Francis the … Christian
Recent words of Pope Francis have, again, generated rather interesting conversation.
Over three meetings in August between Francis and the director of La Civiltà Cattolica, friends of gay and lesbian persons (and non-friends too, I suppose) have identified several statements relevant to the treatment of such persons.
First, recalling a question surrounding his evaluation of homosexuality, Francis, in this recently released conversation, remembers responding with a question of his own: “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”
Second, Francis states that persons cannot insist only on issues related to, for example, marriages between persons of the same sex. On this matter and others, Francis claims to have said very little and to have been reprimanded as a result (presumably by those wishing the pope to attach his voice to their concerns). When one speaks, however, Francis says that one is to speak in context.
Here is one context: Francis, dear readers, is not the President of the National Organization for Marriage. He is a Christian. “Being a Christian”, his predecessor Benedict has written, is “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, this encounter lies at the heart of the New Evangelization; this “re-proposing of the encounter with the Risen Lord, his Gospel, and his Church to those who no longer find the Church’s message engaging”.
Some time ago, Karl Rahner stated that many Christian persons, in their practical lives, are almost “mere ‘monotheists’”. He or she is unconverted; has not yet encountered Christ in an intentional sort of way. Therefore a preacher, in an example provided by the USCCB, who “conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel”.
Francis, in his recently released conversation with the director of La Civiltà Cattolica (an English translation of which is provided in America), has not signaled a change in how the Church understands human sexuality. He is simply identifying his own priorities as a Christian person. As someone who has encountered Christ and as someone who has had his life given a new horizon and a decisive direction on account of that encounter, Francis seems to simply want others to share in that experience of love and friendship. This desire is not unique to Francis.
In the homily prior to his own election as pontiff, Joseph Ratzinger used the phrase “dictatorship of relativism”. I suspect Catholic readers have heard this phrase often used since. Ratzinger used that phrase once in his homily. He used the terms “friend” and “friendship” – each time in the context of the friendship which develops between Christ and women, men and children – eighteen times. I suspect readers did not know this. That is because context has been lost.
The man who would become known as Benedict had a deeper sensitivity, I think, than is often supposed. By crediting a sex worker, for example, who wears a condom so as to diminish the risk of speaking a virus to another, as perhaps having turned toward “a more human way of living sexuality”, Benedict really provided a remarkable example of the manifestation of a conversion begun.
Lemony Snicket, in Book VI of A Series of Unfortunate Events, begins his dedication to the mysterious Beatrice with these words: “When we met, my life began”. True to the unfortunate unfoldings in his life, Snicket then adds “soon afterward, yours ended”, but these words – “when we met, my life began” – are, simply put, beautiful. An encounter with Christ changes the way in which one looks at the world and the way in which one interacts within it. It is that encounter with Christ that Francis is attempting to facilitate (and, as I have attempted to briefly evidence, he is not the first). Everything else – some of which may indeed be of interest to the Church – is secondary. That which is of interest may be true and it may be helpful – it may also be neither – but it does not replace an encounter with Christ.
During his first homily as pope, Benedict preached: “There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful.”
Francis, I have been pleased to notice, has been able to communicate something of that beauty and wonder to many person who, I suspect, had stopped listening.
- James Nicholas