In a recent exclusive interview released on Thursday September 19th Pope Francis spoke candidly about himself and his approach to the papacy.
The media is hailing the conversation as a coup for ‘liberals’ within the church as Pope Francis specifically addressed his lack of statements on some of the hot button issues of our day such as ‘gay’ rights, abortion and contraception. However, before making any pronouncements one needs to carefully read and assess what the Pope is really saying. He mentions having been chastised for not being more forthright in his defence of the churches teaching on these issues. However, what he says specifically is that what the church is all about is not any one particular moral or ethical teaching but rather the Church gives the highest priority to the salvation of souls. He therefore talks about approaching all people as “persons” loved by God rather than as someone who is ‘gay’ or who chose to have an abortion–which begins with very limiting judgements. In the Eastern churches we call this the application of ‘oikonomia” which means literally ‘household management’–dealing with individuals according to their needs–so that pastors can apply not just the letter of the law but also the sprit of the law ‘judiciously’ and with wisdom. This is in no way means a derogation of the law or teaching.
The Pope does however clearly state that “…when we speak about these (hot button) issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The context he is referring to of course is the love and mercy of Christ who has come to save. He then specifically mentions about speaking to the “heart” and attracting people with the freshness, beauty and fragrance of the good news. “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow,” comments the Pope. In the Eastern church it has long been recognized that it is through the ‘kardia‘ or the heart that wisdom flows.
Yes, of course the church still teaches and prescribes certain actions which will either move us in the direction of the saving mercy and transformative love of Christ or away from that mercy and love. That has not changed, but to begin with we must introduce a lost world to the healing love of Christ–with the Pope describing the church as a “field hospital” for the walking wounded of this world. It all begins with Christ. We must penetrate hearts first by allowing them to know Christ in a Church that cares about them, walks with them, and does not indulge in’ finger wagging’ and ‘stone throwing’.
This bears a striking similarity to the response of Christ when they brought to Him the woman taken in “adultery”. Christ refused to be duped into denying either the truth of the law against unfaithful spouses or his teaching about the love and mercy of God. Like Christ, Pope Francis is refusing to pick up stones and throw them at a world wounded by sin–and in this case primarily sexual sins.
Rather the Pope acknowledges his solidarity with the world in saying he himself is a sinner–thereby, according to Christ precluded from his ability to throw stones. However, like Christ the good Pope does not deny the teachings which define the sin but adeptly echoes the words of Christ–when all the accusers were convicted of their own sin and had gone away Jesus asks the woman if there is any one there to condemn her. When she answers in that there was no one He says ” Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:11 RSV) Note the last part. Christ first extends mercy but follows closely with the admonition to ‘not sin again’. He was clear and He did not say ‘go do whatever you would like’.
This is precisely what I would have expected from a Pope whose motto for Christian living could be borrowed from NIKE–“Just do it”. It has been said of our previous two Popes that Blessed John Paul with his extensive teaching and writing opened up and revealed to the people of our times what the Church teaches, Pope Benedict revealed why the church teaches as she does–in love– and now we have Pope Francis who is challenging the church to truly live out all these teachings–refusing to pick and choose one or two controversial teachings to focus upon. In a sense Pope Francis is challenging Catholics to walk the talk like never before. Who better to issue this challenge than someone who does just that.
Thank you Holy Father! We will still proclaim the Gospel of Life, we will still do battle with a ‘culture of death’, but always in the context of the ‘Giver of Life’, who extended his mercy to us all as sinners. We must open our doors and welcome the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering and live in solidarity with them. In our Ukrainian Catholic Churches we inhabit such beauty–in song(Liturgical prayer), art (Holy Icons) and architecture. We need to allow Christ to transform our lives and hearts with that beauty to become fully integrated with our offering of the Divine Liturgy so that in all we do and in particular in our parishes we are truly vibrant and always ready to offer healing, acceptance and love to all who come.
This challenge will not be an easy one to live out. It will require the deepest level of commitment and sacrifice that we can possibly imagine. Yet, that has always been our call –to image Christ who as God not only lowered himself to become a mere creature for our sake but chose to pour out his very life for us on the cross. This kenosis–or self emptying sacrifice–is what we are called to. Our church has so much to offer our wounded families and this wounded world. The Holy Father, Pope Francis reminds us of the abundant grace we have received and our incumbent duty to offer it to the world–this is the NEW EVANGELIZATION in action. Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory be Forever!