This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at an event commemorating the fifth anniversary of Catholic Radio in Boston. The topic was Pope Francis' visit to the United States. What follows below was my attempt to offer an interpretation of what his visit means for the Church in the United States. If you would like to learn more about Catholic Radio in Boston, you can go to http://www.1060catholic.org Also, they have a mobile app that allows you to listen 24 hours a day, seven days a week to great Catholic programming. If you'd prefer to view the talk itself rather than read it, here is a link to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN4k_pzFAyo&feature=youtu.be
Twice a year the Catholic Center at BU goes on retreat, and last year the students put together a retreat centered upon the theme of evangelization. Among other things, the retreat had a series of five minute skits which, I have to admit, the older I get, the more I enjoy.
One skit--written by "The Skit Guys," was entitled, “The Vacuum Salesman.” It involved a door to door salesman--played by one of our students, Rachel. Very excitedly, she went to her first home, knocked on the door and launched into her speech, but after only a few words, she looked behind the potential customer and said, “Lady, your house is disgusting. How do you live in such a pig sty? I don’t even think I’d be able to demonstrate this vacuum in there until you move some of that stuff out of the way.” To her shock, Rachel found the door closed in her face.
Seeing the need to readjust her sales technique, Rachel went and diligently studies everything she could about her vacuum cleaner. When the door of the next home opened, she was fully prepared to share her knowledge. Rachel didn’t even notice that the person she was speaking to was a child. She immediately launched into her newly refined sales pitch and in what seemed like one long breath she said:
“This is the one and only Super Sucker DC-8000-Z. Basically, you have your intake port and your exhaust port. We’re talking 1400 Watts, here. You got your LGS telescopic wand, plus KS-5 allergen filtration. Oh, and it comes with HEPA filters and multiple LGN9-R rotating brushes. Well, actually, I think this model comes with LGN9-V rotating brushes. The LGN9-R brushes were actually on the DC-7000-Z model. And if you look here, it’s obvious that…” At which point the child yells, “Mom, there’s a crazy woman at the door!”
That skit came to mind when I was asked to give this talk.When Pope Benedict XVI came to the United States in 2008, he gave a beautiful homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where he explained various features of a cathedral and how those features teach us about the Mystery of the Church and our own vocations within the communion of the Church. He pointed out how the stained glass windows flood the inside of the church with mystic light. But from the outside, those same windows can appear “dark, heavy, and even dreary.” It is only from the inside of the Church that one can experience their beauty.
Honestly, whenever I read or hear a commentary on Pope Francis and what he is trying to accomplish, I have a sense that the author is just making it up. We all have a desire to get a handle on what exactly Pope Francis is saying and doing. We want a coherent, easy to read manual that doesn’t have any loose ends. I think it is highly unlikely that we are ever going to get that. With some popes, if you want to understand their program, all you have to do is carefully read their writings and you can assemble rather quickly a pretty good outline of what their pontificate is all about. I think Pope Francis’ pontificate is less definable by his written words than it is by his gestures. When I think of Pope Francis’ pontificate, what jumps to mind is not a quote, but an image: Pope Francis leaping out of a moving car with his security detail hurriedly trying to catch up to him. He leaps out of that car because he is moved at the moment to embrace a child, a person in a wheelchair, someone who is suffering etc.
I think one possible key to understanding Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to the United States is that he is primarily focused upon the people standing outside of the cathedral who see the Church as being dark, foreboding, and even dreary. Those of us on the inside, bask in the radiant and mystical light that illuminates the Church’s life. But, what is going on in the inside of the Church is often incomprehensible and even uninteresting to those on the outside. Like the vacuum cleaner salesman, we sometimes talk too much like vacuum salesmen attending the vacuum salesmen convention. We use a language that has become almost entirely foreign to the world outside.
To be clear, I love the language of the Church. But, some of our language and way of doing things is not easily accessible at first. These things come later. They cannot be disposed of or ignored. But, first, we need to get the person in front of us to step over the threshold of the Church and enter in.
I regularly hear from Catholic students about how they are made to feel uncomfortable for their Catholic beliefs. Perhaps a professor dismisses the Catholic Church or mocks it in a class. In one instance, a student who had become friendly with a professor, one day wore his Catholic Center T-Shirt to the lab. The professor was flabbergasted and asked, “Are you Catholic?” He said, “Yes.” The professor said, “Like go to Mass on Sunday Catholic?” He said, “Yes.” The professor asked, “So, you hate gay people then?” The young man was surprised by the question.
While questions and comments like that might anger or annoy us (because we know that they are based in falsehoods and misrepresentations) they come from people who stand outside of the Church. They see the Church as irrelevant, dark, and dreary. The population of people who stand on the outside of the Church and feel this way is not shrinking. It is growing. And sometimes, we fall into the trap of playing the character role assigned to us from the outside. In other words, in reaction to being characterized as people who are incomprehensible, foreboding and dreary, we react in a way that is . . . well, incomprehensible, foreboding, and dreary.
