On Sunday, August 29th, Pope Francis provided a brief exegesis of the day’s Gospel passage from Mark, in which Jesus berated the hypocrites who “honor God with their lips” but whose hearts are far from him. For those who have read Francis’s writings and listened to him speak, one could immediately see the connection between the Gospel and some of the key themes of Francis’s pontificate—namely, his condemnation of rigidity. As he wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate,
It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord. (173)
In his Angelus reflection, Pope Francis delved more deeply into this key teaching. As he explained, rigidity is like “putting makeup on the soul.” It is part of an outward religious formality that can hide or cover up the sickness or wickedness beneath the surface. Importantly for Francis, it is not true that religiosity, traditions, or formalities have no value. Rather, the problem is that they can be the occasion to abandon the encounter with Christ that lies at the heart of faith. The commandments and our religious traditions are important and valid, but they must lead to Christ. If they do not, then they have become stumbling blocks on our spiritual journey. As Francis said in a recent Wednesday audience, “May the Lord help us to journey along the path of the commandments but looking toward the love of Christ, with the encounter with Christ, knowing that the encounter with Jesus is more important than all of the commandments.”
This also echoes one of his key evangelical principles: time is greater than space. Pope Francis explained in Evangelii Gaudium that there is a constant temptation to try and hold everything together, to control outcomes, and become obsessed with results (EG 222-225). We often try to manage other people to fit our preconceived notions of how the world should be, and religious formalities are one pathway of control. We insist on behaviors in a way that denies other people the opportunity to encounter Christ amid their daily realities.
Francis continued in his Angelus reflections expressing concern with the way that religious formalities and traditions can facilitate negative attitudes. We can learn to think that the problem is “out there” in the world and that the problem can be fixed if only people would act the way we want them to. Social media provides a prime example of these attitudes. How can we look at the state of the conversation today—the culture wars, Eucharistic coherence, “wokeism”, the liturgy debate, and so on—and not see the punctilious concern with how other people are living their life that is so contrary to the Gospel? Rather than helping to lead people closer to Christ, we have become obsessed with results, placing our own preferences and aesthetics above what truly matters. Francis tersely summarizes his thoughts: “Spending time blaming others is wasting time.”
So what is the solution to this mess? Francis is equally terse: “Blame yourself.” As he said, “There is an infallible way to defeat evil: by starting to conquer it within yourself.” This challenge to the Christian faithful looms large over the Church in the West. We all have our enemies and bogeymen but the path forward lies in Christ conforming our heart ever more to his own, not in bringing down, canceling, ridiculing, those with whom we disagree.
Because of the way we have settled into lobbing invectives against one another, it may appear that there is a battle over two distinct visions of Christianity, one in which attitudes of “welcome” and “accommodation” are prioritized and another in which the traditions and rules are prioritized. This is the popular perception and the one frequented by secular media and even by Christian commentators. In reality, the true choice is between a path that prioritizes our own preferences and ideas and one that prioritizes encounter with Christ.
If Christ is truly at the center of our evangelization efforts, then the true distinguishing factor of Christian holiness is the degree to which we take responsibility and ownership for the Church’s failings to spread the faith. The more we take responsibility for our sins, the more that the grace of God can rule in the world through our humble lives. No letter to the editor, blog post, synod, or fancy catechetical program is sufficient in itself to heal the Church. What is necessary is the encounter with Christ in the depths of our suffering. There we can begin to see the first fruits of a renewed Church, for the power of God is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Cor 12:9).