Pope Francis calls upon the Church to evangelize with a moral compass instead of a moral hammer, and to do so in the language of angels, a love that speaks of mercy.
There are those among us who would break the compass with the hammer, but this Pope knows that what the world needs from us and our faith is a compass, not a hammer. This post started off as a reflection on the Church’s belief in angels as a follow up to last week’s “Pope Francis Consecrates Vatican City to St Michael the Archangel,” but Pope Francis himself has hijacked my topic. This is a strange way to begin a story of angels, but it’s the beginning that came to me.
A recent Sunday’s Gospel (Sept. 15) was from Saint Luke, Chapter 15 – a parable commonly known as “The Prodigal Son.” I think it should better be called, “The Challenge to the Son Who Never Left.” The father in the well-known story is, of course, terribly disappointed with the choices of his younger son who left his father’s side to go squander his life and his inheritance on “dissolute living.” Losing all, reduced to life as a servant of the swine, he finally comes to his senses. He decides to venture home to save himself by striking a deal with his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He will return a servant and not a son. He plans to negotiate a plea deal but they are seldom just. I know all about the lure of plea deals.
His father isn’t having it, however. Overjoyed at the sight of his broken son, he ignores the well-rehearsed plea deal and restores his son to his home and his patronage with great celebration. Pope Francis spoke of this prodigal parable during the September 15 Angelus in Saint Peter’s Square saying, “Here is the entire Gospel! Here!”
Meanwhile, the older son – the one who never left and was always faithful – is not so keen about his father’s embrace of his brother home from wandering “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden.” It’s an attitude his father feels obliged to challenge, and in the parable, the greater challenge is the one issued to this son. Note that this son is standing outside his father’s house as he issues his protest against mercy toward his brother. This is an important parable for the story of suffering and redemption, and it’s reflected throughout the story of God that encompasses our Sacred Scripture.
“A PIECE OF THE PUZZLE THAT DOESN’T FIT”
But first I must tell you how much I thought of my friend, Michael as I read the parable of The Prodigal Son and his Older Brother. I mentioned Michael recently in a post called “News on Sale.” At age 21, Michael is starting his third year in prison, and it seems a self-fulfilling prophesy for him. His father is in prison in some other state and they lost contact years ago. Prison is like the gift that keeps on giving. The sons of prisoners are 85 percent more likely than anyone else to one day go to prison, a reality I wrote of in a post about fathers and sons, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”
Michael has also not seen or heard from his mother in over a decade. He was virtually homeless when he graduated from high school – an amazing accomplishment – but most of the rest of his young life has been squandered in dissolute living. I’m not sure there was a point at which he actually chose that. There was just no one to stop him.
A year or so ago, Michael shattered a collarbone in several places, and it was never treated. The bone fragments have left him contorted, deformed, and in pain. He is on a waiting list for surgery to repair that mess, but there’s no line to stand in to repair a shattered life. Michael’s life is in ruins, and he has little hope for anything so out of his reach as redemption.
Meanwhile, some of my other friends are not so keen on me associating with someone like Michael. This seems especially so of some of my devoutly Catholic friends. They would prefer that I be more like the priest and Levite of another famous Gospel parable and simply step over Michael left beaten by life on the side of the road. The fact that Michael reaches out to me and not one of the many street gangs that proliferate in prison says something important about him – something to which my friends should listen.
With a little help from Pornchai, I managed to put a halt to the verbal harassment and disdain Michael endured in prison. Someone always has to be everyone else’s scapegoat in a place like this, and it’s usually the most spiritually wounded among us. Now Michael is left alone, and is grateful for that. When asked about God, he says he started life as a Catholic, but it didn’t last long. “I’m just a piece of that puzzle that doesn’t fit,” he said. I’m just not ready to hand Michael over to the darkness.
POPE FRANCIS AND THAT OLDER BROTHER
What is the point of saving only the already saved? Pope Francis has recently asked this and some other very hard questions. He seems determined that we are not to be a self-referential Church, a Church that sees membership not as food for the journey, but as the reward for arriving. The news media was all abuzz again recently over comments by Pope Francis about the face of Catholicism presented to a world on the sidelines of redemption.
