For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
Step back for a minute and think about what we believe as Catholics. The God who made time itself his creature entered into human history. God so humiliated himself that “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance.” In order to reconcile us back to himself St. Paul says that God “made him to be sin who did not know sin.” Jesus was not only fully human but he freely chose to bear the consequences of our sin.
God smelled like his sheep.
Christ’s whole ministry was marked by scandal: working on the Sabbath, touching lepers, fraternizing with foreign women, and dining with sinners. Jesus scandalized people wherever he went and whenever he spoke, to the point of his death…and beyond. Every time we say the Apostle’s Creed we profess that Jesus descended so much into the depth of our God Forsakenness that he went to Hell. All for our sake.
Our God scandalizes us. His foolish mercy is so great that it’s a stumbling block for us.
As the Bride of Christ, the Church is tasked with having the same foolish mercy. That was Jesus’ mandate to the first pope, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Just as Christ broke down the gates of Hell and raised up sinners from death, so must the Church. This, I would dare to say, is what Pope Francis is all about. In his book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” our Holy Father says:
“We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it. Caring for outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock. It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without ever caving in to the temptation of feeling that we are just or perfect.”
This is what Pope Francis means when he talks about accompaniment. Descending into the darkness, into the sinful mess of someone’s life, having a normal human relationship with them, and showing them the foolish mercy of God. I think that we sanitize what this really looks like. We don’t like the mess. We don’t like the scandal.
The foolish mercy of Pope Francis is a stumbling block.
Shortly after his election, Francis was asked “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” And his response was, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” This is first step to accompaniment. We must truly see ourselves as sinners before we dare reach out to others. Our Holy Father says, “The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many ‘wounded’ we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy.”
See, at the heart of it, accompaniment and evangelization is simply one sinner showing another sinner the foolish mercy of God. Not the judgement of men, but the mercy of God. The only way we can possible restrain the impulse to judge is if we recognize that we are the greatest sinner in the room. The Holy Father says:
“So we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam is his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy spirit—the Grace of God—acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgement, prejudice, or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner who stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.”
“He needs to find acceptance, not judgement, prejudice, or condemnation.” That may mean taking a cue from the Holy Father and calling someone “gay” rather than “same-sex attracted” if that’s what they prefer. Or, also like the pope, calling a trans man by the name he gave himself rather than stubbornly calling him a “she” to prove a point.
The foolish mercy of Pope Francis scandalizes us.
There was a meme that came out a while ago depicting a man in ditch full of toxic waste calling up to pristine looking clerics, “If you’d just jump in, you would become so much more relevant to us.” This meme is obviously making the point that the Church mustn’t dare soil itself by entering into the world’s mess. But a Church that will not descend to the pits of Hell to save souls will not save souls.
If you’re not entering into the darkness then you’re not evangelizing. If you’re too afraid to get yourself dirty then you’re not accompanying anyone. If you don’t share the stench of the flock then you’re no pastor. If you’re not modeling the scandalous mercy of God then you are not his ambassador.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.