For five years, Pope Francis has been calling us to change our hearts and move beyond our comfort zones to bring Christ to a troubled world. Are we listening?
“Ma’am, you can’t be here.”
“Ma’am, you have to leave.”
These were words that bookended Mass for me on the first Saturday of the month of March. In the first case I was standing where I stood, exactly as I stood, not 24 hours before for an evening Mass.
I had been asked to leave on that first occasion because the Church was closing for the night and I had been longing to return. I understood the security guards were just doing their jobs.
But the following morning as I heard these commands, I had to acknowledge: As silly as it may seem, they hurt. I felt unwelcome in a place where I’ve long felt at home — this particular church I’ve probably spent, if we did a count, years of my life in.
And upon reflection, I couldn’t help but think, “Isn’t this what Pope Francis seems to be talking about all the time?”
I’ll be fine. But what if it had not been me, someone who knows all too well how difficult it must be to keep a church safe, someone who will come back again the next day anyway? And, honestly, this was far from the first time when I had a harsh encounter at a Catholic church or venue.
After a human moment nursing my wounds, I typically thanked God it happened to me and not someone who maybe desperately needed a word of welcome, a gesture of hospitality.
Over these past five years, Pope Francis has captured the attention of the world, embracing babies in St. Peter’s Square, going to confession on live television and reaching out to those who might otherwise be discarded or forgotten.
I know I’ve had more conversations than ever before about the Catholic Church where people seem to be open like never before.
Here’s what he said to young people in Korea in 2014:
“Today Christ is knocking at the door of your heart, of my heart. He calls you and me to rise, to be wide awake and alert, and to see the things in life that really matter. What is more, he is asking you and me to go out on the highways and byways of this world, knocking on the doors of other people’s hearts, inviting them to welcome him into their lives.”
This message is in so many ways the message of his pontificate. As St. Junípero Serra, the founder of the California missions — who Pope Francis canonized during Mass in Washington, D.C., in 2015 — preached in one of his few extant homilies, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!”
Let’s assume everyone is knocking at the door of the Sacred Heart, because Jesus is knocking at the doors of their hearts, offering his. What are we doing to keep the doors open and usher them in?
That Saturday in that church, I wanted to stay and pray the Stations of the Cross, which were happening right after Mass. But in the packed house, I had been in a spot that ideally would be kept clear, thus my instructions to leave.
Maybe it was just the exercise I needed — to be humbled. At first feeling cast out, ostracized, unworthy among those piously gathered, I prayed alone with God in a neighboring chapel with a deeper desire for solidarity and penance with those I have inadvertently — or with indifference or by sinful choice — made to feel unwelcome or unnecessary or unloved.
That next Monday, Pope Francis said in his morning homily, according to the Vatican website translation, “Faith and religion are not a ‘show,’ but a way of converting our thoughts to the ways of Christ. …”
Pope Francis said that the Church urges us to convert our actions through fasting, almsgiving and penance. Our actions, he said, must be like Christ, in the spirit of the Beatitudes. The Pope said the Church especially speaks to us about converting our sentiments and feelings — converting ourselves to compassion like the Good Samaritan.
It’s not just what we think, but also how we think, the style of thinking, whether we think like a Christian or like a pagan. I don’t know about you, but my Lent up to this point could have been more rigorous in generosity of loving sacrifice than it has been.
To be honest, I’ve been taking more than I’ve been giving. Did I walk into church that Saturday expecting my needs for quiet and nourishment by our God to go as I piously expected, or was I open to the will of God — the way he knew I needed to encounter him that day?
As I prayed alone in the Lourdes side chapel, I was drawn deeper into the words of the reflections.
At the First Station, as Jesus is condemned to die, I couldn’t help but see my minor humiliation as an invitation to share in — and seek out — those who suffer real humiliation and rejection.
And at the Second Station, Jesus takes up his cross … receiving “upon his fragile shoulders, the beams of heavy wood. He accepts this trial.” What a baby I can be about accepting the most minor of trials!
At the Third Station, Jesus falls under the weight of the heavy cross, and my guide reflected:
“In our day, so many sink down under the weight of depression, crushed by sadness, isolation, overcome by feelings of guilt. They are unemployed, or immigrants, or frail of health. Their friends abandon them, not knowing what to do or even how to approach them. We would like them to be strong and capable. Yet here they are, weak, men and women of sorrow, who fall, who weep. Who will raise them up?”
I can’t help but think of the recent school shooting in Florida, and so many other headlines and instances of pain, of people feeling so desperately alone, who do terrible things that devastate. More often than not, ending their own lives. What are we doing for them? What am I doing for them? These are questions we must ask ourselves. This is what Christ showed us.
