Pope Francis Has People Thinking… And That’s a Good Thing

Pope Francis

I don’t usually read comments on blog posts or articles. I sometimes make an exception and skim through the comments when I’m reading posts about Pope Francis, because I am interested not only in what he has to say, but also how he is being interpreted and received by others.

From the moment he was elected, a very colorful variety of comments began appearing online… Non Catholics eager to find out if this Pope will finally change Catholic teaching (sorry to disappoint!), Catholics expressing either euphoria about having a pope that finally understands the need for change, or utter despair and contempt at how “liberal” he is… and the secular media, successfully misconstruing his message almost every single time. It’s really quite an interesting mix of opinions and perspectives.

From Catholics, I’ve read a lot of frustration over Pope Francis “watering down” Catholicism, by, for example, not talking enough about moral imperatives, or focusing an interview response on the importance of people following what they believe to be good, rather than focusing it on having a well-informed conscience that knows what is objectively good.

Some non-Catholics are also frustrated… The Pope they hoped would change the Church teachings about homosexuality spoke about the importance of not judging homosexuals then turned around and excommunicated a priest for openly supporting homosexual marriage and lobbying for women priests.   Isn’t that a blatant contradiction? (Not really, but that gets into understanding the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, which isn’t the focus of this article)

I believe Pope Francis is quite refreshing. He has turned the tables on both the Catholic and non-Catholic world and, in so doing, has created opportunities for REAL dialogue. He is breaking the image of the Catholic Church as a somewhat “stuffy”, inward focused institution, by reaching out so much to society at large. I know some Catholics have expressed the opinion that Francis should speak less with the secular media because his message is so often being misconstrued and even just mistranslated, and turn his attention to addressing and educating the Catholics who “understand and care” what he has to say.

I disagree. Pope Francis is deliberately engaging in frequent dialogue with the non-Catholic world and, in so doing, is leading the Church to do the same. Sure, if he stopped having as many interviews with external media sources, he wouldn’t be misinterpreted as much, but it would also prevent him from reaching out as much to society at large.

The Pope seems quite aware that the Church cannot fulfill its mission on earth if it remains mainly focused on the Catholics, who are already in the arms of the fold. Francis is following the Lord’s example and reaching out to the lost sheep, showing that the Church CARES. It cares about you regardless of whether you are Christian or not, regardless of whether you believe in God or not. It cares about you regardless of how you have sinned. It cares about YOU, as you are. It cares about your worries, your joys, your ambitions and desires. The Church is at the service of the world, not just at the service of Catholics. The Lord came to save everyone. That is the Church’s message – it can never transmit that message when it communicates mainly to the Catholic community. What about everyone else?

I don’t think Francis is oblivious to the fact that every time he opens his mouth to the public, he is going to be misinterpreted by some, maybe by many. But that’s not going to stop him from opening his mouth. He has a message, and he’s going to spread it. Even if he’s misinterpreted, the message is out, and people are thinking about it. That’s a good thing. Anyone that’s truly interested in understanding what he had to say has plenty of ways to find out what was really said and what was really meant by it.

And, as can be seen by the different reactions to Pope Francis’ various interviews from within the Catholic community, there is much that many Catholics still have to learn about their faith. The “uber” traditional Catholics have gotten upset that Francis has veered away from focusing primarily on moral imperatives. Doesn’t this water down the faith?

I believe the contrary is true. We, Catholic individuals, have come to water down our own faith by associating it so completely with certain moral imperatives that are but one aspect of our faith. Pope Francis has it right. He’s reminding us that our faith is greater than that. It is more than that. Pope Francis has not changed any Catholic teachings; he simply isn’t stressing teachings that are already well known. Instead, he’s focusing on the broader context of the faith, returning to its essential message of mercy, salvation and love. Catholics have a lot to learn from Pope Francis. We have forgotten too much of our faith and begun to define it too narrowly. We have drawn battle lines where they never should have been drawn. It’s not OK to fudge morality, but a difference in moral beliefs should not lead to an “us vs. them” mentality that turns the Church inwards and prevents it from fulfilling its mission because it now sees the world it is meant to save as its “enemy”.

Francis is erasing the battle lines. Non-Christians, non-Catholics and people that disagree with the Church’s moral teachings are still people worthy of knowing Jesus Christ and being saved by them. Francis is opening dialogue by giving them a more complete picture of the Church to see what aspects can help them, and use that as a starting point. In so doing, he is opening himself to criticism from within and without. I admire him for doing so. He isn’t out to please mankind; he is out to serve the Lord, and to do so for all of humanity. I believe he is a Pope after the Lord’s own heart. Incidentally, Popes Benedict and John Paul II both actually wrote and spoke along similar lines on various occasions, and were likewise misinterpreted. Pope Francis’ position is not new; it is just under the spotlight right now.

Finally, I think that we Catholics need to be careful in our judgments both of the Pope and of non-Catholics. As we see our Pope reaching out to the lost sheep, it’s easy for us to feel self-righteous, cling to the moral imperatives that separate us from “them”, and feel that we are superior because of moral righteousness. But are we really the righteous child? Or are we becoming the older child in the Parable of the Prodigal Son… the son that rejects the father’s decision to welcome back the younger son and feels superior because he stayed in the father’s house all along? Salvation is not a competition.

It’s not a question of us vs. them. If we are fully in the arms of the Church and have received the grace (and I repeat, GRACE) of accepting the faith in its fullness, we should be very grateful. But we should also be grateful for any aspect of the faith that can be embraced by others, even if they never come to agree with us on different teachings, be they doctrinal or moral. Any step forward is a step in the right direction. And maybe, little by little, one step will lead to two, then three, and so forth, until a person eventually receives the grace of accepting God completely, in reason and action, faith and morality… above all, in love.

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