Category Archives: essential

No analysis. Just an invitation.

Pope Francis has left the country. Commentators will spend a lot of energy talking about what his visit to the US meant, what changes might happen, and what’s next. The pope returns to the Vatican to prepare for a synod of bishops on the family that is expected to be a significant event that will make its own headlines. Most normal people will go back to their regularly scheduled programming.

But before you do, let me make a couple of points that may be relevant to you. I saw many ex-Catholics and non-Catholics attracted to this pope’s spirit – his message of love, mercy, Grace, and concern for the vulnerable, through his heavily accented words but far more through his clear actions. I heard lots of versions of the same thing: “I’m not/no longer/never considered being Catholic, but I’m impressed by this guy.” And here’s what I would point out:

  1. He was made this way by his faith within this Church. Before his visit, Time did an excellent story on then-Father Bergoglio’s transformative moment, when his strong-willed divisiveness led to his exile from leadership, which built his new, humble, loving character. It was prayer that shaped him, but prayer grounded in a religious order and Church to whom he committed himself in obedience. When his vision and style led to conflict with others in his order, he didn’t write them off or plot their takedown. He obeyed them, and in that process of putting his own will beneath a larger Church he became the man you were attracted to.
  2. He is attractive not only because he embodies character traits you think all leaders should have, but also because those are traits you wish you had more of, too. As evangelical pastor Kyle Idelman spells out in his book not a fan., living a spiritually informed life isn’t something we are meant to watch; it’s a participatory sport we are meant to live. Whether it’s Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, or your neighbor down the street, when you see someone living in peace with themselves, their God, and their world, it’s a reminder that that should be you.
  3. You won’t get there on your own, and it’s the jerks that help you the most. In our consumer society, we are used to being choosy, and Gen Xers are particularly wired to think you are on your own. We can look at any faith, and any institution, and find doctrine we don’t agree with, history we wouldn’t embrace, and people we would rather not associate with. And that’s part of the point. By encountering other people who are as imperfect as we are but in maddeningly different ways, we learn that true love doesn’t always mean true like. By struggling to understand a doctrine that just doesn’t make sense to us, we learn a lot more about what our own hidden agenda might be, and we come to value a perspective that isn’t naturally our own. I would not blame anyone who left the Catholic faith during the scandals of recent years, but by sticking around I have shared the pain of family betrayal and hoped for rebirth, and that has made me a more compassionate person.

To my non-Catholic friends intrigued by the pope, I’d say come closer. You will find bishops, priests, and fellow travelers who are as inspiring as Francis in their own ways (and yes, you will also still find some jerks). If you are more at home with another faith tradition you’ve drifted from, give it another look with fresh eyes. But pick a team and get in the game. That guy in white you saw in the Fiat? He’s not so different from you, other than his life of commitment to his faith and his church.

And to my Catholic friends, I’d say remember. Remember that the core of our faith, that which attracted these people to Francis, is what we should lead with: love, mercy, peace, humility, joy. Save the rules, apologetics, and traditions and devotions for later in the relationship.

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The serious theological discussion about politics and economics that we won’t have on this papal visit.

No “Home Alone Francis” on this one.

Real quick: Maybe I can expound later, but there are two key theological points that undergird the angst around Pope Francis and his social teachings. Look for them deep in the arguments you hear pro and con about whatever he says in the US this week:

  1. Theological anthropology and the power of sin: In short, historically, Protestants have been stronger about the degree of brokenness that sin leaves in humanity. In a fundamentally evil and sinful world, free market economics are valuable as they leverage and limit our innate greediness to bring a greater good for all by aligning individual goals (profit) with common benefit through competition. Similarly, a primarily sinful world needs more limits, whether through penal or military power constrained by balanced opposition and constitutional limits. Historically, Catholics (since Aquinas) see the original goodness of creation redeemed by Christ in our world today, and with it a need not to be content with a sinful balance of power. At the end of the day, the grace of God allows us to aspire to better than an existence rooted and greed, and the hierarchy of divine majesty inspires us to order our society towards a better end. So you get more internationalism and more critique of capitalism. 
  2. Church as hospital for sinners or museum for saints. This division isn’t across denominational lines, I don’t think. Since, I don’t know, the Manicheans and Gnostics in the Church’s first few centuries to today, there is a strain of belief that says that a select few are “it”, and the role of the Church is to separate them and protect them from being spoiled by the world, which is irredeemably broken. Against this, and aligning with the older Christian tradition that has been muted in times when Christians have power, is the strain of belief that says that we are all fully broken, and all redeemed by grace gradually and partially, as we help each other. The only difference between the Church and the world is the recognition of grace. While the first strain seeks to build an impenetrable wall between us and them, the second strain sees no difference but a joy of realization and a desire to invite others into the celebration.

