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John XXI and the True Gift of the Papacy

29 May

“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Who’s a Christian: Of Trump, the Pope, and the Benefit of the Doubt

13 Mar


“I don’t want to belong to any club
that would accept me as one of its members.”
Groucho Marx

We’ve already grown accustomed to it – almost come to expect it. Pope Francis travels overseas, and at some point in his informal chats with journalists, he drops a verbal bombshell that screams across headlines the next day. We grin, shake our heads, and wait for the inevitable spin.

The most recent example took place on the Holy Father’s flight back to Rome from Mexico. His visit there included a stop at the U.S. border and a call for greater hospitality toward immigrants, which gave rise to some pointed criticism from presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Holy Father, speaking to reporters on his plane, alluded to Trump’s policy proposal to build an impenetrable fence along the border and suggested that those who prefer building walls to building bridges are not Christian.

That’s the part that played in the press, and the Pope’s follow-up comment that he gives such people the “benefit of the doubt” was lost in the shuffle. Unsurprisingly, Trump shot back that it’s outrageous for any religious leader to judge the faith of an individual believer, and his supporters seemed to agree, for Trump’s campaign, far from beinPope Francis greets journalists aboard his flight to Havana Feb. 12. Traveling to Mexico for a six-day visit, the pope is stopping briefly in Cuba to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at the Havana airport. Also pictured is Alberto Gasparri, papal trip planner, who will retire after this trip having served 46 years in his role. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-PLANE-START Feb. 12, 2016.g damaged by Francis’s remark, took a bump in the polls. The negative fallout fell primarily on the Pope’s defenders who had to expend a bunch of effort squaring what the Holy Father seemed to say with what he apparently meant to say.

And what did he mean to say? From everything I’ve read, Pope Francis was merely attempting a commonsense observation that those who call themselves Christians don’t always act accordingly. In this case, the Holy Father also seemed to assert that a particular approach to solving highly complex issues of immigration and human rights, law and economics is required of those who claim to be Christian – at least Catholic Christians, anyway – and he implied that Trump was falling short.

That might be, but does that make Trump any less a Christian than you or me? The record is clear that the Republican front-runner grew up and was confirmed in the Presbyterian Church, and it’s a faith tradition he still identifies with. Consequently, Trump is unquestionably a baptized and professed member of the Body of Christ, and, by definition, my brother in the Lord – and yours.

Perhaps that makes you squirm – you’re not alone! Candidate Trump (not to mention Private Citizen Trump) has flouted commonly accepted Gospel values in word and deed so many times and in so many ways that it would be nigh impossible to catalog them all. Large sectors of the electorate find it unthinkable that this man might become President – as it’s unthinkable, for some of us, that any of the remaining candidates from either party might achieve that goal – but that’s beside the point.

Of greater interest to me is the Trump phenomenon as a case study in our understanding of Christianity itself – of who’s in and who’s out. Consider these words of Msgr. Romano Guardini: “The great revolution of faith is not a lump of reality fallen ready-made from heaven into our laps,” he wrote. “It is a constant act of my individual heart and strength.” That is, for Trump, for you, for me, Christianity is a religion of constant conversion that commences with our baptismal grafting into the vine of Christ, but which recurs daily, constantly, every moment even. There’s no resting on our laurels, no plateaus. Once we think we’ve finally “arrived” is precisely the moment we’ve essentially removed ourselves from the taproot of grace. Either we’re growing in Christ, or we’re dying – maybe even dead.

The worst-case scenario is when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are growing when we’re not – that we’re very much alive when we’re actually on the way out. Here, too, Guardini offers insight:

Woe to me if I say: “I am a Christian” – possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction. Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation.

Ours is an “already/not yet” religion – both fixed and fluid. When we formally embrace the faith through sacrament and interior assent, we can “already” legitimately call ourselves Christians. However, that’s only the beginning, and we’re compelled by the knowledge that we’re “not yet” saints to continually conform ourselves to Jesus.

Your parish’s candidates and catechumens are learning about this in their Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes. They’re very much looking forward to receiving Easter sacraments and making their profession of faith on Holy Saturday – at which point they’ll “already” be Catholics – but they’re also anticipating an ongoing formation and deepening of understanding that will follow. It’s called the “post-baptismal catechesis,” or mystagogy – a reference to the further unveiling of those “mysteries” of grace tdoubtingthomashat the new Christians (“neophytes”) will have received on Easter. “This is a time for the community and the neophytes together to grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery,” the RCIA reads, “and in making it part of their lives.”

