Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Pope Francis is Changing Nothing, and Everything

Hello, Coffee Talkers!

In only a mere half year of papal reign, Pope Francis seems to have received even more media coverage than Miley Cyrus, and unlike the attention given to the former Hannah Montana gone wild, coverage of the Pontiff seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. Sure, not always accurate, but still overwhelmingly positive. Lots of people love Pope Francis and what he stands for, and I love to see that kind of response.

But to get to the heart of the matter, I'm sure you've all heard by now how Pope Francis is changing everything in the Catholic Church. I mean, it's all over the news, so it must be true, right? Well, in a time-honored Catholic tradition, I will both defend and contradict the idea that Pope Francis is changing Catholicism in the modern world. Let's begin this brief journey!

First, I'd like to take the position that Pope Francis is changing nothing. Every time I see a report of Pope Francis' efforts on behalf of the poor and the outcast, I am so moved by his efforts and pleased by the coverage. But the strange part about it is that, while the media so often makes it seem as though Pope Francis is the first to have ever cared about the lowly, to have visited the imprisoned, or to speak out against the injustices of the world, he is doing and saying the same as previous popes. Anyone who takes the time to read the sources of papal documents and interviews will see many similarities in the teachings and assertions of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, and Pope John Paul II, as well as in their activities and outreaches. I love that Pope Francis gets a lot of good press for what he's doing and saying, but to act as though he were making some sort of radical departure, whether in doctrine or in action, from his immediate predecessors is silly at best. As Pope Francis himself said, "I am a son of the Church." And while we're on the topic of what Pope Francis said, I'd like say that it is well worth the time to read Pope Francis' actual words, both written and spoken. What he is actually saying is far more remarkable than anyone's commentary on it (mine included!).

Next, I'd like say that Pope Francis really is changing everything! But I'd say that the method of change is one more of pedagogy (or teaching method) than of content and curriculum. Let me explain.

From the moment he first greeted the world as Pope, everyone could see that something about him was very different than what the modern world has seen of the papacy. And while I deeply love both Benedict and John Paul, I was immediately struck by Francis' new way of leading the Church and communicating with the world. Everything about him, to me, was a bit of a surprise, even down to his name. And with the name he chose, I suppose we might have suspected that the new pontiff might be more 'frank' in his style than Benedict. (Sometimes a pun-lover just can't help oneself.)

Pope Francis's change does not represent a radical departure in teaching, but a significant change in style. He is reminding the world that evangelization (the initial presentation of the Gospel message and the mercy of a loving God) must precede catechesis (the passing down of the faith through doctrinal teachings). Just as in a family, the 'rules' can seem meaningless and arbitrary, even oppressive, without the context of a profoundly personal relationship of transforming love.

Francis is primarily speaking to a world who is un-evangelized (both in and outside of the Catholic Church), and he knows it. And I believe that many people are feeling drawn in by his candor, by his humility, and by the authenticity of his model of faith, hope, and love.

Even when speaking to the community of believers and moving toward the area of catechesis, Pope Francis does well to remind us all to have a broader view of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In his recent interview, Pope Francis said that "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

And he is absolutely right. Pope Francis is not saying to abandon all of the Church's teachings, but to not allow ourselves to lock into a legalistic interpretation of salvation, which is essentially based on love and mercy. Francis again reminds all of us, especially those who minister in the church, that evangelization must precede catechesis, and then even when passing on the Church's teachings, it must be within the context of the loving mercy of a saving God. And this mercy is available to everyone.

Most of us have heard a symphony orchestra (whether live or by recording), and marveled at the beauty of the music. But if you have ever played an instrument or heard someone rehearsing a single part, you realize that the individual part makes no sense on its own. Only in the context of the greater whole does the isolated oboe line, for example, turn into a piece of a melodious symphony.

Just so it is with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The teachings must not be approached myopically, or with undue individual scrutiny or legalism. Because, just as in the symphony, their part does not make sense on its own. The doctrinal instructions of Catholic Christianity are each only small parts of the melodious symphony of truth which God has offered in the Church. Look at the bigger picture, Pope Francis urges. See broader. Go deeper.

So in a way, Pope Francis really is changing everything, while changing nothing all at once. Pope Francis is proclaiming the Good News to the fallen away, to those who were never in the fold, and offering the splendor of truth and love to the whole world in a very attractive package. Because the truth is that love wins, and that the radiant splendor of truth always outshines the glamour of evil. Always.

As Christ's vicar (or representative) to the world, Pope Francis draws us in as Jesus did with the 'rich young man' of the Gospels, not primarily with doctrine, but with bonds of the heart. Jesus looked at the young man and loved him, then said "Go sell what you have, and come follow me." And it says that the young man went away, sad. Haven't we all done the same at one time or other? But I always hope that the rich young man came back. And that you and I will, too. I pray that we also, unable to resist the restorative hope and promise of that 'look of love,' will find ourselves coming back the One who is not first and foremost a stern task-master or lawmaker, but a tender and good shepherd welcoming us back with loving arms, enfolding us with tender mercy and bringing us back to the fellowship of the saints in the heart of the Church who is first and foremost a tender mother before she becomes teacher.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and be assured of my prayers.

Peace and all good,

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