At the Seventh Station, Jesus falls a second time and the reflection reads:
“His body is battered. Now it is up to me, to all of us, to be there with him, to help him rise again. As we touch his wounds, do we dare to believe that we can be healed?”
I reflected on Our Lady of Lourdes. Our Blessed Mother, in a depiction so closely associated with healing, had drawn me to her Son in this chapel, feeling sorrow for those I’d left feeling bruised and in need of healing.
There had been a man just the day before, who I could not get out of my memory. He was bleeding. His hands were bitten up — by rodents, I assumed. He was hoping the cashier at the train station bagel place where I was buying a sandwich could spare a pair of disposable gloves.
He began the conversation offering $2 for them — making clear he did not come as a threat or looking for a handout. He just wanted some easing of his humiliating pain.
I imagined Mother Teresa kissing his hands. I imagined those bites as the wounds of Jesus. But what did I do? I went about my business. But isn’t my business the love of Christ?
I wept at my distracted life, my worldly ways.
This is what Pope Francis is talking about. He urges us to go to the peripheries and reach out to those who don’t feel welcome by the Church.
I think of all the times I run out of a city church on a busy block and overlook people, even minutes after Mass or confession. How can we think we are Christian when we live so differently than what the gospel teaches, than what Jesus shows us on the cross?
As I prayed the Stations of the Cross, I used a new booklet published by Magnificat. The meditations and prayers are written by Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, which runs homes for men and women with intellectual disabilities.
At the Eighth Station, when Jesus is comforting the women of Jerusalem, he writes, “Let us weep for our world.”
That, I can do. There seems to be so much despair these days. And we keep doing things that lead to more of it. This is Lent and our lives ought to be about doing everything we can to lift people up during our limited time here.
Just days before — with the green light of the Holy Father, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome issued “Placuit Deo,” a new document that addresses “Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation”:
“Holding fast to the gaze of the Lord Jesus, the Church turns toward all persons with a maternal love, to announce to them the plan of the Covenant of the Father, mediated by the Holy Spirit, ‘to sum up all things in Christ, the one head’.” (Ephesians 1:10)
There have been all kinds of debates about Pope Francis and there will continue to be. Our mission as Christians in the world today may be best served by considering this: Five years of Pope Francis have been about the Church as a mother loving God’s people, making sure they don’t feel orphaned. Aren’t so many of his homilies and gestures and controversial exercises at heart about seeing the gaze of Christ and extending the same to others?
The CDF document hit at the core of our existential crises of the day: how we’re not seeing ourselves as we are truly made to be, created by God himself in love by love for love. In “Placuit Deo,” the CDF explained:
“The total salvation of the person does not consist of the things that the human person can obtain by himself. … No created thing can totally satisfy us, because God has destined us for communion with Him; our hearts will be restless until they rest in Him. ‘The ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine.’ Revelation, in this manner, does not limit itself to announcing salvation as an answer to any particular contemporary desire. If redemption, on the contrary, were to be judged or measured according to the existential needs of human beings, how could we avoid the suspicion of having simply created a Redeemer God in the image of our own need?”
I couldn’t help but be brought back to St. Serra’s canonization again upon reading that. At the time, Pope Francis warned us not to “settle for placebos which always keep us comfortable.”
And as he posed these questions, he challenged us to a characteristically Jesuit-style examination of conscience:
“What can we do to keep our heart from growing numb, becoming anesthetized? How do we make the joy of the Gospel increase and take deeper root in our lives?”
Pope Francis has people paying attention to the Church, giving it a second look. It’s our mission in the world today to help make sure people see Christ in us.
Do they see love when they see us? When they walk through the doors of a church, do they feel welcome and invited to a life of conversion in Christ’s love?
The devil wants us to feel depleted and rejected, to give up or walk away. Pope Francis frequently talks about the Church as Mother and has, more recently, elevated Mary, Mother of the Church to a feast on the official Church calendar, because we may find ourselves too busy to have stopped to notice her.
As he wrote in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“Joy of the Gospel”) in 2013:
“She is the woman whose heart was pierced by a sword and who understands all our pain. As mother of all, she is a sign of hope for peoples suffering the birth pangs of justice … she walks at our side, she shares our struggles and she constantly surrounds us with God’s love.”
And so there I was in the Lourdes chapel, facing divine healing according to his plan, not mine, evermore aware of my offenses. Evermore wanting to let myself be loved by him so that I might love like him.
Whether it’s an apostolic journey or morning homily or document from a curial congregation, this is what Pope Francis is about: helping us encounter Jesus; pleading with us to be authentic Christians.
Will we accept the challenge? Will we continue on the journey with him? Will we welcome the wounded who need God’s sacramental healing? Or will we make them feel unworthy and tell them — with our words and looks and indifference — to stand outside?
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a regular contributor to Angelus.