What is he doing?
By Mark Connolly, MTS
“Church business is messy.”
“It’s messy because it’s Real.”
The latest offering from Pope Francis has caused a great deal of commentary and hand-wringing. Valiant attempts have been made to contextualize his writings and his off the cuff comments so as to protect the faithful and assure we are not scandalized.
In general, large numbers of faithful Catholics don’t seem to know what to make of this pope. Beginning with his reported comments on a church “obsessed with abortion and contraception” to his reported comments that “people in irregular marriages can receive the Eucharist”, he has befuddled the orthodox faithful and enamored the likes of the Huffington Post and the New York Times as they herald the arrival of a pope who “gets it.”
It seems we need some kind of key to understanding what he is saying. But, he has given us the key. Pope Francis has invited the priests to “live with the smell of sheep.” This is not some sanctimonious platitude. And remember, the laity also share in the priestly office of Christ. We should take this idea to heart in our personal lives as we live the apostolate of the laity, as we bring Christ to the world. It is only when doctrine and dogma interact with the sick and the filthy that the glory and majesty of the Church as the body of Christ is realized. This is the beginning of understanding the true nature of “being pastoral.”
You can read about fishing, watch Youtube videos, research rods and reels and lures. But until you, with your bare hands, put bait on a hook, reel in a fish, gut it, and cook it, you don’t know anything concrete about fishing. Ditto for doctrine and dogma.
It is in the Real, with real humans, not idealized theoretical humans but real humans, that we encounter the face of God.
We have arguably had a Golden Age of papal theology. Pope St. John the XXIII, Pope Paul the VI, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict the XVI. The depth and breadth of their writings and theological insights will be studied for centuries. Admittedly, some of the writing is tough going, initially. When I first started to read Cardinal Ratzinger, I found it very tough going. But so was riding a bike, skating, skiing, and walking, for that matter. With time and practice, with exposure to the context and the vocabulary, the writing becomes beautiful. Today, for me, Ratzinger/Benedict’s writing reads like a crystal bell on a cool crisp morning – clean and lucid with a piercing light.
But, it can be difficult to discuss his thoughts with someone not exposed to him. Ever watch Curling on the Olympics? If you don’t know what it is, so much background information must be provided before we can begin to talk about it in any meaningful way. And I’ve only watched. Imagine talking with someone that actually competed. Probably both sides would have trouble staying interested in the conversation.
On the other hand, everyone is talking about whatever Pope Francis writes or says. There is more dialog going on today, interfaith dialog if you will, than I have ever witnessed. And, thanks to the above mentioned popes, Vatican II, Mother Angelica and EWTN, there are more people properly catechized and able to explain Church teaching today than in quite some time.
My point? We have 2000 years of insight into the human condition, and majestic documents describing how the Church should minister to the world. 2000 years ago, the same was true with the Hebrews. There were teachers of the Law and the Prophets. Steeped in knowledge and theory, their hands were clean.
Jesus called some of them white-washed tombs.
Consider this paradox – Jesus seemed to flout the law – “working” on the Sabbath, hanging out with lepers, dining with dirty hands. Yet he said he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. At one point he states that not one jot, not one tittle will be changed. The writing used in the Old Testament used little marks, tiny marks, called jots and tittles, as part of the letters. What difference can they make? I will give you an example from Spanish. Ano mean “anus.” Año means “year.” If you are translating “Teacher of the year” into Spanish, that little mark, that jot, if you will, completely changes the meaning of the phrase.
How do we reconcile statements like “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27) with “not one jot or one tittle” (Mt 5:18)?
Jesus states he is not changing but rather fulfilling the law. But what did he do? He invited people to understand the intent of the law, the overarching goal of the law. Mere adherence to the law, offering “holocausts of bullocks” meant nothing without the “contrite heart” that renders the sacrifice meaningful and efficacious. (cf Ps 51:15-17; Micah 6:6-8; Mk 12: 28-34; Heb 10:5-9).
The Law was intended to keep man in right relationship with God. The very practice of the Day of Atonement demonstrated that it was understood that complete faithfulness to God was unattainable by mortal man. Under the Law there were both punishments and remedies, both a carrot and a stick. But, a danger is to focus on the carrot and on the stick instead of the reason behind them both. Thus we have in one form of the Act of Contrition,
“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.”
Deserving of all my love. Think about that. And what does it mean concretely in the world? When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he added that the second is like the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:39) And how do you do that? How do you give God all your love? By getting your hands dirty.
Pope Francis has people talking. People are asking questions, seeking undertanding. It is messy, it is smelly. But people are talking about what Francis says in ways that they just didn’t about what Benedict said.
So, what is Pope Francis doing? He’s fishing. How radical. How traditional.