Pope Francis and Pastoral Prudence, The Anchor, September 6, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
September 6, 2013

Last week, we pondered Pope Francis’ method in the New Evangelization.

The Church, he believes, needs to exercise a genuine maternal, loving warmth and closeness to people, going out to meet them just as Christ met the disciples on the road to Emmaus, entering into their journey and discussions, shining the light of faith on their deepest questions and troubles, and seeking to make their hearts burn anew for God. Once they get this holy heartburn, they can begin to recognize Christ and see how he alone can satisfy what they yearn for most.

This modern road to Emmaus, however, isn’t an easy, swift and smooth road. It requires patience, prudence and perseverance, because most conversions take time.

One area where this comes up regularly is how we approach those we know who are living in a way conspicuously incompatible with the Gospel.

Parents, for example, whose children have stopped coming to Mass, or have adopted a gay lifestyle, or are cohabitating or planning to get married outside of the Church often find themselves in a painful quandary. As much as they try to bring their children to conversion, their efforts seem only to drive their children further away from Christ, his Church and even the family.

Likewise, many apostolically zealous Catholics, who sacrifice themselves heroically to try to bring fallen away Catholics back to Church, or who try to advance God’s teachings on the dignity of every human life and importance of the family, often discouragingly find their efforts bear little fruit.

The reason this happens is often because many begin their apostolic efforts at “omega” rather than “alpha,” at the end of the alphabet rather than at the beginning. They concentrate on the particular areas most obviously in need of conversion rather than on the much deeper issue of the conversion of one’s entire life.

Pope Francis is trying to teach the Church to begin at “alpha.”

This was made very clear in the lengthy press conference with journalists returning aboard Shepherd One from Rio. The Pope was asked why he hadn’t spoken specifically to the young people about abortion and same-sex marriage.

He replied that the Church has already spoken clearly about these topics, just as it has about cheating and lying, which he likewise didn’t address in Rio.

When the reporter pressed that the young want to know where he stands, he said that his position is clearly that of the Church. He added, however, that rather than speaking about those issues in Rio, he thought it was more important to speak of the “positive things that open up the path to young people.”

That’s been his strategy not just with the young, but with the entire Church and modern world. Pope Francis wants to draw people to the “path” of truly following Jesus Christ. He wants to show them the “positive things” of a life of faith, conscious that it’s only when they’re on that path that they’ll be able to understand how the teachings the world often finds “negative” are truly part of the Good News.

In a 2010 book length interview with Sergio Rubin, the future Pope stressed that conversion has to begin with making Jesus come alive in people’s lives, rather than with particular moral issues.

“The most important thing in preaching,” he emphasized, “is to proclaim Jesus Christ, what in theology is called the kerygma, that Jesus Christ is God, became man to save us, lived in the world like any one of us, suffered, tied, was buried and rose. … [This] provokes astonishment, and brings one to contemplation and to faith. … After the encounter with Jesus comes reflection, … where one can deduce the principles of religious and moral behavior.”

He expressed his concern that sometimes there can be a “degrading reductionism” in the preaching of the Church, focusing above all on sexual morality and what’s licit and illicit.

“When this happens,” he stated, “we bury the treasure of the living Jesus, the treasure of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the treasure of the project of Christian life that has many other aspects beyond sexual questions. We push to the side a rich catechesis, with the mysteries of faith and the Creed, and we center ourselves on whether we should organize a rally against a political proposal to legalize condoms.”

The essential principle he was describing is that the Church’s priority must be to help people to come to encounter Jesus and begin, through prayer, the Word of God, the sacraments, and a Christian community, to align their thoughts, hearts, will and action to Jesus’. That’s the essence of conversion.

Once the individual begins to live more by faith, to make God his priority and supreme love, then that person can begin to get the strength of the Gospel to make big changes in the parts of his life not aligned with Jesus.

If a person, however, hasn’t experienced this deeper conversion, then asking him or her to make a radical change on his love life, for example, not only makes the mistake of focusing on a symptom instead of its cause, but plays into the false frame that the Church is obsessed with sexual morality rather that helping people to experience true happiness and the love that comes from God.

Francis went to Rio to proclaim the path of Christ with enthusiasm, warmth, and patience in order to help not just young people but all of us adopt Christ’s way as our own. That is the path of genuine conversion, which is the first step of the New Evangelization.