It’s the proverbial elephant in the room that pervades nearly every community – often seen in those small, insular locations across the globe where “everybody knows everybody” – the concept of “other.”

We can say it’s only human nature to associate with those with whom we have the most in common and to be wary of those who are different, to expect uniformity in an attempt at cohesion in families, churches, schools, and workplaces. After all, isn’t it sameness that keeps people together?

This may be human nature, to exclude those who are different from us; but it’s decidedly not Christian in nature or calling.

Pope Francis has been heavily criticized for his efforts at inclusion, but it is precisely this need for inclusion and acceptance that has gone unmet for so long, serving to increase division in our Church. Somewhere along the way, evangelization became synonymous with enforced conformity rather than fostering a sense of brotherhood in Christ. This excluding and closed mindset only further alienates the hurting and broken among us, rather than creating a common ground that fosters a starting point for conversion.

“Us,” not “Them”

In his December 2020 message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, that all Catholics with disabilities have a right to receive the sacraments and that Catholic parishes should make tangible efforts to welcome and train people with disabilities to serve as Catechists. Pope Francis said the aim of the Church should be “to speak no longer about ‘them,’ but rather about ‘us.’”

This shift in thinking to “us” from “others” is difficult to achieve, but so very necessary if we are to become a truly Christian society. An intriguing phenomenon is the tendency of those who usually fall into the “us” category to be the most vocal opponents of inclusion.

Vivan Gussin Paley’s 1993 book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, aimed at instituting a new rule into the elementary school classroom: that no child was ever to be left out of school games or activities. In it, her descriptions of student discussion groups were fascinating, as were the remarks offered both by those being rejected and those doing the rejecting. One child objected to the new rule by saying, “It will be fairer, but how are we going to have any fun?”

How does the concept of rejecting others happen so early in life, and why it is so pervasive across all cultures? As Christians, we are called to welcome, to include, to “see” everyone, and to stop the concept of “other” right in its tracks.

Anything that is uncomfortable for people to discuss—disabilities, difficult family situations, cultural or faith backgrounds, chronic illnesses—can be used as a reason to exclude. There is nothing more psychologically or spiritually damaging to a child than insular, cliquish communities where newcomers are routinely kept on the social periphery – squeezed out, excluded, and denied a true sense of belonging.

In that December 2020 address, Pope Francis lamented the threat of “throwaway culture” and emphasized the need to promote the “rock of inclusion”:

“Inclusion should be the ‘rock’ on which to build programs and initiatives of civil institutions meant to ensure that no one, especially those in greatest difficulty, is left behind … As for ecclesial institutions, I reiterate the need to make available suitable and accessible means for handing on the faith.”

This will look different for every school, parish, and faith community, but it begins with an acknowledgement that each and every person Christ brings to us is valued and wanted.

Change is impossible without intentionality, and it can be the most difficult goal to reach when entrenched attitudes of “this is the way things have always been” are so pervasive and deep-rooted that it’s difficult to even know where to begin.

Communion, not Conformity

On September 16, 2022, Pope Francis met with members of the General Chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (also known as Trappists). The Holy Father recalled the four “dreams” shared by all Trappists for the evangelization of the world: the “dream of communion, dream of participation, dream of mission, and dream of formation.”

Over the course of this address, Pope Francis explained that the concept of communion does not consist in “our uniformity, homogeneity, compatibility, more or less spontaneous or forced; no, it consists in our common relationship to Christ, and in Him to the Father in the Spirit. Jesus was not afraid of the diversity that existed among the Twelve, and therefore neither should we fear diversity, because the Holy Spirit loves to stir up differences and make harmony out of them. Instead, our particularisms, our exclusivisms, those yes, we must fear them, because they cause divisions (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 131). Therefore, Jesus’ dream of communion frees us from uniformity and divisions, which are both ugly things.”

What a very important, yet subtle, distinction! We say we celebrate diversity in our American landscape, but the lack of charity that is displayed daily in our communities would suggest otherwise.

Somewhere in the tumultuous modern-day political culture of the US, Catholicism became embattled in what can be best described as a merging of the “us vs. them” model of American politics into the very fabric of our Church. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” now not only apply to one’s political leanings, but also are used to describe just how Catholic a person is. As if it’s a competition.

Harbor sympathy for civilly remarried Catholics who want to be in full communion with the Church? You must be a liberal.

Believe in tradition and enjoy attending the local Latin Mass? You must be a conservative! How we love labels.

A dynamic, well-loved, and often-criticized priest in our diocese recently lamented during a daily Mass homily our tendency to engage in “either/or” thinking, and suggested that instead, we should embrace a type of “both/and” mode of thought.

That’s a good place to start.

Changes must begin within our own hearts, and it is then and only then that we can reach out to draw others in and share with them our beloved Catholic faith.

Those with true Christian hearts filled with charity and love accept, affirm, and embrace others who are different than they are, welcoming them to come to know Jesus as He really is: a brother to us all, free from prejudices and favoritism and filled with a love that is so great that it can conquer all petty jealousies and compulsions to exclude and reject.

So, evangelization must begin with inclusion, or it is simply nothing more than imposing our will upon another. Nothing could be further from the heart of Christ than that.

Image: Vatican Media

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Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky.  As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries.  She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.

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