Picking up on what the pope said last month about rigid Catholics as well as the parable of the the Prodigal Son, I want to highlight a homily that the pope gave back in 2016.
In that homily the pope draws our attention to the older brother as an example of someone who is rigid, and in doing so he also articulates the cause of rigidity: “he had only ever seen his father as a master not as a father.” Just look at what the older son says to his father when he sees the feast prepared for his wayward brother: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders…”
“Serve” and “disobey” – these are words that better describe a servant’s relationship with their master rather than a son’s relationship with their father. And that’s the key. Rigidity is the result of a lie, the lie that God is not a Good Father. If we see God as a master then we become attached to the rules and procedures, enslaved to the law. But, as the pope says, “the Law was not made to enslave us but to set us free, to make us children” of God. Pope Francis goes on:
“Beneath rigidity there is something hidden about a person’s life. Rigidity is not a gift of God. Meekness is; kindness is; benevolence is; forgiveness is. But rigidity is not! Beneath rigidity there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life; but there is also some sort of disease lingering there. How the rigid suffer: when they are sincere and they acknowledge this they suffer! Because they are unable to feel the freedom that God’s children feel; they do not know what it is like to walk in the Law of the Lord and they are not blessed. And they suffer so much!”
See, behind rigidity is fear. The fear of, in our weakness, not living up to the rules and procedures. The fear of accidentally falling into mortal sin. The fear of others failing to live up to the law. The fear of a slave who tiptoes around his tyrant of a master.
And for those who live up this law, or who think they are living up to it, there’s the temptation to look down on others with judgement and contempt masked by piety and a twisted sense of fraternal correction. “If I can overcome this sin by trying hard then why can you? If I can pray a Rosary every day then why can’t you?” It creates this arrogance of believing that I made myself holy, that I overcame sin myself, that I know the truth. The pope says it’s the “arrogance of believing oneself to be right.”
As the pope regularly demonstrates, we need to condemn this rigidity the way that Jesus condemned the Pharisees. Just as the sickness is the result of a lie it also spreads that lie to others. Rigid Christians communicate an anti-Gospel, their lives and witness tell the story of a tyrant god waiting to judge us if we step out of line.
Pope Francis goes on to emphasize the need to pray for those who suffer from this false view of God, “for our brothers and sisters who believe that walking in the Law of the Lord means becoming rigid. May the Lord show them that He is the Father and He likes mercy, tenderness, kindness, meekness and humility.” And in my personal experience it was only when I experienced God as a loving Father that my fears and rigidity began to be healed.
I would encourage you to take the Parable of the Prodigal Son into prayer this week and ask the Holy Spirit to show you how much the Father loves you. Ask to feel His loving embrace. Ask to see Him running toward you overjoyed that you’ve come home. We don’t need to convince the Father to love us. We don’t need to earn His forgiveness. We don’t need to be good enough or worthy enough to experience His love. We just gotta ask.
[Image Credit: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by James Tissot]
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.