I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
Six years in and I can say that Pope Francis has been successful in taking my faith to the next level. Readers here might just think of me as a Francis apologist, but truth be told, this is just a side gig. My primary responsibility (as is yours) is to be a saint, and I feel that Francis has both deepened my understanding of the Catholic faith and spurred me on to greater holiness. For this, I am eternally grateful.
Looking back over the last six years, what can we say about Francis’ papacy? First and perhaps most importantly, Francis has been, without a doubt, responsible for a lot of divisions in the Church today. I am referring, of course, to the way in which our Church is currently divided over pressing questions like “did Pope Benedict really resign?”
In seriousness, Pope Francis has caused many hidden divisions to become apparent. Many of these debates that we are having now are in no way new; they were just covered over by the veneer of apparent conservatism emanating from the Holy See over the last couple papacies. (Astute observers would note how this characterization of “conservatism” pushed by mass media was not exactly accurate and in some respects was flat wrong.) However, once Francis stressed the richness of specific traditions of our Church’s teachings–specifically on social justice, the environment, and in personal holiness–it became very clear that many American Catholics have been struggling for some time to reconcile the fullness of their faith with their Americanism. Consequently, Catholics have become increasingly divided, largely on political grounds.
I feel like I have the right to say this, not as one who is judging but as one who himself walked through the difficult process of disentangling my faith from my political preferences. Almost exactly ten years ago, in between graduation and my brief stint at law school, I was cheering on Rick Santelli as he inadvertently gave birth to the Tea Party movement. I faithfully watched Glenn Beck try to give a more “virtuous” accounting of American conservatism. Despite this, I still emphasized the importance of my Catholic religion. For example, I tried to explain away some of Pope Benedict’s comments about international organizations needing “real teeth.” This smacked of globalism, which was an affront to my desire to see a strong, independent America. But the truth was that I really did not feel great about ignoring what the Pope had to say.
Then, critics were suggesting that Pope Francis wanted us to stop worrying about all this religion stuff and tackle climate change. If Laudato Si’ didn’t do it, nothing made the case better than when the Vatican played a light show of animals across the facade of St. Peters. As much as I had wanted to agree with them, it was starting to get predictable and tiresome.
As a Catholic and a graduate with a theology degree, I thought I should actually read the darn thing–Laudato Si’, that is–and see what Francis really had to say. And so I did. While there were some passages addressed specifically to the problems of climate change, I was actually very impressed by the many other passages of Laudato Si’. In many ways, they echoed the points made by Pope Benedict who spoke of a profound relationship between God’s creation and ourselves. It was becoming clearer and clearer that, perhaps, those Catholics that dismissed Laudato Si’ and other teachings of the Pope out of hand had no real good reason to do so.
This, essentially, is the reason why I wanted to support the work of Where Peter Is. Catholic commentators in the United States have seemingly bent over backwards to try and undermine the Pope at every turn. According to them, it would seem like every statement and every document needs to be read with a gold and red pen in hand, because you never know when the Pope might say something with which you disagree.
Perhaps it’s just a personality trait or maybe it’s a fatal flaw, but I have a fundamental conviction that you cannot grow as a person if you do not allow other people to tell you you’re wrong. No one has more authority to do so than the Pope, who told me time and again, “You’re wrong.”
I have learned from Francis that the only good path is the path that leads to Jesus Christ. Every choice we make must be seen then as an outpouring of the love which Christ first showed to us when he offered us his mercy. This is my takeaway from Gaudete et Exsultate, on which I wrote my first piece for WPI. Gaudete et Exsultate is a remarkably down-to-earth document that, in simple terms, teaches Catholics how to pray and be holy. What a blessing it was!
Over the last six years, Pope Francis has been responsible for deep divisions in my soul. He has been helping me to identify what is evil, separate it from the good, and excise it from my life. I have learned from Francis and put his suggestions into practice. Ultimately, I hope my words and actions are good fruit that reflect the work Christ has wrought in me through his teachings.
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