Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Lesson From Pope Francis On Preaching the Gospel to a Post-Christian World

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up. 
Pope Francis

Pope Francis has now given what may be the most controversial interview in papal history, and it also may be one of the most important interviews ever given. The media, as expected, has colored it with their own interpretation. Bloomberg News summed it up with this headline "Pope Says Church Should Stop Obsessing Over Gays, Abortion." The New York Times headline was, "Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control." Many Traditionalists and conservatives were very upset by the Pope's remarks. Others came out trying to defend the Pope's remarks. Bill Donohue of The Catholic League, in trying to defend Pope Francis, said that "people are tied up with these little micro issues on the left and the right." Father John Zuhlsdorf wrote a post, which you can read here, that he is keeping at the top of his blog in defense of the Pope's remarks. As he wrote, "I read what the Pope says. Then I try to figure out what he is really saying, apart from my own preferences about how he should say it." Father Z's basic premise is that the Pope has not said anything new. The Pope is merely repeating what the Catholic Church has always taught, which is basically hate the sin and love the sinner.

I, like most people, really didn't know what to think when this all came out.  The life issues, i.e., abortion and homosexuality and the destruction of the family, are most assuredly very grave issues and intrinsically evil.  So why should our Holy Father say we need to de-emphasize these issues in the Church?

So I took the time to read the actual interview, and I believe that Pope Francis, in this historical interview, is giving us the answers and guidelines we need to preach the Gospel to our spiritually and morally bankrupt world.  Every Catholic should read this interview, which can be found here

I think we should first take into consideration the times in which we live.   We live in one of the most morally and spiritually bankrupt of all times in the history of man.  If anyone has any questions about the morality, or lack thereof, of our times, look at the recent release of "Grand Theft Auto 5" which involves graphic violence and sex, including murder and rape, and which pulled in almost $1 billion on its first day of release.

We are now at a point in our culture where the only recognized sins are smoking (this is not even allowed in our entertainment anymore) and "intolerance." "Intolerance" is defined as believing in absolute truth and the difference between good and evil and trying to impose this belief on others. That is no longer accepted in our post-Christian society. Our world has accepted the philosophy of John Lennon: "Whatever gets you through the night, it's all right." The only moral commands in our society are to be "nice" and don't judge others. Nothing else really matters.

Christians, and more specifically, the Catholic Church, are now aliens in society. We are the counter culture. We are the the non-conformists. We are the ones struggling to swim against the tide. Talk of sin and hell and damnation is a language that is completely rejected and no longer understood by those around us. Methods of preaching the Gospel that were effective in a Christian-based society will not work anymore.  

Pope Francis is facing a world that most of his predecessors would not recognize.  Immorality and spiritual bankruptcy are not new.  What is new is that our world considers immorality to be normal and morality to be abnormal.    

So how do we who believe in absolute truth approach those who do not? We are commanded by our Lord to "preach the Gospel to all nations." It is our duty as Christians to bring spiritual salvation to as many people as we can. In the past, when society still believed in the difference between good and evil, we could appeal to them on moral grounds. When the Church told people that it was a mortal sin to be sexually promiscuous, people believed it even if they didn't like it. Sexual promiscuity is now considered a normal lifestyle. Homosexuality was never accepted by our society until recent years. Now you are considered a bigot if you don't accept it.

The Pope tells us that the two of the most important tools we need in approaching the contemporary world with the Gospel are discernment and humility. We should always give great thought and prayer to our actions and words. We should never feel that we have all the answers, that we can never be wrong:
I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.
In connection with this, the Pope speaks of the importance of humility, of always leaving room for doubt in ourselves:
If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.
“The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever. Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance.... Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing.... We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.
This next statement from Pope Francis shows his understanding of our spiritually lost world, and that those who wish to return to methods of the past are not seeing the real world of today:
If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.
How do we know when we've lost our way, when we are no longer serving other people but our own ideologies?  From Pope Francis:
When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.
The great moral truths of the Church can never change, but our understanding of them does grow. And the way in which we present the Gospel must change because the world changes. We must speak in a language and approach people in a way that they will understand.
St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.

And first and foremost, we must realize that we are dealing with the walking wounded who do not even realize just how wounded they are. We must always remember that just as God extends mercy to us, we must extend mercy to others. Pope Francis made a statement in this interview that we should all take to heart in dealing with those opposed to us. This philosophy was the guiding philosophy of all the great saints, and most particularly of one of the greatest Catholics in the 20th Century, Blessed Mother Teresa:
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.
If we see Jesus in every human being, no matter how degenerate they may be, we will be reaching out to that person with love and devotion, not judgment and damnation.