In his address to the US Bishops, Pope Francis said “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.” Those of us who find ourselves daily fighting the good fight, can sometimes feel strangely self-satisfied when we’ve won an argument and gotten the upper hand on our opponents. But, at the end of the day, the question really is about whether we have done anything to draw that person inside of the Church or have we simply left them outside, angrier than ever?
I think a key component of Pope Francis’ visit is what I quoted above: “Only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.” Many of those who commentated on the Pope’s visit did so in terms of major issues, moral battles, and political agendas. But I think we should not allow ourselves to be lured into that trap. Instead, I think that we should see his visit to the United States in terms of Pope Benedict’s image of the Cathedral. Pope Francis is trying to meet the people outside of the Cathedral and speak to them not in a language that turns them away, but with a language that they can understand: the allure of goodness and love.
He speaks to them about unemployment, worrying about a sick relative, loneliness, drug addiction, and many of the other hardships that afflict them and their families. He doesn’t do this as a way of dismissing all of the beautiful truths that are central to the Catholic Faith, but rather as providing an invitation to draw closer to these truths. In his address to the bishops in the United States, Pope Francis said, “To this end, it is important that the Church in the United States also be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love. As pastors, we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth. We see their fear in the face of life, their despair and the many forms of escapism to which it gives rise.”
I am certain that there are any number of ways that people have interpreted Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to the United States. Mine is just one interpretation among many others! I do think, however, that if you are looking to understand his visit, this image of the cathedral is helpful. Francis’ visit was intended to teach us how to draw others into the Church.
Each year during Holy Week, the bishop of every diocese gathers with his priests for the Chrism Mass. At this Mass, the Holy Oils that will be used to administer the sacraments for the coming year are consecrated by the bishop and during that Mass, the priests of the diocese renew their vows.
The Gospel for that Mass comes from the Fourth Chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus, as was his custom, entered the synagogue, and then he was handed a scroll from which to read. Jesus read from the 61st Chapter of the Prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk. 4:18-19; cf. Is. 61:1-2). Having read those words, Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and, St. Luke tells us, “The eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently upon him.” And then Jesus said, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This Gospel passage describes the first and most important pastoral visit ever made, the pastoral visit of Christ the Good Shepherd to the human race. He came--by the power of the Holy Spirit--to preach good news to the poor, release to captives, to grant recovery of sight to the blind, to free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Every pastoral visit and, in fact, the entire mission of the Church finds its origin in Christ’s own pastoral mission. Our mission is to draw others into the beauty and radiance of life in Christ.
Those who often stand outside of the Church and who are shaped by current secular influences are people who can be very moved by the plight of the homeless, the victims of drugs and violence, and the loneliness experienced by so many. While we may disagree with their perception, these people often perceive Catholics to be uncaring, cold, and judgmental. What often wins them over--or at least opens them to not dismissing us as irrelevant--is when we outdo everyone else in loving those who, as Pope Francis says, are on the peripheries.
If this were all a theory, I think it would be a waste of time. We need to see real life examples of this taking place. I want to point out one place where I think we can see this method of witnessing to the love of God and remaining completely faithful to the Church’s Magisterium evident.
Recently, the BU Catholic Center screened a short film entitled, “For Love Alone.” This film is produced by “The Council of Major Superiors of Religious Women,” an umbrella group of some amazing orders of religious sisters in theUnited States. These orders--like the Missionaries of Charity, Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of Life, the Daughters of St. Paul, and many others are completely faithful to the Magisterium of the Church AND are filled with such joy, goodness, and love. These sisters, in my opinion, are a perfect example of how fidelity to the Church and “the allure of love and goodness” are not mutually exclusive realities. Unfortunately, some people set up a false dichotomy which suggests that one cannot be doctrinally solid and be loving at the same time. The sisters highlighted in this film are an unstoppable powerhouse of truth and love.
These beautiful sisters--who live within the radiance of the Church can teach all of us how to live in such a way as to attract others to Christ. They are leading the way in living the joy of the Gospel.
In the gospel that I quoted earlier, St. Luke tells us that “the eyes of all looked intently upon him.” Pope Francis’ visit to the United States--much like the visits of John Paul II and Benedict XVI--drew the attention of the American People. The eyes of the nation looked intently upon him. In looking at Pope Francis, they were looking at the Church, and in looking at the Church, they were looking at the Body of Christ. They were looking intently at Christ.
All of us on the inside of the Church who bask in the radiant light and warmth of Jesus Christ, do so not because we are good, but because God is good. We find ourselves inside of the Church because God loves us--the sinner, the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the captive. He loves us so much that He sent His Only Begotten Son on a pastoral visit--a visit that led us from slavery to freedom, from blindness to sight, from the outside of the house of God to the inside.
Pope Francis’ pastoral visit is a reminder to all of us who are privileged to live within the household of God that through the “allure of goodness and love,” we can draw others to experience the joy of the Gospel--the joy that comes from knowing and experiencing the supremely good news that God has visited his people and set them free.