By Fr. Anthony Gerber
If there is anyone who thought that the Catholic Church was not relevant—well, they got a wake-up call during Pope Francis’ recent visit!
On all the media outlets: wall-to-wall coverage of the pope’s visit—all listening and hanging on to every word of the Holy Father.
Any time a pope visits a country, it is a time of special blessing and grace. There’s renewal for many cold hearts, a deeper challenge for the already-faithful, and for those who are seeking, there is an invitation to find the Meaning of Life in the Catholic Church.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of celebrating the wedding of two of our parishioners. At the rehearsal, I had a chance to speak with several of the guests—who came from many religious or non-religious backgrounds. No matter what their state, the conversation focused on one thing: Pope Francis.
They were asking questions—good questions—about what the Church teaches; they were commenting about how the Pope is inspirational; about how he was giving them pause. I could tell that they were hearing a quiet whisper in their hearts and minds to come home to the faith.
And perhaps you are one of those people. Perhaps there has been that “something” in your life that is bringing you here. And if that’s you, I want to welcome you.
At the same time, I know that Pope Francis’ words have been a little confusing for the more seasoned Catholics out there. For example: is he advocating socialism? Has he gone all-in on global warming? Does he think that a country should not protect its borders? And so on.
The key to understanding the pope, I believe, is his “theology” of encounter. At the root of this theology is the fact that Jesus comes to us not as an idea or a philosophical system, but as a person—and he does so because we are persons. We are not ideas, nor categories or camps. Sure, we might call ourselves Republican or Democrat, black or white, gay or straight, and so on—but, behind the label, behind the “idea,” is a person with a heart, with a life story, with an eternal destiny, with feelings, and so on. The theology of encounter is a way of living wherein we are able to put aside categories and come heart-to-heart to our brothers and sisters, children of the same God our Father. And, because we are children of the same Father, we look for what is good in the other. We look for the person’s heart.
I think this is why the pope proposed four Americans—people, not simply ideas—for Congress to consider; and not simply that we would embrace every aspect of their lives and ideologies, but to see that these flawed human beings—flawed sinners, not saints—had hearts and dreams, just like you and me. The theology of encounter challenges us. It challenges us by asking: what is the first criterion by which we encounter a person? Is it by socio-political standing or is it by the fact that they are our brothers and sisters? If our first encounter is a label, we aren’t meeting the person!
When Pope Francis proposed Dorothy Day for our consideration, I could have said and was tempted to say (arrogantly, mind you), “Oh, Pope, you have given us a [here comes the label:]—you have given us a socialist as an example to ponder!” (Sr. Theresa Aletheia’s note: See this article for more details about Dorothy’s political views after her conversion)
But consider the person: Dorothy Day loved the Jesus who dwelled in each person. Was she flawed in this? Yes. But so am I. Where she was zealous, I can be cold. How I wish that I could see Jesus in every person with such a zeal that I might be categorized as over-zealous in my wanting of charity for every person!
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Jesus tells us that if our right hand causes us to sin, cut it off. This is odd because it is not the hand that causes us to sin—for it doesn’t have a mind or a heart. It is our heart and mind that cause us—that move our members—to sin. In much the same way, it is not socio-economic and political systems that necessarily cause us to sin—no more than a hand—rather, it is the heart and the mind of the persons behind them.
Jesus is calling for us to cut out from our hearts anything that leads to sin—literally, to say “to hell” with it. The fact that this country is rife with gender and racial and political wars is because, in our attempt to make sense of the rapidly-changing landscape of our world, we (in our concupiscent frailty) seek to label and categorize—at the expense of the human heart. This is why there is so much labeling and hate and so on. We focus on issues and label people as problems instead of focusing on people and working together on problems.
The pope’s words are beckoning us to pause for a moment. To strip away the emotionalism and ideology and to ask: who are the people in this hot-button “issue”? Have I allowed for a heart-to-heart encounter with a person here? Can I look beyond the socio-economic and political name-calling and see a person?
The very fact that the pope is being labeled as a liberal proves my point. How quick our culture is to see socio-economic and political leanings before its sees a man who deeply loves us! He is facing heat from both sides of the political aisle—and perhaps that’s because he’s walking the narrow way.
And, brothers and sisters, let us not be naïve: don’t think for a moment that the media isn’t trying to drive an even greater wedge in an already fractured Catholic Church. Don’t fall for the labels, because it only furthers division! We are brothers and sisters of the same Father!
Therefore, if your socio-economic or political leaning—if the hot-button issue that you are holding on to—blinds you and causes you to sin, to label and to not see people, then cut it off! Better for you to go to heaven being called a Catholic—a Catholic!—than being a socio-economic and political ideologue in hell! For what makes hell “hell” is that we are eternally in our own ideas and ultimately isolated from people. In heaven, however, we are a communion of saints, rejoicing in love, encountering love, seeing people and hearts and goodness…
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Let us rejoice in the great graces of this moment in our nation’s history and in our Catholic Church. Let us encounter the man, this pope, and his great love for us. And let us ask for the grace that we can be quick to put aside labels and quick, instead, to see the noble dignity of the person!
Father Anthony Gerber is a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, serving at St. Joseph’s in Cottleville.
He has been ordained since 2011.
He blogs at Uberrima Fides.