Pope Francis coming to the USA is going to be a spark. Some will try to use it to light a fire of the Holy Spirit. Others will try to use it to burn up what Pope Francis is saying. Why? Well, it seems our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, rubs a number of Catholics the wrong way. He certainly isn’t the first Pope to do so, but the difference is he troubles a much different group of Catholics than our previous Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI did. This is interesting, because they haven’t said anything that is substantially different from one another.
Some said Benedict was a “conservative” and that he wasn’t open-minded, caring, loving, etc. These are not accurate descriptions and he doesn’t deserve to be accused of such things. Rather, he (like Francis) is CATHOLIC. That means he doesn’t fit into the neat political framework of being either liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist, moderate, etc (read this for more on why those labels don’t apply).
Take these quotes from BXVI for example – most would call them “liberal” quotes:
**”It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs.”
**“It is theologically and anthropologically important for woman to be at the center of Christianity. Through Mary, and the other holy women, the feminine element stands at the heart of the Christian religion.”
**”the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated capitalism”
**”If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, we make of our possessions a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can! But this is to make possessions into a false god.”
**The fact that some states, power groups, and energy companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future.”
So, just as Benedict shouldn’t be reduced to political labels, neither should Francis. It isn’t fair to either of them.
I think there could be several reasons some have worries about Francis – here are 7 I have identified.
- Many Catholics are stuck in a model of catechetical formation. This means they see the work of the Catholic Church is found primarily in handing over doctrines and teachings. While this is one important role, this isn’t the mission of the Church. The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus. This is done by evangelizing and evangelization must be centered on relationships. Our relationship with another (through word and witness) helps another person start to form a relationship with Jesus. If we get the mission of the Church wrong, then we won’t understand the focus Francis has on making disciples as one that is in the heart of the Church. Doctrinal formation necessarily must follow the proclamation of the Gospel. NOT the other way around. Thus, Francis is emphasizing this evangelical dimension, which is why his homilies frequently are a call to conversion and an abandonment of our lives to Jesus. If we don’t understand this primary purpose of the Church, we can’t understand Francis.
- Francis is frequently speaking to those on the fringes of the Church and outside the Church – not those who are already faithfully Catholic. If he doesn’t focus on what many Catholics find are the most important issues (culture war topics -e.g. abortion, sex, etc.) then he must not care about them. This is false. He has said he is a child of the Church and accepts all the Church teaches. If he doesn’t focus on them, it is because he knows that he will drive more away than he will attract if he starts with those topics. In the last few hundred years, we have focused so much on behavior that we have forgotten that a transformation in our hearts precedes a change in our our behavior. In other words, we need to aim for setting up divine encounters with God, THEN help someone lead a life of virtue. Starting with what someone does is bound to keep them at arm’s length.
- Francis is a simple man. He connects with the poor like few of us in the Western world do. Personally, it would be tough for me to give up the luxuries and pomp of the Pontificate. That is because I would want others to focus on me. But, Francis seems to want to constantly draw attention to the poor, the simple, and to the one who loves them best – Jesus. So, he lives humbly and simply. This is why so many non-Catholics are attracted to him. We should take notice if we want to reach out to them. A recent poll had an absolutely stunning stats – Here is one in particular that stood out to me – In just a single year from 2014 to 2015, the proportion of American adults who say Pope Francis has caused them to make changes to their spiritual life has quadrupled, from five percent to 21 percent! That means he is reaching those we haven’t reached before and we need to follow his lead.
- His off-the-cuff speaking style is easy to misinterpret. We should have seen this one coming. He is a preacher and pastor by nature, so he speaks naturally from the heart. This is getting him into some trouble by having ambiguous statements twisted to sound like they are agenda-driven by the media and his opponents. What a shame. If there is any agenda, it is one of spreading the name of Jesus. It also means that the media will try to fit all his statements into a political box and that just doesn’t work either (read this for why the media messes up their coverage on Pope Francis). BTW – Jesus wasn’t always easy to understand. Put yourself in the shoes of the average Jew of Jesus day and then read Luke 11:29-32 – then see if you aren’t confused.
- Catholics don’t like change. Heck, nobody does. When was the last time someone really pricked our conscience or challenged our preconceived notions about faith and we thanked them for it??!! Francis is a radical departure from the norm when it comes to style. He isn’t what we expected in a Pope and he is challenging us to look at the role of Peter in a different way. This may hurt a bit. Too many Catholics think first as Americans than Catholics. They know more about free market economics than what the Church has taught about social justice. They know more about free speech than the common good. We will tend to be shaped by what we know best. So, if we Catholics, who happen to be American, need to do a bit of stretching in our ways of thinking and living, so be it.
- He is reminding us the being a Christian isn’t “safe”. We have to shuck off the idea that being a Catholic looks like anything else. It isn’t about having the perfect way of explaining doctrine. Nor is it about a policy, rule, or the correct document. It is about Jesus. All about Jesus. In some ways, we have forgotten this and it is going to take a lot of work to get back to it. Jesus isn’t safe. Jesus isn’t convenient. Jesus doesn’t fit into nice and neat boxes. Jesus REALLY EXPECTS radical commitment and he never will shy away from demanding it from those who say they follow Him. My guess is most activities at your average parish would be cancelled if Jesus was running it and He would focus on truly forming disciples and evangelizing individuals in relational ministry and then training others to do the same. If true, then Francis is doing something right.
- If Francis choose to emphasize different aspects of Catholic teaching that disturbs us, maybe we are the ones out of balance. I see this in myself all the time. It is easy for me to be pro-life, pro-family, etc. But, I have a harder time being pro-poor, pro-immigrant, etc. So, when I am especially challenged by such teachings it is because I am out of balance, not the teaching itself. I need to take these to prayer and let God work on my heart – not throw the Pope under the bus for proclaiming the teachings of Jesus! Jesus doesn’t care about image, success, money, or trends. He cares about faithfulness, charity, hope, grace, peace, generosity, humility, etc. and He wants you to care about those things too.
Our communities, our Church, and our world needed a Pope like Francis. Someone to shake us up out of our comfort zones. As Catholics, we have to be careful about criticizing our Holy Father, as if he is just another one of the many Catholics in the world. He is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the guardian of right doctrine and practice. We are not. Is he above criticism? No. Is he perfect? No.
Yet, when we start to rely more on our own opinions vs the teachings of Jesus’ Church, we put ourselves in a danger zone. I challenge you to see Francis as an earthly spiritual father. Sometimes he is going to ask us to grow in ways we don’t want to. But, it may be good for us anyway.
Lastly, pray for him. He needs your prayers.
NOTE – Comments are welcome, but discussion MUST remain charitable at all times. Comments are strictly monitored.
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