Has Jesus been “locked inside the Church and knocking because he wants to get out”?

The newsprint is yellowed now, despite being framed under glass. It’s the front page of an old edition of L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, from October 1992, that I bought in Rome the week it was published. The issue included the texts of homilies and addresses delivered by Pope John Paul II during a pastoral visit to the Dominican Republic earlier that month, during which the Holy Father marked the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the evangelization of the American continents.

I had that front page framed because I loved the top headline, in big, bold letters over the text of a homily the Pope delivered at Mass in Santo Domingo, which reads: “America, Open Your Doors to Christ!” Those words captured the homily’s content beautifully. (“America,” the Pope preached that day, “open the doors to Christ! Allow the seeds planted five centuries ago to bear fruit in all areas of your life: individuals and families, culture and work, economics and politics, the present and the future. On this solemn anniversary, I desire to address my message of peace and hope to all men and women of good will who on this blessed continent experience the joys and the sorrows of the present and aspire to a more just and fraternal future…. Jesus Christ is our life and our only guide. Only in Him do we find hope.”)

The headline also captured what I wanted — at age 23, nearly half the age I am now — any ministry I ever engaged in to be about. By framing it, I intended the headline to be a constant reminder, a constant call back to the center.

I thought of that framed newspaper page , and then took another look at it once again, after reading a brief but bracing post over at the dotCommonweal blog recently. Journalist David Gibson posted a “Quote of the Day,” apparently something that then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said to his fellow cardinals last March, just a few days before they elected him Pope. Here’s the line:

“I have the impression that Jesus was locked inside the Church and that he is knocking because he wants to get out.”

It’s a compelling sentence, and it surely offers some good insight into the general thrust and distinctive features of Bergoglio’s papal ministry. I thought immediately of the remarkable interviews with America and La Repubblica, then of a whole series of other aspects of the Francis pontificate.

But following closely on the heels of those thoughts, I thought of that old, framed L’Osservatore headline, which, if you remove it from the specific American context, truly could be said to sum up what John Paul II’s long and dramatic pontificate was all about. “Open wide the doors to Christ!” the brand new Pope called out to the world on the day of his election on October 16, 1978, and he never stopped calling us to that.

John Paul travelled the world, on trip after trip and after trip, long after his age and his health should have called for him to stop, in order to make Jesus known. He literally invented World Youth Day to bring Jesus to the young people of the world. During a pastoral visit to Haiti early in his pontificate, he coined the phrase “new evangelization” and called upon the entire church to make Jesus known more effectively through an evangelization that was new in ardor, in methods, and in expression. (By the way, when someone asks skeptically exactly what that phrase, “new evangelization,” is supposed to mean, what’s so new about it, that’s the answer.)  Anyone who takes a moment to peruse even the titles of John Paul’s many encyclicals and other teaching documents will noticed the constant repetition of the word Redeemer in the titles: Redemptor Hominis, Redemptoris Missio, Redemptoris Mater, Redemptoris Custos — almost as though whatever the topic was, John Paul was intent on bringing the conversation back to Christ as redeemer of the human race. JP2 did his own version of the America interview, too. It was a 1995 book called Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which he wrote as a set of responses to questions from a journalist. I can remember well the thrill of the publication of a book from the Pope that had no magisterial authority but which was intended simply as a new way for a pope to make known the Gospel to the world.

And it’s not as though Pope Benedict XVI’s focus was very different, though certainly his style was. Benedict continued the World Youth Days, and he surely didn’t have to. He brought the new evangelization further to the center of the global church’s agenda, founding the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and making the two words an ecclesial catchphrase as it never had been under JP2. For all of what appeared to be Benedict’s liturgical fussiness, traditionalism, and ostentation, it’s hard to deny that what he intended for it all to achieve was a richer personal encounter of each person with Jesus. Indeed, it is not difficult to argue — as Christopher Collins, SJ, has, impressively — that the entire body of scholarly, pastoral, and magisterial work of Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI amounts to a sustained argument/proclamation that “Christianity is not a set of ideas to believe or, even less, moral laws to follow. Rather, Christianity is about a person [Jesus] and our encounter with that person.”

All this being the case, if enthusiasm for all that is new and beautiful about the ministry of Pope Francis amounts to suggesting that finally a good pope has come along who is not concerned only with maintaining a set of crusty old rules and who knows that what we’re really supposed to be about is proclaiming Jesus and demonstrating what it means to have a living relationship with him — well then, that’s not something to which I’d be willing to give even a nod. And if that we’ve-finally-found-a-pope-who-knows-Jesus message is part of what the right hears the left saying these days, then maybe therein lies some of their anxiety over the left’s enthusiasm for Francis.

But is that all there is to this? The left wants, falsely, to present Francis as a real Christian pope in order to dismiss recent popes whom they don’t especially like? I think there is more to it than that.

