Times and things are certainly changing in the Roman Catholic Church. As an outsider looking in, I feel a sense of exuberance, of excitement, of hope. Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and spiritual leader of the world’s more than 1.2 billion Catholics, has captured the respect and admiration of not only the members of his own Church, but of people of other religions, people like myself, and of people of no religion, who are searching for a glimmer of hope in a world which has a tendency, more often than not, to be cold and indifferent, greedy and selfish.
In the nine months since Pope Francis ascended the throne of Peter, the Bishop of Rome is proving himself to be a true spiritual leader by showing us all, clergy and laity alike, what it means to be a REAL pastor and a REAL Christian. He has become for millions around the world, a laudable model of a good shepherd and spiritual father, something all of us bishops and priests should want to be and strive to be. He does not teach or lead by negatives but rather by giving us living and tangible examples of love, compassion and mercy. He leads and teaches by example, not just by words.
The Pope does not wear Christianity merely as an identification tag on his lapel. On the contrary, he lives Christianity to the fullest, and in doing so he is changing not only the face of the Catholic Church but its very soul.
Political pundits and the media try their best to interpret the Pope’s messages and words in ways that best serve their own personal agendas. Some paint him as a conservative; others as a flaming liberal. And there are others who say he is walking the moderate line. In my humble opinion, I believe that Pope Francis is none of the aforementioned…not a conservative or a liberal. I don’t even think he is middle-of-the-road. I think the Pope is just Christ-centered. He looks to and draws from Christ all that is necessary for a good, healthy and productive life. This is something that politicians and the media don’t understand. Neither do those who coin themselves “conservatives” or “liberals.” None of these people get it…they just don’t get the Pope. What they fail to see is that the Pope is doing and saying nothing more than what Christ expects of all of us and that is to LIVE the Gospel and not just proclaim it and preach it. And the understanding of the Gospel that Pope Francis so joyfully proclaims and lives is the Gospel that the Church has preserved inviolate and unadulterated for more than 2,000 years.
The Gospel message is a very simple one. Christ made it very clear what we are to do to make the world what God intended it to be, to ensure that we preserve in every respect the image of God in which all men and women were created, and what is needed for salvation and true happiness, both in this world and in the next.
Mankind throughout the centuries has tried so hard to understand the message and meaning of the Gospel that we have actually lost sight of the message itself. Rather than listening to what Christ actually said, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to analyze His words and His intent. In critical studies of the Gospel, we often assume Christ said this or meant that when in actuality, Jesus’ words and their meanings are very clear. They don’t need to be analyzed…they merely need to be heard, received, accepted and lived. This is what Pope Francis is trying to get us to understand, that we must simply listen to what the Lord is saying and follow His example. We have over-complicated the Lord’s message and in many ways have made it a burden when, in fact, it is a source of great joy, comfort and hope.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best blueprint for living, for world peace, and for prosperity that any corporate executive, diplomat or politician could ever come up with. If it is understood and accepted in the spirit in which it was written then the world’s leaders would be in a better position to sit at the same table and hammer out realistic and workable solutions to the world’s problems.
Pope Francis wants people to understand that real power and authority and real compassion and mercy come only from God. Human beings are corrupted and fragile, but God is perfect. Man’s love is often conditional whereas God’s love for mankind is totally unconditional. When we put ourselves totally at the service of God, then what we do and how we behave are going to be completely different than if we were to ignore God and go our own way. When our lives are solidly set in Christ, then our way of thinking and what we say and how we say it will also be completely different. This is what is happening in the case of Pope Francis. It is why people are listening to him. The Pope is speaking solely from the heart of Christ. That is something that hasn’t happened in the Church for a long time.
Pope Francis knows that for too long the real face and soul of the Church have been, for centuries, suppressed by the pursuit of earthly power by men in positions of authority in the Church. Popes, patriarchs and bishops often abused their power in the name of God. Though there were some very pious and holy leaders in the Church throughout the centuries, there were many more who were ambitious, arrogant and ego-centric, men who were more intent upon building a powerful earthly institution that served them rather than a holy nation that served Christ and His people through them.
The real power of the Church is to be found in its faithful obedience to and the living out of the teachings of Jesus Christ. These teachings, which contain within themselves the promises of true happiness and salvation, are based upon the virtues of compassion and mercy, the two most important identifying characteristics of the Christian faith.
