By Joseph Bragotti, mccj
Last summer I spent a month in Italy with my family. It was grand! One of the unexpected pleasures was the chance to feel first-hand the “new wind” which is swirling around the Church under Pope Francis. His encouragement to “go out there,” to “change our ways” and be renewed in Christ, to “not be afraid of what is new,” is creating a climate of healthy optimism and trust. “There is no sadness in holiness!” is one of his frequent quotes.
Then I flew back to the States and I was shocked by how little Catholics in general seemed to know about Pope Francis. With rare exceptions, the Church and the Catholic Press weren’t saying much. Priests I talked to definitely did not share my enthusiasm or even the factual knowledge that most Europeans had. Some conservative enclaves had even tried to “sanitize” what the Pope had said.
“What is going on?” I asked myself. Is the Church in the United States afraid of what Pope Francis is saying and doing? Are we still a navel gazing, management Church, mostly concerned with its own internal problems? Haven’t we heard the Pope say that a Church which is closed in on itself eventually becomes sick? Didn’t the Pope say – and he was speaking to bishops and priests – that we should get out of our rectories, parish structures and communities and go out to build bridges of understanding? Perhaps it is too difficult to face the thought that we must move out of our comfort zone.
The Pope has also said that perhaps people leave the Church because they do not understand what we are talking about and because we as an institution are too far away from the people. “We need to learn the grammar of simplicity,” said Pope Francis. And again, “the Church is a mother and a mother does not deal with her children by mail or with documents. A mother embraces her children.” He also told his priests that, if they are truly shepherds, “they should smell like the sheep.” He is clearly calling for an end to clericalism. A few months ago Card. Timothy Dolan said that he himself was beginning to question his life style. How refreshing!
A new world, a new way of “being Church” are opening up and we run the risk of being mere bystanders. We run the risk of missing “the simple joy of evangelizing.” We are so busy being “against” things, that we may miss the pleasure of being positive, proclaimers of the Good News. One example will suffice.
Lots of Catholics are so stuck being against abortion that they can’t see anything else. Some politicians love people like that, because they never ask lots of other important questions. To be sure, Pope Francis has been very categorical: “To abort is to kill someone who is defenseless.” Abortion is not a political issue and not even a religious issue. It is a blow to the most important human issue: the right to life. Recently Card. Sean O’Malley said: “Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion. I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church's teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world." Isn’t this a comforting thought?
But there is more. By his words and signs, the Pope tells us that, to really be pro-life, we need to go well beyond abortion and cover all of life. Otherwise, we are just a bunch of hypocrites. In other words, the Pope is helping us re-discover the pro-life issues contained in the social teaching of the Church and in the documents of Vatican II. To be consistently pro-life, we are called to be against war and the proliferation of weapons, to fight poverty including some of our foreign policies that make other people poorer, to favor just migration policies, to lobby against the death penalty, to preserve and/or repair our planet, to stand by the poor and welcome the stranger, to value the young and the elderly, to extend a hand in dialogue to Muslims, to atheists, to the world in general. If we ignore all of the above, we live in what he has called “a bubble of indifference.”
Has the Pope really spoken about all these things? Yes, he has. And he wants us to act with love, mercy and joy. “I would like a more missionary church,” the Pope told the young people in Brazil, “not so much a tranquil Church, but a beautiful Church that goes forward.” And again, “this is the first word that I want to tell you: 'Joy!' Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement!” He has repeatedly said that we need to put Christ first and the rest will follow.
Could it just be that, after 50 years, we are beginning to let Vatican II out of the box?
This article was featured in the Comboni Missions magazine in Fall 2013