myself to God.
Let us ask the grace
of being men and women who always include,
always, always!
in the measure of healthy prudence, but always.
Not closing the doors to anyone, always with an open heart:
‘It pleases me, it displeases me,’ [we may feel either way]
but the heart is open.
May the Lord grant us this grace."

~Pope Francis, from Daily Homily of November 5, 2015

These excerpts from today's homily by Pope Francis correspond to his overall teaching and pastoral practice.

Perhaps we should try to listen.

People might be quick to interpret these words "politically," as if the Pope were signalling his favor for one faction over another, but we have no excuse for making this mistake.

We belong to Jesus Christ in His Catholic Church. We want to be with Jesus. We have the need–and the responsibility–to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Church in a way that clarifies even as it corresponds to His whispering in the depths of our hearts.

And these words of Pope Francis are important. These words are addressed to each one of us, to our hearts. The "exclusion" he is speaking about begins in the heart and spreads out from there.

Some people might say, "The Pope is not being clear here! The press will say he is telling us to endorse immoral lifestyles and behavior."

Others might fear that the Pope is putting down faithful people who are working to build up environments and institutions that will support the Christian and human formation of their children.

For over thirty years I have been one of those latter people, those "faithful people who are working to build...." So I appreciate the concerns of those who are dedicated to forming "intentional Christian communities."

But people on a definite vocational path should not expect every pope to endorse this or that particular accent of their ways. We know what the Lord is asking of us now, in this day, in this moment. Let us be faithful to our calling.

Does that mean we can just ignore Pope Francis?

Some people might want to lay out all the distinctions of degrees of assent, obedience, or respect owed to the Pope according to the various ways in which he exercises his office. All of this is quite true and valuable in itself, and I am very familiar with it. But I am also aware of a great need for something more simple, something–if you will–more organic. I want to listen to Pope Francis, and endeavor–with the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit–to follow him.

Not because I think everything he says is infallible. Of course not! As Benedict XVI once said, "The pope is not an oracle! He is infallible only in highly specific and rare circumstances" ... or something to that effect. I don't recall the exact words. Do I have to? It's true: the pope is not an oracle, and things get weird if we start treating him like that. "Oracles" always end up having their utterances manipulated in the service of those who are grasping for power.

I don't need an "oracle."

I don't need an infallible pronouncement telling me what to do each day delivered to me along with the morning newspaper (to paraphrase William George Ward's peculiar remark from the 19th century).

I need help. I need mentoring. I need to be pushed sometimes and corrected. I need this in order to follow Jesus.

I need a "father." 

I listen to the Pope and try to follow him because he is my father.

Of course, God alone is truly my Father. But God wants me to come to experience the closeness of His Fatherhood to my life. So He sent His Son, who remains present among us in the communion of the Church.

The Church is a human reality. Life in the Spirit is not something disembodied or dehumanized. Therefore, it's not surprising that we benefit greatly from "spiritual fathers." The "Pope" has a special charism for "fatherhood" in the whole of the Church. This means that, whatever human complexities there may be (and there are human complexities because this relationship is human) we are his "sons and daughters" in a meaningful way.

Otherwise we are being stupid by calling him "Pope," or "Papa" or, even in more formal ecclesiastical language, "Holy Father."

I know what this means for me, because I know that I need this fatherhood in my life. I need it when it encourages me and I need it also when it challenges me.

It's true that in recent years the popes have tended to call us "brothers and sisters" rather than "children." This way of speaking puts the accent on our common humanity and membership in Christ's body. But we still live within the dynamic of Christ's presence embodied in a real human community. Communities are guided by leaders, who are responsible not only for preserving the community's identity but also helping it to respond to fresh challenges.

Christian community is about self-giving love. It is about service. Leadership serves us so that we might better serve one another and everyone the Lord gives to us.

Leadership is also a service of truth. And truth needs to be lived. That is why God didn't just give us a divinely inspired book of philosophy. He, the Truth, became flesh so that we could follow Him.

I need the guidance of this service, because I don't really understand the road I'm on. It's a narrow road with twists and hazards on every side, and my compass very easily spins out of control.

So I am listening to the Pope insofar as he desires to be heard. I am listening to him, not to rumors on the Internet about what his intentions might be or what his agenda might be or what his attitude toward this or that Cardinal might reveal about his ideas. I've never learned anything really helpful from all that.