The Church is the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God on earth. These descriptions are not mere pious or romantic appellations, but the descriptions of a divine reality, a reality that soars beyond our limited human understanding. From what I can see, Pope Francis seems to be focusing more on presenting the Church to the world as the Body of Christ rather than a business or corporation. He wants us all to rediscover, and thus understand, what the role of the Church is in this world and in the civil societies with which it co-exists. In other words, He is trying to get the message across that the Church is of Christ God and not merely a human institution.
When we see the Church merely as a human institution, we run the risk of removing Christ from the equation, of separating the Church from God and making it just a creation of man. But the Church is not a creation of man. It was founded by God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Church is, by its very nature, the Kingdom of God on earth. It exists both in this world and in heaven.
In order that the Church may function in this material world as an organized society of believers, it has taken unto itself man-made forms of structure and administration that it may operate efficiently and in ways that are understandable to the human experience. Sadly however, this human or man-made institution, rather than being known as a vessel of grace and sanctification, has become known more for its earthly power and wealth, its coldness and reserve, its rigidity and inflexibility. This is not what Christ intended His Church to be and this is what Pope Francis is trying to change.
In the ten months since the election of Pope Francis, we have seen a transforming spirit of joy come into the Church. One can feel a softer more welcoming attitude; an arms-open welcome and smile of a loving father instead of a sour-faced and arms-folded across the chest intimidating guard at the door. That is not to say the Pope has thrown out the teachings of the Church, but he has softened the tone in which those teachings are conveyed to the faithful. One can sense that the Church still stands firm in her teachings, but that firmness is now accompanied by open and genuine expressions of love and gentleness, of compassion and mercy. Yes, there is joy in the Church once again. People are once again proud of being members of the Church. Many are rediscovering their faith, which may have been misplaced or even given up because they believed the Church broke trust with or betrayed them.
For many years, the Church has been very proficient in saying “No.” Very rarely did it ever say “Yes” to the faithful or even acknowledge them. But now the tide has changed. Pope Francis is intent on listening and is adamant that the Church will truly be the living Body of Christ, and not some museum piece or historical relic that has no real relationship to the world in which it lives. And that’s what we need to understand, that the Church LIVES and does not merely exist. The Church is a living organism, not the creation of any human power or government. It is given life by Christ and is imbued with the transfiguring grace of the Holy Spirit, the very spirit of God.
Yes, the tide is turning. We are seeing the Holy Spirit work in wondrous ways in the Church. The Spirit does not seem to be impeded anymore by human agendas or egos but is now free to work where He will in ways which we have yet to see unfold in their fullness. There is a sense of joyful expectation in the Church, of a rediscovered awareness of identity and purpose. The Church is once again becoming a family and not so much a communion of disjointed communities. That is not to say that everything is good and perfect, for it is not. We do have a long way to go, but now, with Pope Francis at the helm, and together with like-minded bishops with him, we now have hope that things can be a lot better than they were and that the Church can again be the spiritual and moral voice it once was.
Pope Francis truly speaks with the heart of Christ and with the Gospel firmly clenched to his heart. He is a leader not only of the world’s Roman Catholics, but of all people of good will. He is a fine example of what a bishop, priest and pastor should be. Certainly, we cannot discount the contributions and holiness of Pope Francis’ two immediate predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed Pope John Paul II the Great. Each of these men contributed much to the Church during their reigns, but they were more intellectuals and theologians than they were pastors. Pope Francis brings to the Universal Church a different approach, that of a joy-filled servant. It is that image which we must embrace and encourage, especially among our young people. It is that image which gives new meaning and value to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life. Now is the time for parents to encourage their children to explore and discern a vocation of a life of service to the Church, either as priests, deacons, monks or nuns. Our young people can be part of a formidable force for change in the world by becoming part of a community which is rediscovering its role in the world.
Pope Francis has rolled up his shirt sleeves and is taking great pains to clean up what was once a beautiful house of the weeds and garbage that have accumulated over the years and which have created a sometimes ugly and unsafe environment for the people of God to live in. His renovations to the House of God are not just cosmetic but deliberate and structural. He is not just giving the Church a face-lift but making sure that every stone is solidly placed and secure with the mortar of the Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
With a sense of holy conviction and determination our young people can be part of this rebuilding. By becoming priests, deacons, monks and nuns they can revitalize and reinvigorate the Church. By using time honored methods and by finding new ways to bring the Gospel message to all God’s people everywhere, they can be a part of making the world a better place and building up the Kingdom of God on earth.