Now, for those neophytes, mystagogy instruction will last until Pentecost or thereabouts, but will they be done then? No, of course not – no more than you and I are ever “done” with regards to our own Christian walks. In that sense, all of us are perpetually in the mystagogy period of faith.

And that includes Donald Trump – along with most of the slate of presidential candidates. If you’re like me, you’ve just about had it with all the vitriol and carping that goes on in the news and on the internet regarding this election. Next time you heave an exasperated sigh as you switch off whatever gizmo had been feeding you Trump’s latest outrage, say a prayer for the guy – it can’t hurt, right?

If Pope Francis can give him the benefit of the doubt, so can I. In any case, I certainly hope that same benefit applies to me.


22 Sep

The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me…. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy.
~ Evelyn Waugh

I won’t lie: I was a bit concerned when I saw the screaming headline on the Huffington Post implying that the Pope wants the Church to ease up on abortion, gay marriage, and birth control.

Converts like me always get concerned about apparent papal or magisterial shapeshifting. I think Evelyn Waugh was the same way. He joined the Church before Vatican II, and the changes that followed in the Council’s wake irked him, to say the least.

But he stuck it out. He stayed close to Peter and died in the lap of the Church. And I think that’s relevant to the whole Pope Francis interview controversy.

Unlike my kids—all crRNS-Pope-Francis-flight-home-Catholic-News-Serviceadle Catholics, and constantly immersed in the life of the Church, at home, at school, in the very air they breathe—I took on my Catholic identity freely as an adult, and I’m fiercely proud of it. It wasn’t a conversion of convenience, but rather of conviction, and I remain convinced—all of it, no exceptions.

That includes teachings that are socially awkward these days—things like the issues that were listed in the HP headline. I’m not embarrassed by what my Church teaches on sexuality, marriage, and abortion. Neither am I embarrassed by what my Church teaches about peacemaking, care for the poor, and environmental stewardship. It’s all of a piece; it’s all the same teaching, and it’s consistent and it makes sense and I firmly believe it’s all true.

So when the headlines scream at me that maybe—just maybe—the Pope intends to change course and steer the Church in a new direction on these kinds of things? It’s unsettling. Disturbing. “This can’t be,” we think. “Could it?”

Is that doubt? Naah. It’s just human. We grit our teeth, squint at the news, read more thoroughly, dismiss the cranks (left and/or right), and settle back down with Peter.St.-Peter-Rubens

In my office, above my desk and right by the door, I have a little sign that reads, UBI PETRUS IBI ECCLESIA. It’s the ancient Latin epigram, attributed to St. Ambrose, that roughly translates, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” Yes, indeed. Whether we like it or not.

The Pope’s brief, sensible comments about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception are an example of “we like it.” That Catholics shouldn’t focus on those issues exclusively is only shocking to those who have an axe to grind, both inside and outside the Church. “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the Pope said. It’s the kind of talk welcomed by the Catholic “middle,” as John Allen wrote.

But the “we like it” stuff is accompanied by other things that I might prefer to consign to the “or not” side of the ledger—like this one:

We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.

So, for instance, how do I accompany people like the three-year-old who was shot in a Chicago park last week during a gang shootout? Is the Church there in the midst of situations like that? Am I there? How can I bring the Gospel to similar situations in my own community?

How about all the incarcerated women who suffered eugenic-like sterilizations in California as late as 2010? Is the Church accompanying them? And what about incarcerated women and men in general: What can I do to lighten their burdens? Are they being treated justly—the ones right here in my own home town?

Then, there’s the story about the woman who pocketed a $20 bill dropped by a blind guy in a Minnesota Dairy Queen earlier this month. The DQ manager,  Joey Prusak, only 19 years old, confronted the woman, and refused to serve her when she insisted the money was hers. The lady stormed out; Joey restored the twenty bucks to the blind customer out of his own pocket. Somebody saw the whole thing unfold, wrote it up, and posted it. It went viral. Now Joey Prusak is getting calls from Warren Buffett, as well as lots of media attention.

Am I Joey? Or am I that conniving, avaricious lady. That’s the question article-dairy2-0919I need to be asking myself when I hear that story. Not whether Joey is pro-life or in favor of traditional marriage. I suspect he is, but it doesn’t matter. He was Jesus that day in that humble DQ, and he clearly didn’t cultivate the headlines or public praise. He would’ve done the same thing, risking his job and future, regardless of the attention.

That’s the Gospel. That’s what Pope Francis wants us to remember. It’s a rock we do well to stay close to.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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