I'm learning much that is helpful from Pope Francis.

I'm not saying that my listening to the Pope is a perfect "method" for conjuring the "right answer" to every question. Bah! Pope Francis is not an oracle. I don't always understand what he means, or how to apply what he says. Sometimes I don't pay attention to him, because, after all, he has his "off-days" or it may seem to me that he's mistaken. Much more often, however, I don't pay attention to him because I am lazy, vain, and selfish, and I don't want to hear him even though I know he is right.

I don't want to change my life. I don't want to let Jesus change my life. I don't even want to take a step in the direction of opening my heart to the grace of conversion. I'm stubborn.

So is Pope Francis. Thank God.

Let me tell you what I have learned from over thirty years of experience with "intentional Christian community," with building healthy environments and institutions, with living faith in friendship:

Pope Francis is right–hugely right, spot on–about the need for an open heart. Pope Francis is right that if the mentality of exclusion becomes the criterion of our hearts, it will poison our community.

He is not saying, "Don't make any distinctions based on people's behavior." We could worry about how his words about "the path of inclusion" might be twisted, quoted out of context, and manipulated, but we don't have time for that. This is too urgent and too important.

There is a constant temptation to reduce Christian community to "a little circle" determined by "a dialectic between exclusion and inclusion," i.e. a dynamic by which we decide according to our own criteria the measure of our love for the people that God places in our lives.

Our criteria. Our hearts closed to real human beings because we have allowed those hearts to become closed to the love and mercy of God. Our "measure," our plan, our ideas that–without the nourishment of prayer–are reduced to an ideology, which quickly falls into the service of our whims, our mutual self-satisfaction, our urges.

We break up into factions, and as the Pope points out elsewhere in this same homily, we end up making war upon one another. This "war" is not abstract for me. I know what he means from my own experience. Sadly, I've lived through this sort of thing more than once. I've participated in it! The danger is very real and very subtle.

We need to "include" people in the scope of our love. We need the "open hearts" that the Pope is speaking about.

We are not being exhorted here to dump standards of behavior and just open up everything to everybody without any distinctions. We need to open our hearts in accordance with our Christian vocation and mission. This means–at least–that we don't shut the doors of Christ's presence in the world, we don't drive the human person away by self-righteousness or the coldness of our lack of love, we don't decide who deserves the mercy of God and who doesn't.

We stay open to the Holy Spirit. We seek to do the will of God. We foster the good in persons and look for ways to help them. "We do our little part"–and we do it "in the measure of healthy prudence, but always"–which means not in some mushy sentimental vague manner, but according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the light of faith as it shapes our human reason. It means that we beg for the grace of the virtue of prudence, the virtue by which we engage reality in all of its particular, concrete truth.

We don't know the mystery of a person's life, their history, sufferings, trials, compulsions, or why their perception of reality may be distorted, much less what God intends for them. How can we ever close our hearts to any human person? Yet we do.

I still do this all the time. I dismiss human persons from the ambit of my love, effort, and consideration. Gosh, I dismiss whole categories of human persons without giving it a thought. Indeed, I hope that most of the time it is precisely that: a thoughtlessness that allows my own wounds and weaknesses and fears to rise up in my mind. Much of the daily battle of Christian life is waged right here. And it's a constant reminder of how much I need healing, how much I myself need the mercy of God.

It won't change tomorrow either. I will judge and dismiss people again. That includes judging and dismissing "people-who-judge-and-dismiss-other-people"–which always provides a special kind of smuggy feeling: the illusion of being magnanimous and broad minded and above the fray. It says, "I'm not like all those nasty people who distort the Pope or who criticize the Pope or who...."

Oh yes I am. I am a sinner. Lord, have mercy on me.

We are all alike in this matter: we are all completely dependent on the mercy of God who alone can heal us and bring us joy.

Let us carry on the fight for this growth of love that Jesus wants to give us, these open hearts, "inclusive," i.e. Catholic hearts.

The alternative is to exchange the glory of Christ for our own narrow human preferences, to turn community into a club, or even a cult. We ought to know this by now. High-flying language can easily turn into a cover for some very creepy stuff in the dynamics of human relationships.

I am very good at high-flying language, which is why I need to hear things like this every day.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for reminding me yet again.