There is room in the Church for many different expressions of the one Eternal Truth. We cannot let ourselves be drawn into the temptation of labeling this thing or that thing in the Church. We cannot label each other as “liberals” or “conservatives” or as “traditionalists” or “progressives.” We must work hard to rid the Church of this kind of behavior, especially when it comes to the observance and practice of liturgical rites. Sadly, liturgical preferences have become a significant source of division in the Church everywhere.
There is great beauty in every liturgical service celebrated in the Church. Truly, beauty is to be found in the simplicity of the “Novus Ordo” of the Roman Rite as much as it is to be found in Rite’s so-called “Extraordinary Form.” It is found in contemporary hymns as much as it is found in the time-honored and loved traditional hymns of the Western Church. It is found in the magnificent Byzantine liturgies of the Greek and Slavic Churches as much as it is found in the divine worship of the Coptic, Ethiopian and other Oriental Churches. The point is, when it comes to worship preferences, there is an abundance of different styles and forms of worship which all accomplish the same thing, the worship and praise of Almighty God through Jesus Christ, and which can satisfy the spiritual needs of every believer.
We should not criticize or ostracize our brothers and sisters who prefer a simpler, quieter worship service as opposed to Masses composed by Mozart, Verdi and the other great composers. We should not criticize or ostracize those who prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass over the Ordinary Form. We should not look upon those who worship according to the Byzantine tradition as being outside or not part of the Universal Church. The very catholicity of the Church is manifested by the myriad ways we worship God. There does not need to be in the Church a single unified form or rite by which we worship God. The only universal criteria that should be required is that whatever form of worship is used by and in the Local Churches includes the basics: lessons from scripture, the proclamation of the Word, exegesis and catechetical teaching, and the giving and reception of the Holy Eucharist. In this regard, it is one of the Pope’s roles, together with the bishops throughout the world, to ensure that the basic norms are observed and adhered to by all the particular Local Churches throughout the world.
It makes no difference if the Mass or Divine Liturgy is celebrated with cultural nuances, so long as those customs do not denigrate from the divine realities revealed to us and the faith which we profess as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Divine worship, especially the Mass or Divine Liturgy, should naturally adapt itself to the cultures in which the worship takes place. For example, the Roman Rite Mass celebrated in the particular Church of Africa has within it elements of African culture such as music, dancing, drums, costumes, etc. It is a very joyful and vibrant celebration of the Mass. The same can be said of the Byzantine Liturgy celebrated in this area as well.
From its very beginnings, the Church has taken elements of the societies and cultures in which it finds itself and has sanctified them and made them part of its life. It has also taken practices which at one time were considered pagan or secular and made them its own, using them as tools to better explain the divine realities and eternal Truth.
We should not be exclusionary or closed-minded in our view of liturgical practices or customs. When the externals and rituals become more important than the One being worshipped and praised, then we have a problem. I think it is this kind of mentality that Pope Francis rails against. When it gets to a point that people within the Church become so preoccupied almost to the point of fanaticism with let’s say the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, then it is time for some correction and re-education. We have the same problem in the Orthodox Church. There are many people who have just become so fanatical about such things as what calendar should be used to determine the dates of feasts and other liturgical observances, whether or not a priest should have a beard or cut his hair, whether to use leaven or unleavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist, etc., that they don’t care about things like feeding the hungry, visiting and caring for the sick, clothing the naked, etc.
Pope Francis is telling everyone in his Church it is time to focus on living the Gospel. It is a message that applies to all of us as well. Rules and regulations have their place and purpose in the Church, but they are not the be all and end all of the Church’s life. The Church is much more than just a system of rules and disciplines. It is also the Body of Christ, the fountain of His love, mercy and compassion to which all are invited and welcome to draw from. The Church is here to give God’s love, mercy and compassion to all people, regardless of their status and position in life and society. In God’s unending love, mercy and compassion is great joy and hope.
The Church is the vessel by which God delivers His love, mercy and compassion to His people, therefore the Church must be open and available to all who wish to receive the gifts the Lord desires to freely give to those who seek Him. Pope Francis is showing the world that the Church is more than anything else, the City of God and he is intent on doing what is necessary to make it once again a safe haven and spiritual paradise for God’s people here on earth.
Yes, the tide is turning and the time is now to become part of a great adventure which can result in many good things for the people of God. Don’t stand on the sidelines, get involved. Tell your parish priest and your bishop today that you want to be a part of rebuilding the City of God.