Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
September 28, 2013
“What in God’s name is Pope Francis doing?”
That was the tone of about 100 emails I found waiting for me as I returned to my hotel room at about 11 pm last Thursday night in Lourdes, where I was leading a parish pilgrimage of 48 to France. I had just returned from the famous Massabielle grotto and was planning to pack my bags and hit the sack since our departure Mass was going to be at 2:15 am.
I decided quickly to check my email in case there was anything pressing from the parish back home. That’s when the barrage of messages from parishioners, journalists, fellow priests and even non-Catholic friends awakened me to the interview the Pope had given to Jesuit publications and to the headlines it was making across the world.
I then knew I wouldn’t be getting any sleep before the Mass! I downloaded the interview and began to read it to see if the substance matched the media hype. It didn’t take me long to see that the sensational headlines were distorting the Pope’s message.
But I also saw why many faithful Catholics were disturbed. Some of the Pope’s words seemed to match the stunning headlines that he really believed that many Catholics were “obsessed” about gays, abortion and contraception and should speak much less about these topics.
At a time when Church teachings on family and human life are being attacked by aggressive secularists, his own stated reticence on these topics seemed to be suggesting that rather than mounting a vigorous defense, good Catholics should wave the white flag.
But when one grasps reads the Pope’s comments within the context of the whole interview, one readily sees that Pope Francis is not abandoning his duty to call all people to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel. Rather he’s calling seeking a more effective means to bring everyone, especially those most in need, to conversion and mercy.
“I see clearly,” the pope said in the interview, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”
The most fundamental thing the Church needs to do, he insists, is care for the wounds that people have, injuries that are often at the roots of other sinful choices. Until those lesions are addressed, most people are not going to be open to a conversation about much else, especially how their moral behavior in other areas may be wounding them even further. For that whole process of conversion to begin, people need to perceive the Church as a hospital where people can find compassion and healing.
Behind the Pope’s remarks is his clear assessment that there are many who are deeply wounded in their relationship with the Church; who feel that the Church extends its arms to stone them for their sins rather than embrace them for salvation; who think that Catholic leaders and faithful look at them as if they’re bearing invisible scarlet letters because of the irregular situations or past actions; who sense that their sins are hated more than they’re loved; in short, who feel judged, rather than accepted.
Many in these situations believe that those in the Church relate to them more as the older brother than the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We know that the worst sin of the Prodigal Son was not the life of debauchery but treating the Father as if he were dead or basically a slave owner. Likewise the first and biggest wound that needs to be healed is not a particular sinful behavior but a person’s overall relationship to God and to his family the Church.
For these reasons, many who desperately need the means of forgiveness and salvation Christ has entrusted to his Church don’t come to receive it, because the think the hospital of the Church is closed to them or that the cost of care is too high.
That’s the wound that Pope Francis is trying to address. He’s trying to get people to come to the hospital, receive help for the wounds they’re aware of, and eventually to be restored to full health.
He’s calling all Catholics to be “ministers of mercy above all,” to “take responsibility for people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin.”
The Pope says that both “laxists” and “rigorists” in the Church lack this mercy, because “neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin.’”
As Christ’s Prime Minister of Mercy, the Pope is not pretending that sin isn’t sin, but remembering that God is greater than sin.
He’s trying to lead the Church not to ignore but to go deeper than particular sins to the real root of the wounds alienating people from God.
And then he is warmly trying to reintroduce them to the saving love of the Divine Physician he himself has so often gratefully received — and to the hospital the Divine Physician founded to continue his life-saving work.