In the first months of his papacy Pope Francis has made clear in word and deed, that he is blazing a new direction for the papacy. His words in his recent Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ again call the church to take account of where it has been, where it is today, and where it is going. While Pope Francis’ prophetic words in this exhortation are no doubt intended for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, make no mistake his words hold weight for all the world’s 2.2 billion Christians.
While there are points on which I wish the Holy Father would go further, like the ordination of women, I certainly commend this document to the church for reading. While the document is lengthy it is stacked with a rich call to action. Among the many great insights in this document is this gem;
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).”[i]
At first reading the opening sentence of these thoughts jumped right out at me. I was really taken by the image of the church getting itself dirty doing the work of Jesus. Even more powerful is the notion that the church would be bruised, and hurting because of its work. This is not often the language that we associate with discipleship. The Holy Father paints and image here of a church that is active, responsive, deeply immersed in the lives of people; most especially those that are hurting. I was moved by these words because they sum up well who were are called to be and identify that we are not there yet. Each of the baptised are called to enter into the woundedness of others. All of us who have entered the waters of baptism have been asked to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. All of us who love out the priesthood of all believers understand that we are called to follow the way of Jesus. We must know that following the way of Jesus means entering into work which will disturb us from our comfort zones.
Pope Francis goes on to point out that we have been distracted by fear of going astray. We have been distracted by concern about being at the centre. The church has been “caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. Pope Francis presents his hope that the church be moved by “fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security.” He challenges us to name the fact that we as a people of God have a comfort zone.
I have long felt that one of the greatest enemies of the Church is respectability. Without a doubt Pope Francis is pointing out one of the ways in which we allow respectability to get in the way of doing the work of Jesus. It is not pleasant to consider being the bruised, the hurting, and the dirty followers of Jesus. Our structures give us a false sense of security and certainly reinforce our desire to sit in our comfortable pew.
In 1965 Pierre Berton called out mainline Protestantism for the same sort of problems. He writes about the stifling nature of clericalism, then success driven leaders in the church, and the loss of the grasp of the call of the One we follow. For the Church to become relevant and effective again Berton argued that we have to deal with the fact that it has become institutionalized and was becoming fossilized. Remember he wrote this in 1965 – if we were becoming irrelevant and fossilized then ….
Berton suggested in 1965 that there was hope for change. It would come through reformation.
“But there seem to be two ways in which a truly Christian reformation could come about. It could come about through some terrifying persecution of the Christian Church – a persecution that would rid the Church of those of little faith, of the status-seekers and respectability-hunters, of the deadwood who enjoy the club atmosphere, of the ecclesiastical hangers-on and the comfort-searchers. Once the Church becomes the most uncomfortable institution in the community, only those who really matter will stick with it. At this point, one would expect the Church to come back to those basic principles of love, faith, and hope that have made martyrs out of men.”[ii]
The call of Pope Francis to embrace being the bruised, hurting and dirty Church, along side Pierre Berton’s hope that the church would become the most uncomfortable institution in the community, serve to call us as a baptised people to convict ourselves of our love of institution and embrace the discipleship we were given in baptism. Instead of developing habits that keep us comfortable, our habits should be born of our baptismal call to love, to live in faith and hope, to seek and serve, to heal and embrace, to bind up, to feed; in short to follow the way of Jesus. Can we be less concerned about respectability and more concerned about love and justice, even if it calls us to get dirty and bruised?
We can be excited that Pope Francis has called the faithful in the Roman Church to change. We can all be moved by the power of his words. Those feeling will not feed the hungry and they will not change the church. To quote the 70s rock band Boston, we are in need of ‘More than a Feeling!” Ultimately we have to ask ourselves are we going to act? OR Will we read the words of Evangelii Gaudium fifty years from now with the same astonishment we have when reading The Comfortable Pew?
We can no longer sit in our comfortable pew. It is time to get up! As a people who live the covenant we must remember that “at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)”
[i] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, On The Proclamation Of The Gospel
In Today’s World http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html 49
[ii] Pierre Berton, The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965). 142-43