Pope Francis is going about his ministry in some ways that are significantly different — in some cases, ways our friends on the left have been proposing, with much criticism from the right, for decades — and these differences obviously are appealing to many, many people. I don’t know that the approach is objectively better, but it seems true that it’s better suited to our times, in which values like authenticity, transparency, equality, tolerance, and service are widely (and rightly) held in high esteem. Are these differences effective, not just in getting people’s attention or earning respect for the Pope, but in helping to make Jesus better known and loved? Does it effectively draw people into deeper communion with God, actualizing in their lives the salvation Christ won for us through personal prayer, participation in the sacraments, and living the truth in love and solidarity with others?  Those are important questions, and their answers largely remain to be seen.

On a more intra-ecclesial level, Francis is also offering the important witness that there is more than one way to be authentically Catholic, that is, to live one’s relationship with Jesus and follow his teachings within the church. This idea too has been proposed by the left for years, and the right has denied it all along. So this is surely part of the left’s enthusiasm for Pope Francis, too. For over three decades now, either through the teaching and the leadership of JP2 and B16 or through the particular spin given to it by other leaders within the church (it is surely a combination of the two), we have been offered a rather (and sometimes very) narrow vision of Catholic faith and life that has been presented as the only authentic way of believing and living as a Catholic.

John Allen, Jr., put it well in a recent NCR column:

During the John Paul and Benedict years, one byproduct of the emphasis on Catholic identity under those popes was the emergence of a caste of self-appointed guardians of loyalty who ran around “outing” bishops, parishes, schools, hospitals and so on that they felt were insufficiently Catholic. Critics derisively dubbed them the “orthodoxy police,” concluding that in at least some cases, this was mean-spirited and reflected an untoward lust for judgment.

One example of this might be Mother Angelica’s very public criticism of Cardinal Roger Mahony and Bishop Donald Trautman for their “unorthodox” teaching on the Eucharist and liturgy in the 1990s. Her campaign generated thousands of letters to the Vatican, mostly by people who were unable to make the nuanced theological distinctions necessary to understand why Mother was dead wrong. She ended up having to (sort of) publicly apologize to Mahony (though never to Trautman, apparently because he was not high enough on the ecclesial ladder to merit it).

Okay, you say, but that’s a nun who happened to own a TV station, not the pope at the time. But it’s also true that Trautman sat tight as bishop of Erie, Pennsylvania, from his installation in 1990 (at the age of 54) until his retirement in 2012, while many of his episcopal peers received transfers to higher posts. That lack of advancement was almost certainly because of his advocacy of positions on liturgical topics that, though in no way unorthodox, did not match the para-orthodoxy established at the Vatican under the leadership of JP2. Good for Erie, but unfair to Trautman.

I could offer many other examples by mentioning the theology of the body, liberation theology, the participation of women in the church, politicians receiving Communion at Mass, religious freedom, and more.

In short, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI made valiant efforts to proclaim Christ to the world. In some ways they succeeded beautifully, and in some ways they did not. There are ways to understand that Bergoglio quote above (“I have the impression that Jesus was locked inside the Church and that he is knocking because he wants to get out.”) that would be quite wrong; in other ways, he was right.

It is no heresy for enthusiasts of JP2 and B16 (I count myself one) to acknowledge all of this. Just as even the most loving and wise parents are also limited and fallible and therefore will make mistakes, sometimes significant ones, in raising their kids, so even the most saintly and brilliant of popes will not get everything right. It is no disloyalty to rejoice at the new inroads being made by Pope Francis that previous popes were unable to make. It is no sin to suggest they may have, from time to time, put up roadblocks rather than opened doors.

One of many compelling scenes in the great movie Remember the Titans has high school athlete Gerry Bertier in a pivotal moment with his girlfriend Emma. Gerry has realized, through the experience of being on a football team with black students, the injustice of his previous attitudes on race. As Emma, who has shared his attitudes, invites him to join their (white) friends on a Friday night just as Gerry is about to drive off in a car with black teammates, the two stand at a crossroads. Gerry says to Emma, “Listen, when something unexpected comes, you just got to pick it up and run with it.” (To which Emma responds, before turning away, “I’m not running in the same direction as you are, Gerry.”)

I have thought of that scene from time to time in recent months. As one who is a “JP2 generation” Catholic and who has often found himself on “the right side” of issues both extra- and intra-ecclesial (to refer to my example above, I was sometimes unsympathetic to Bishop Trautman’s liturgical opinions, despite my high regard for him and his leadership), I have felt in recent months a bit like Gerry Bertier, wishing to invite my fellow Catholics (especially those on the right): There was much that was wonderful about John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and now something else – something unexpected, a bit different, and quite good – has come; let us together pick it up and run with it.

One thing is clear — the ride promises to be adventurous.

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