As someone raised in an Evangelical home on the edge of the Bible Belt, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that I was wary of the devotion that Catholics have for the Blessed Virgin Mary. The usual misconception of believing they worship her weighed on my mind in those times when I would visit Catholic websites, pass by a church, or see something about Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI on the news. These poor Catholics with their slavery to the Pope and weird love for Mary. Thank God I follow the Bible instead!
Oddly enough, on a middle school field trip to a local parish just a few blocks away, I can distinctly remember seeing a statue of Mary, walking up to her and kneeling to pray. It was a beautiful experience and gave me a sense of peace. Afterwards, I remember one of my classmates wondering aloud why I had done this, only to be chided by our teacher that it was none of his business.
Truth be told, however, he had raised a valid point: I was a Protestant and had previously poked fun at Catholics and believed they were second-class Christians at best…so why was I drawn to the woman with outstretched arms? Indeed, what right did I have to her tender maternal love and protection? I knew I had experienced something powerful that I couldn’t describe, despite knowing absolutely nothing about what the Catholic Church actually taught about the mother of Jesus.
I now believe that my going forward to pray in front of her at that moment had been a response to the simple, gentle invitation of love that Mary was extending to me, as a mother does for her child when she desires to embrace them. It was also an invitation to dialogue in a way I could not have foreseen at the time. Years later, however, after having become convinced of the truth of Catholicism, which led me to study theology, Mariology and (most importantly) grow in my Catholic faith and desire to know Jesus, that invitation makes more sense.
I believe it is this same “invitation” that Pope Francis is extending to us to embrace our fellow man. As Catholics living in a complex and difficult world that increasingly doesn’t know Jesus, this can be no easy task! But we know that Christ calls us to love one another because He has loved us (1 John 4:19). It means that every person we encounter—our family members, co-workers, the people we meet at the grocery store, bank, or anywhere else…even the person who cuts us off in traffic or hurts us in a much deeper way—these are all human beings made in the image and likeness of Almighty God.
In my former days as a skeptic of Francis and his message, it was all too easy to think of “dialogue” as he espoused it to mean that he believed we should be willing to water down the Catholic faith, with all its beauty and glory, in order to get along with people from other religions. Taken to its logical conclusion, this of course would be antithetical to the Gospel.
The truth, however, is that the Holy Father is not asking us to apologize for our faith. Indeed, in his August 2014 address to the Bishops of Asia, Francis states that:
“…in undertaking the path of dialogue with individuals and cultures, what should be our point of departure and our fundamental point of reference, which guides us to our destination? Surely it is our own identity, our identity as Christians. We cannot engage in real dialogue unless we are conscious of our own identity. We can’t dialogue, we can’t start dialoguing from nothing, from zero, from a foggy sense of who we are. Nor can there be authentic dialogue unless we are capable of opening our minds and hearts, in empathy and sincere receptivity, to those with whom we speak. In other words, an attentiveness in which the Holy Spirit is our guide.”
Here, the Holy Father reminds us that because we are Christians, we can engage in real dialogue with the world. While this may look different depending on with whom we are conversing, one possible avenue is by exploring deep, fundamental questions like: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Since the beginning of human history, countless cultures have wrestled with these questions and have come to varying conclusions. Sadly, in western culture today, the answer is often that life has no objective purpose beyond perhaps the pursuit of accomplishments, prosperity, and pleasure—with the end goal of securing our own “happiness.” A key symptom of all this is the “throwaway culture” that the pope routinely denounces.
When we embrace others with the love of Christ and invite them to dialogue on important questions, we open up for them the opportunity to walk on a path that is guided by the Holy Spirit. We are not there to condemn them, for we are ourselves poor sinners in desperate need of God’s mercy and are eternally grateful for having been given the Faith.
I truly believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was showing me this spirit of humility and childlike dependence on God that day when I was in middle school, even though I had no comprehension of it at the time. This fruit of that spirit she showed me was a desire for fraternity and dialogue. This is also the very challenge that Pope Francis—like his predecessors—has issued to us.
For the sake of brutal honesty, however, I must admit that all this talk of “dialogue” and “fraternity” is easier said than done. I certainly don’t always want to “dialogue” with others, especially when I find them condescending, rude, and unlikely to listen to anything I will say. Looking at the 5-alarm dumpster fires that almost inevitably flare up on social media and the internet whenever differences of opinion arise, there is a temptation to shut down and not bother to try sharing my convictions with anyone.
Here I find wisdom from the saints; those holy and heroic men and women who ran the race before us and now intercede for us in Heaven. St. Paul and many of the other apostles traveled great distances to preach the Gospel, even though they knew it would likely result in their deaths. The same could be said for St. Francis Xavier and many other great missionaries. Even more, saints like Thérèse of Lisieux and Faustina—while not traveling far or dialoguing outwardly with those of another religion or culture—nevertheless engaged the world through their zealous love for leading souls to know Christ, with all the accompanying prayer and sacrifices.
The saints didn’t close up shop and choose a comfortable life when opposition was strong or people were “mean” to them. Rather, nourished by prayer, the sacraments, and a zeal for souls, they found the grace to carry out their mission despite the obstacles.
So too must we, and as Pope Francis says, our dialogue “must be serious, without fear, sincere.” Let’s answer the call!
Image: Adobe Stock.
Christopher Wilson is a husband and father living in small town Pennsylvania. Raised in a non-denominational home, he entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at the 2013 Easter Vigil. He went on to receive his MA in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and has worked in parish ministry as well as outreach to the homeless and marginalized. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, watching movies, hiking, cooking, and spending time with his family.