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis spoke over 12,000 words reduced to less than 50 in the news media. What Pope Francis said comes down to this: The Catholic Church and the faith we present to the world must not be reduced to a litany of what we oppose – or are supposed to oppose. In the New Evangelization with which this Pope is tasked, the Church must stand as a moral compass and guide, and not a moral hammer. His task is to challenge his spiritual sons and daughters who are alienated from faith, but his more daunting challenge is to the rest of us.
FOX News commentator, Father Jonathan Morris called the Pope’s recent words “a new emphasis on mercy, kindness, justice, and truth,” and it’s an emphasis that does not change or redefine any moral truths for which the Church stands fast. This faith has behind it a magisterial, two-millennia-old compendium of salvific truths that must not be shrunk in our public voice simply to a list of what we are not, a judgment on the ills we perceive in the world that is not us. For Pope Francis, if that is the face of our Catholic faith that we present to a dying world then our faith may die with it.
It didn’t take long for a few Catholic bloggers to raise the alarm when Pope Francis suggested that we not limit our Catholic voice to our opposition to abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage. One Catholic blogger who probably should have taken that day off posted in response, “We Don’t Need a Conformist Church.” I think that Pope Francis – who no one would ever characterize as being a conformist Pope – sees that a line can be crossed in our counter-cultural positions that risks making Catholicism appear exclusive. This same tendency has shattered the mainstream Protestant denominations, fosters anti-Catholic sentiment, and leaves many spiritually wounded souls on the other side of a line drawn in the sand. For Pope Francis, it is the Mission of the Church to lead those souls home, not to leave them homeless and adrift.
Pope Francis has not diluted or set aside one sentence of the Church’s moral teaching. Most of the mainstream media – even much of the Catholic press – failed to report on his comments made just one day after his call to reflect a positive and merciful Church. On September 20, the Vatican Information Service blog published the following:
“Today the Pope met with members of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and Catholic Gynecologists. Francis spoke of the ‘throw-away culture that leads to the elimination of human beings, especially those who are physically and socially weakest. Our response to this mentality is a “yes” to life, decisive and without hesitation. The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are precious, but this one fundamental right is the condition for all others….’
“Reiterating that in recent times, human life in its entirety has become a priority for the Magisterium of the Church, the Pope… asked those present to ‘bear witness to and disseminate a culture of life…and not only as a matter of faith but as a matter of reason and science, there is no human life more sacred than another; there is no human life qualitatively more meaningful than another.’” (Pope Francis, September 20, 2013)
TO SPEAK WITH THE TONGUES OF MEN AND OF ANGELS
In “Pope Francis Consecrates Vatican City to St Michael the Archangel,” I mentioned some media taunts that this Pope sometimes seems “obsessed with Satan and the demonic.” It’s nonsense, of course. If you listen to him, he really emphasizes far more the human capacity for good, and how that good must respond to a suffering humanity by carrying for the world not only truth, but both truth and light. When I began to write that post about angelic witness, I was faced with a very surprising mathematical equation that lends authority to the Church Pope Francis wants to present to the world.
In the entire canon of Jewish and Christian Sacred Scripture – our Old and New Testament – there are 117 references to the words “devil” (35), “demon” (28), and the name of Satan (54). In the same canon of Scripture, there are exactly four times that many – 468 – references to the words “angel” or “angels” (326) the angelic orders such as archangel, cherubim, seraphim (114), and the named angels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (28). The math alone tells a simple story. The ratio of angels to demons in the Story of God upon which our faith is built is exactly four to one. These are not bad odds for a Pope called upon to rebuild the face of the Church in the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi.
In regard to those odds, Satan is referenced 54 times in the canon of Scripture while God vastly overshadows him by being named 4,773 times. There is no question of whose story is being told. It’s a story of a people called out of darkness, delivered from slavery to sin, and redeemed at a very great price.
In its telling, this Holy Father, like the angelic witnesses to the deeds of God before him, wants to proclaim a salvific truth at the heart of the Gospel, a truth that the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother needed to hear: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”