Anyway, gotta run. But watch, you will be able to roll these two dynamics out at your pope-watching party and look super smart.

Little things matter.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis outlines several daunting challenges of modern life: pollution, climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, decline of human life, breakdown of society, global inequality. That’s a lot. 

Dig a little on just one of these, like this one, is enough to leave you thinking we are, well, in bad shape.

So it’s valuable and important to note that Francis believes that not only can we work with God to pull this out, but that little things matter. He argues — plenty — for action at the international policy level. But he also rattles off stuff that we can individually make a difference. “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.”

His list from 211 and 213 (and I would love to see an app developed that helps you decide how best to act to fight these multiple challenges):

  • Use less heating (and air)
  • Wear warmer clothes (or cooler)
  • Avoiding the use of paper and plastic
  • Reducing water consumption
  • Separating refuse
  • Cooking only what can reasonably be consumed
  • Showing care for other living beings
  • Using public transport or car-pooling
  • Planting trees
  • Turning off unnecessary lights
  • Keep things clean
  • Ask without demanding
  • Say thank you
  • Don’t be greedy
  • Ask forgiveness

Dare you to use that as your examination of conscience when you next go to confession.

Peace and Unity

One of my favorite parts of Evangelii Gaudium is Francis’ study of peace and unity. As we celebrate Pope Saint John XXIII, whose best-known encyclical is Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), and whose best-known anything was convening the Second Vatican Council, which paved the way for any number of steps toward Christian and interreligious signs of unity, the timing isn’t bad to look at this.

Peace and unity among Christians is an essential part of our witness, our evangelization. “I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another.” (99)

But it’s in one of his last sections, after most of us have nodded off or flipped on TV, that Francis outlines some really good thoughts on what peace is and isn’t. “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor.” (218) “Nor is peace ‘simply the absence of warfare, based on a precarious balance of power; it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day towards the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect justice among men.'” (179) (quoting Paul VI’s Populum Progressio

So where does true peace come from? Francis offers four principles. 1) “Time is greater than space” (222-225), which means playing the long game, taking the long view, focusing on the process and not the immediate results. This only happens with Christian hope that God is in charge. It is here that Francis invokes the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

2) “Unity prevails over conflict” (226-230). Francis rightly assesses that when faced with conflict, we tend to choose from three options: ignore it, embrace it, or resolve it. That last option (the right answer, if you weren’t clear), requires perspective-taking in which parties seek to understand each other and work toward resolution. It approaches diversity not as discord but as a potential for greater harmony.

3) “Realities are more important than ideas” (231-233) (can you imagine Benedict XVI ever saying that?) Francis worries that too many leaders get so caught up in thoughts that are disconnected from real life that what is logical triumphs over what is practical. He does not use the phrase “keeping it real,” but he well could.

4) “The whole is greater than the part” (234-237) What’s most interesting here is that Francis isn’t elevating globalization over localization here (because that would promote ideas over realities). But he is calling for solutions that take everyone into account, not just those that society thinks count.

I can’t do justice to this section. It’s worth the read.

The Joy of the Gospel vs. the Anguish of the World

If you want to name a central theme to Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, you could do worse than this. After all, the name of the apostolic exhortation is Latin for “Joy of the Gospel.” So.

But since it’s Lent when I’m writing this, let me point out both sides. Francis focuses on the Joy aspect because, for him, the best part of our faith, and the reason for spreading it, is the joy it engenders. But he doesn’t overlook that the world offers other alternatives that promise happiness, and they all dead-end in anguish.

