He is the most exhausting pope of my lifetime.
Deacon Greg sent this cute video to me today, and while I appreciate its cleverness and the work that went into it, I couldn’t help but think, “I’m getting burned out on Francis.”
I’m getting burned out, not because I dislike him. I like Francis just fine, although Pope Benedict XVI will always be the pontiff of my heart, because his writings have penetrated it and poured the merciful balm of Christ Jesus into it as little else ever has. As some credit Francis with making them feel lovable, and deserving of mercy, I humbly credit Benedict with gifting me in a similar way.
Still, my problem is not with Francis — or not wholly with Francis; I do wish he would speak less brusquely, sometimes, and I truly wish he spoke English, so we are not always at the mercy of translations, and sometimes multiple translations. Once headlines take off, the clarifications that come four days later do little to change the established narrative. Some count on that, I think, but it’s not helpful for souls, particularly not when the headlines seem designed to build new flames of Francis-hating Outrage from the previous day’s nearly spent embers.
It’s those fires I find wearying; they are the devil’s own means of keeping us from work that becomes more urgent, every day.
The Daily Outrage is really anxiety, though. Catholics worry, they fret about Francis and the way he speaks, and the outreach he gives. Their anxiety, I believe, stems not out of hate for the “other”, but out of love (and fear) for the sake of the church. They’ve seen how a surrender to the prevailing culture has caused an implosion of most mainline Protestant churches, and they fear the same happening to the Catholic church. Even though nothing this pope has said or done suggests that he is about to change one dot of doctrine, they imagine the worst, and fret that a “watering down” of our teachings would render them meaningless.
I get it, I really do. But I’m not sure that leading with mercy is watering down anything in the gospel, or our teachings. It is simply the way of the missionary: first affirm human dignity; first see the person before you as a created creature, beloved of God. Tend the wounds. Then invite them to reconciliation.
Were I to go out walking in a storm, arriving at your doorstep a saturated and shivering mess, the first thing you would do is pull me in out of the rain, get some towels and blankets; you’d see to my needs and likely give me some hot tea or soup. Then, when I was warm and dry and fed, you’d be able to say to me — with some justice — “that walk in the middle of a storm wasn’t a great decision, was it?”
And I might be recalcitrant. I might sneeze and cough and then jut up my jaw and say, “I like the rain.”
Then you might say, “I like the rain, too, too a point, but nearly drowning in it has not been good for you.”
To which I might admit, “well, no…” And if I were feeling clever, I might add, “but it did bring me here, where it’s warm, and the soup is good.”
And from there, evangelization could move forward, yes? A new understanding about how to better live amid the continual storms could be imparted to me. I might stop being defensive and come to accept the healing I need, and then — observing that it is better to live away from whirling winds, fed and sheltered within the Church — I would seek reconciliation. I would learn what the church teaches and work to conform my life to it as best I could, with all of my wounds and scars, because I would come to understand that the Church is the bulwark against the storms raging all around, and saturating so many souls, so completely.
And with that understanding, I would cling to Christ Present within her, grateful to be saved from it all. Amazing grace.
This is the way we must be a missional church to people. The storms of social revolution have been blowing for decades; a lot of people have chosen to be out, walking about it in them. A lot of souls are utterly saturated with the prevailing culture, and they’re getting sick; they’re dying. Some of them are on the steps of the church, reaching out for a rescue that must begin with getting warm and dry, and fed something spiritually nutritious — but in small bites, at first, so it might remain within me, and not be lost.
The first step toward saving souls has to be the merciful one. It has to be the one that says, “it is good that you exist” and “you are worth saving.”
This is the very small, simple action that Pope Benedict XVI insisted must happen, if a human person is to begin to believe that redemption is possible within the Reality of Christ, and that it is here, available even to him: he must hear the words, “it is good that you exist”, from our mouths, or comprehend them from our deeds.
We who love Christ, and who believe that he wants us to bring him souls, so he can heal and save them — and he is the one who does that, not us — cannot be anxious about the future of the church, simply because she undertakes rescues by saying “it is good that you exist” before she says “and go to confession”. Such anxiety flies in the face of all we believe about the gates of Hell not prevailing through the millennials-old supernatural battle going on around us.
Yes, the supernatural war continues — our lives and our times are the ongoing battlefield — and yes, now is the time for us, as a church, to bring the wounded inside; to tell them that their wounds have not rendered them unlovable, or undeserving of mercy, and then to offer direction for healing, and the spiritual medicines of the Sacraments and saintly instruction, which hopefully they will not reject.
We Americans have become a very anxious people; we helicopter-parent our children; we scream our ideologies out, everyday, as though doing so might keep the republic alive when it — like every other nation before it — will surely someday die. We wring our hands because Pope Francis heard a lamb desperately crying out for help and mounted a rescue using the very map drawn by his predecessor.
The rescues have been going on for a long time, and they will continue past our lifetimes. War veterans will tell you, they are seldom perfect or pretty, but they don’t have to be. The priority is to pull people out of danger and get the wounded seen to. Debriefing happens after the bleeding has been stopped, and the stitches have been sewn, not before.
Do not be anxious that someone, once rescued and treated, might not get debriefed. Everyone is, eventually, and by higher authorities than you and me.
Do not be anxious, because your anxiety feeds fear, and fear feeds the conceit that we, puny as we are, know more than God knows about human nature and the world.
Do not be anxious, because we live and serve in the midst of things visible and invisible, and at any given time, we are only getting glimpses of the whole.
Do not be anxious about anything. It betrays a lack of trust; it tells God that we think we can handle everything, and get it just right, by ourselves, thank you very much.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
Do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. Matt 6:34
You know how I describe anxiety in my book, Strange Gods? As an idol, lying coiled, like a snake in the mist, hissing of threats to everything familiar, sure and safe, and playing to our naturally protective instincts.
We are to prefer absolutely nothing to God, not even our anxiety. We are to place no strange gods before Him; to have no strange gods stand between us and I AM — not even the strange godling formed by our own love and concern for His bride, the Church. She is the Bridegroom’s to preserve and protect, even in the midst of angelic wars.
We are only the medicos. Our job is full of risks as we help others find the safety of her keeping. We can’t scare anyone off by showing our own fear. We can’t leave anyone behind, simply because the rescue seems like a rough one. It’s a cost of war.
And the exhausting generals, whether you love or hate them in turn, are not the enemies. We forget that at our own peril.