In this interview, Pope Francis gave us his idea of the way in which the church's ministers should relate to the people:
“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
When we read these other statements of Pope Francis in light of our contemporary fallen world, we can understand why he would make the following statement:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these 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.
I mentioned Mother Teresa above, and I think she is a wonderful example of how to preach the Gospel. Her main mission in life was to live the Gospel, to see Jesus Christ in every human being and treat them with dignity and love. She picked up her Cross daily. She saw Jesus Christ in the world, and, as a result, the world saw Jesus Christ in her. She preached the Gospel more effectively than almost anyone else in our contemporary times. She did it by her actions, by showing love and mercy. Then, when she had occasion, such as when she received the Nobel Peace Prize, she would tell the world where it had gone wrong, and the world listened to her. From her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize:
Let us thank God for the opportunity that we all have together today, for this gift of peace that reminds us that we have been created to live that peace, and Jesus became man to bring that good news to the poor. He being God became man in all things like us except sin, and he proclaimed very clearly that he had come to give the good news. The news was peace to all of good will and this is something that we all want - the peace of heart - and God loved the world so much that he gave his son - it was a giving - it is as much as if to say it hurt God to give, because he loved the world so much that he gave his son, and he gave him to Virgin Mary, and what did she do with him?
As soon as he came in her life - immediately she went in haste to give that good news, and as she came into the house of her cousin, the child - the unborn child - the child in the womb of Elizabeth, leapt with joy. He was that little unborn child, was the first messenger of peace. He recognised the Prince of Peace, he recognised that Christ has come to bring the good news for you and for me. And as if that was not enough - it was not enough to become a man - he died on the cross to show that greater love, and he died for you and for me and for that leper and for that man dying of hunger and that naked person lying in the street not only of Calcutta, but of Africa, and New York, and London, and Oslo - and insisted that we love one another as he loves each one of us. And we read that in the Gospel very clearly - love as I have loved you - as I love you - as the Father has loved me, I love you - and the harder the Father loved him, he gave him to us, and how much we love one another, we, too, must give each other until it hurts. It is not enough for us to say: I love God, but I do not love my neighbour. St. John says you are a liar if you say you love God and you don't love your neighbour. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbour whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live. And so this is very important for us to realise that love, to be true, has to hurt. It hurt Jesus to love us, it hurt him. And to make sure we remember his great love he made himself the bread of life to satisfy our hunger for his love. Our hunger for God, because we have been created for that love. We have been created in his image. We have been created to love and be loved, and then he has become man to make it possible for us to love as he loved us. He makes himself the hungry one - the naked one - the homeless one - the sick one - the one in prison - the lonely one - the unwanted one - and he says: You did it to me. Hungry for our love, and this is the hunger of our poor people. This is the hunger that you and I must find, it may be in our own home.
This is not to say we must never speak of the issue of abortion, homosexuality, etc.  Pope Francis has made that quite clear, when just the day after this interview was published he made a very strong statement about the evil of abortion.  Mother Teresa herself spoke of the evil of abortion on various occasions, as she did when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize:
I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing - direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: Even if a mother could forget her child - I will not forget you - I have carved you in the palm of my hand. We are carved in the palm of His hand, so close to Him that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God. And that is what strikes me most, the beginning of that sentence, that even if a mother could forget something impossible - but even if she could forget - I will not forget you. And today the greatest means - the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.
If we want the world to come to Christ, if we want to stop abortion, if we want to save our families, we must show them the Love of Christ, His mercy, His forgiveness.  Father Z put a statement from the Pope Francis interview at the top of his blog:  "I see the Church as a field hospital after battle."  I cannot think of a better way of summarizing the purpose of the Church.  Our job is to care for the sick and wounded, and we are surrounded by them.  From Mother Teresa:
There is so much suffering, so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice are beginning at home. Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do. It is to God Almighty - how much we do it does not matter, because He is infinite, but how much love we put in that action. How much we do to Him in the person that we are serving.
This, I believe is the message of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. 

I hope you will take the time to read the entire interview with Pope Francis.  It is long, but there is so much to be learned from it.


  1. Good post.

    I very sincerely do not know why people have such a difficult time understanding what he says - why they think it is so vastly different from what Pope Benedict taught and wrote.

  2. I'm sorry. No matter how I read this article it sounds like damage control.


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