In his opening paragraph, Francis contrasts the joy of Christ with “sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and and loneliness.” (1). He talks about “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” (2)

Some Christians miss the joy part. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” may be his best line in the whole thing, mostly because we know those folks. (6). But Joy doesn’t equal happiness. “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

Instead of this enduring if variably intense joy, we often get trapped looking and settling for happiness. He quotes his predecessor: “our ‘technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.'”(7)

Instead, the Christian community finds joys in little things: “an evangelizing community is filled with Joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” (24)

The world isn’t often like this, and Francis admits it. “The Joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to love and, often to live with precious little dignity.” (52) “…Priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.”(62)

But it’s not just the darn kids on the lawn; it’s inside the Christian too. Francis points out that what often does in the joy of the Gospel is a “‘gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.’ A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” (83) (Incidentally, while the tomb sentence is Francis, the gray pragmatism comes from the pre-Pope Benedict writings of then-Cardinal Ratzinger.). Francis also warns of a Christian “defeatism” that turns us into “‘sourpusses,'” (which must have been fun to translate from the Latin) (85)

But that’s not what the Church is all about. In his section on the homily (or sermon), Francis says “The Lord enjoys talking with his people; the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners.” (141) The Church teaching should be “marked by Joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines…” (165). “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.” (167) “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168)

His best summation of the dynamic comes in his closing chapter. The treasure of the Gospel “is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.” (265) “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.” (266)

10 Things Pope Francis asks of us in Evangelii Gaudium

I only counted ten times that Pope Francis asks the readers to do something in apostolic exhortation. How hard could they be?

1) “I invite all Christians…to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.” (3)

2) At the end of his outline of topics, he says “All of them help give shape to a definite style of evangelization which I ask you to adopt in every activity which you undertake. In this way, we can take up, amid our daily efforts, the biblical exhortation ‘Rejoice in The Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4). (18)

3) “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that The Lord points out, but all of us our asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of light of the Gospel.” (20)

4) “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are.” (25)

5) “I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.” (30)

6) “our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.” (47)

7) “I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.” (58)

8) “imagine innovative spaces and possibilities for prayer and communion which are more attractive and meaningful for city dwellers. (73)

9) “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.” (187)

10) “I ask you to seek, as a community, creative ways of accepting this renewed call [for concern for the poor].” (201)

So a daily personal encounter with Christ, in everything we do, outside our comfort zone, dedicated to disrupting the status quo, focused on institutional reform, always open to seekers, engaging a human-centered approach to economics, engaging city dwellers, radically for the poor and with the poor. No big whoop.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Jorge Bergoglio

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The next few posts are especially for people who aren’t big into Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular. Even if you have never been to a church service of any type, there’s a fair chance you’ve seen the Charlie Brown Christmas special and heard Linus explain Christmas to Charlie Brown, which I paraphrased in this post’s title (Jorge Bergoglio is Pope Francis’ given name.)

Since the pope is writing to members of the Catholic Church, you would think that he wouldn’t need to spell out what the good news is he is calling us to spread with joy. But, just like Linus, he does it simply and eloquently. And often.

First, here is the essential message of the Christian faith, expressed a couple of different times in the document:

“Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” (Paragraph 164. All citations are by paragraph, which is how the Church tends to organize documents since they get printed in a bunch of different formats, making page #s less useful.)

Here’s another way of saying it: “Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity.” (278)

Francis says that grasping this reality, this good news (which is what “Gospel” means), is really the one thing you need to speak about God with others. “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him, and that his love always has the last word.” (151) “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.” (39)

This is the message that speaks “to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart.” (165) This is “a truth which is never out of date because it reaches the part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.” (265).

While we will talk a LOT more about evangelizing (which means delivering the good news), it Francis never loses that it’s because this news is so good that we are impelled to share it with others. “With Jesus life becomes richer and…with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.” (266). “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (264)

If you’ve always thought of religion as believing in a set of rules or doctrines, this talk about love may sound a little strange. But that really is what it’s all about. Quoting his predecessor, Benedict XVI, he says “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (7) “Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (8) “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.” (266) (that’s my favorite quote of the night, and may show up in some work projects.)

Another theme that comes up a lot is that we often react to this call to evangelize by saying it crimps our style. But Francis says we’ve got it all wrong. “Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills.” (280) “Those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.” (10)

OK. So that’s what the good news is and basically what evangelizing, the focus of this whole document, is all about. If you’ve read this far and you have questions, I’d be happy to try to answer them. If you’re really just waiting for some more of the “Francis talking about social problems” stuff, well, here’s the essential piece of where they come from: “Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life.” (274)

And in closing: “We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option [preference] for those who are least, those whom society discards.” (195)