EVERENT AND WELCOMING environments are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they demand each other and go hand in hand. This is a natural conclusion. However, it is often the case that “welcoming” translates as “informal” and “reverent” leads to keeping to oneself and keeping others at bay. Sometimes there is truth to these clichés. But it need not be this way. This is also not the way of Pope Francis.
Embedded within human nature is a longing to seek what is transcendent and divine. The human brain is built for contemplation. As such, we have a personal and communal need to worship and praise God. Community is an outgrowth of singing God’s praises at mass. Making music with others builds an intimate relationship. Praying with others creates this same intimacy – e.g., “A family that prays together stays together.” Imagine singing the mass? Singing our prayers—the mass strengthens the community that much more as it fortifies our souls.
That is all good in theory—(and in practice!)—and I believe it to the core. However, for many, a sense of belonging is something some people starve for. Their spirit is in a state of abject desperation. Too many feel the Church has abandoned them. Whether this is a rightful accusation or not, the feeling is no less real and must be addressed. God’s creation—human dignity must be afforded to all people. It is not for us to hold others prisoner from the love of Christ. There are many people in desperate need of spiritual healing. They are hurting. This is where the “welcoming” call of the Church steps in.
(Meanwhile, let’s not forget who the sinners are. Begin by looking at the writer of this blog. I am a huge sinner. Many on earth will gladly vouch for this. Secondly, look at yourself. Remove the plank in your own eye [my plank is the size of a California Redwood] before complaining about the speck in your brother’s or sister’s eye. Everyone has dirty laundry and everyone is eligible for God’s mercy.)
N DEEPEST TRUTH, the mass — the celebration of the Eucharist is welcoming to all. The mass is an act of love and true charity—an open embrace. The sacraments, should we avail ourselves of them, should change us not only spiritually but even physically, through the granted graces of God.
The trick is communicating God’s open embrace. Pope Francis has made this a priority from the moment he was elected. He did this though small gestures such as not standing on a podium to elevate him higher than the Cardinals. He does this by choosing more humble accommodations; he does this by reminding Cardinals, bishops and priests that they are servants, (as we all are); he does this by asking people to pray for him — as he did the first time he stood on the Benediction Loggia in St. Peter’s Square.
ECENTLY, SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE SEEN on WGBH Frontline’s “The Secrets of the Vatican.” I did not have the chance to see the program, but I did read the transcript. While it does not contain any new revelations, it was still a deeply disturbing and difficult read. It is nothing short of heartbreaking. But I was left with a profound sense that Pope Francis is the right leader for these terrible times.
Pope Francis understands that first and foremost, the Church is in crisis and nothing short of crisis. Pope Francis’ twofold gift is his ability to 1 • “triage” 2 • communicate healing words. i.e., 1 • Bring to the table what is most important FIRST. (Diagnose) 2 • Communicate welcoming and healing words. (Treatment) His words likening the Church to a “field hospital” need revisiting:
“I can clearly see that what the Church needs today is the ability to heal wounds and warm the hearts of faithful, it needs to be by their side. I see the Church as a field hospital after a battle. It’s pointless to ask a seriously injured patient whether his cholesterol or blood sugar levels are high! It’s his wounds that need to be healed. The rest we can talk about later. Now we must think about treating those wounds. And we need to start from the bottom.”
All true. But does this mean liturgy is not important? Simply window-dressing when the house is on fire? Let’s examine further context with Pope Benedict XVI:
Pope Benedict also clearly saw that the Church was in a grotesque crisis. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger knew better than anyone. He had to read though all credible accusations of sexual abuse by clergy throughout the world.
I previously brought attention to what John Allen described on both NPR and in the New York Times Opinion Page what he called the “Papal Conversion” of Cardinal Ratzinger that lead to proactive reforms as Pope. “…after 2001, when he actually had to sit down and read all the case files for every Catholic priest, everyone in the world who had credibly been accused of sexual abuse, he began to talk much more openly about what he described as filth in the Catholic Church and became much more aggressive about prosecuting abusers. And that has followed into…his papacy, where we see him as the first pope to embrace a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse, the first pope to meet with victims, the first pope to, in effect, break the Vatican’s wall of silence on this issue.”
ES, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE. Yes, liturgy is important. Seriously? Yes. We need the Eucharist, the Sacred Mysteries, healing balm of the sacred liturgy more than ever. We sing God’s praises in the mass—a sung prayer. As a result, we are sanctified and edified which bonds the community closer together and strengthens its good works. When the house is on fire, we need each other more than ever, as we are united in the love of Christ. (“Congregatvit nos in unum Christi amor.”) This is the welcome embrace we receive from God. This is the welcome embrace our parishes and churches must communicate.
We have been very blessed in our recent history. Pope Benedict’s charism was that of a writer, catechist, liturgist, and theologian. Pope Francis’ charism is that of a communicator and healer, and perhaps much more. Perhaps this is oversimplifying their contributions, but leadership from the top has great influence.
What we need—and what we have—is both: reverence and awe of God and God’s infinite mercy. We need—and have—both Christ the Healer and Christ the Teacher. We need – and have – both the Father of the Prodigal Son, and Christ the awesome Mystery.
Should our parishes be both welcoming and reverent? You decide.