I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
— Psalm 139:14 (NABRE)
Everyone has experienced, at one time or another, the pain that is caused by exclusion, insults, and criticism. Additionally, at some point in our life, most of us have had to endure a toxic relationship with another person who had significantly more power than we did–whether it was a boss, a teacher, an authority figure, or even a parent. When such relationships go on for too long, they can negatively impact our mental and physical health, causing anxiety, depression, fatigue, changes in appetite, and even (in extreme cases) post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am certain that many of my readers can relate to the sense of helplessness that we experience when we cannot escape an ongoing toxic relationship and are unable to change it due to a lack of freedom or an imbalance of power. Imagine yourself as a child who is bullied by other kids at school, day after day. Maybe you’ve told your parents about it, perhaps you even begged them not to send you back. Yet day after day and year after year, you are forced to step through the school doors, bracing yourself for whatever harassment or mockery the bullies might throw at you that day. A “good” day, for you, is when you are (mostly) left alone. You probably feel quite relieved when your bullies pick another target; another “loser” on the margins of the school’s social life. Maybe you even join them, in a fruitless attempt to imitate the “in” crowd.
For vulnerable children and teens, rejection and ridicule by their peers can cause emotional and psychological scars that are difficult to heal. Even deeper is the damage caused by parents who are impossible to please, who dole out unsolicited advice and criticism whenever their child fails to meet their expectations. Studies have shown that having critical parents often leads to excessive self-criticism and “maladaptive perfectionism” from an early age. And these tendencies can remain with people for their entire lives.
According to a report by Scientific American, Stony Brook University psychologist Greg Hajcak Proudfit concluded in a 2015 study that “punitive parenting has such a powerful and persistent effect because it trains a child’s brain to overly emphasize mistakes.”
Many critical parents are well-intentioned; they truly want to help correct their children’s mistakes in order to help their children succeed. It is certainly true that a central role of parents is to instruct and teach their children, and to give them advice. A parent’s most important role, however, is what precedes that: to give their child love, security, nourishment, support, and encouragement. When parents do not provide their child with a sense of support and security in their identity — the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved, as they are — how much harder will it be for that child to accept that they are unconditionally loved by God?
When we grow up without having experienced true unconditional love, it is very difficult to even understand the concept. And if “unconditional love” is incomprehensible to us, it is also impossible for us to truly give or receive.
For some of us, the love modeled by our parents always had a “BUT” attached. “You’re a good boy, but you need to eat your vegetables.” “I love you, but you need to stop hanging around that boyfriend.” While it’s certainly a good thing to eat our vegetables, and it may very well be true that Spike has no ambition and poor hygiene, some parents — as well-intentioned as they might be — don’t ever demonstrate to their children that they cherish them and will always love them, with no strings attached.
The sad result of this type of upbringing is that we begin to believe the lie that we will “never be good enough.” We become our own worst critics. We judge our own worth against impossible standards. We see ourselves as the sum of our faults. We want to escape. Sometimes, we even want to give up on life.
For Catholics and other Christians, this type of self-criticism or self-loathing frequently manifests itself in a number of unfortunate ways. For example, rather than feeling blessed and chosen by a loving God, religious faith can become a chore, motivated more by fear of hell than a genuine desire to walk with Christ. We can become scrupulous, filled with shame, and focused on our sins and shortcomings. For many, the idea of religious faith is not “the Joy of the Gospel,” but a set of seemingly impossible doctrinal rules and moral teachings. No wonder so many walk away.
The Catholic Church — the Church founded by Jesus Christ — proposes something different. At least it should. Certainly, since its inception, many of the individual Catholics who make up the Church have failed to fully recognize the inherent dignity of all people. But we must never forget that the Church teaches us that every person who has ever existed was created by God in his own image, and is loved completely, eternally, and unconditionally. Our God is a loving and merciful Father, and in the Church we have (or should have) a loving and caring mother.
How many of us have difficulty truly believing in God as a Father who will always love us, accept us, encourage us, and forgive us? How many see God as someone who cares about us, feels compassionate towards us, and understands our struggles and pain? How many of us see the Church as a strict and overbearing headmaster, rather than a mother who nurtures and encourages us, and to whom we know we can always turn when we are sad, hurt, and afraid?
One of my favorite quotes from Pope Francis is something he said during an audience in the first months of his papacy:
“What does the Holy Spirit tell us? He says: God loves you. He tells us this. God loves you, God likes you.”
What jumped out at me wasn’t “God loves you.” We’ve all heard these words thousands of times, and I think many of us are numb to them, unfortunately. Additionally, I fear that many of us (when we really think about it) see God’s love as something that comes with strings attached. We often fail to see that God’s love is something that he freely and fully gives to us, whoever we are. When all we know is conditional love, or expressions of love with a “BUT” immediately following, the word “love” can lose its impact.
The sentence, “God likes you,” is something different and new. It reminds us that God not only loves you, but he wants to be with you, he wants to spend time with you, he wants to be in your presence, he is inviting you to his feast–as you are.
Pope Francis offers this same invitation on behalf of the Church. For many, his outreach to the peripheries of the Church and society has been refreshing. While I strongly believe his approach has roots in the papacies of his predecessors, his radical openness and willingness to reach out to so many has been a shocking change in tone. Not everyone has been thrilled by this, clearly. His positivity and welcome towards many people who live lifestyles and hold beliefs that contradict Catholic teaching is often criticized. Some claim he’s sacrificing truth whenever he embraces someone without tacking on a bit of doctrinal clarification and advice. His critics can’t decide if he’s being malicious or if he’s ignorant of the “negative impact” he’s having.
Pope Francis, however, knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows that many people in today’s secularized society have closed themselves off from the Church’s message because they see the faith as little more than a set of superstitious beliefs and antiquated rules. Those who feel distant from the Church (or have walked away completely) have often already received numerous moral lectures from the religiously pious.
When we encounter wounded people (and we are all wounded in some way), we must give them the hope of the Risen Christ. As Pope Francis said tonight in his Easter Vigil homily:
“Tonight we acquire a fundamental right that can never be taken away from us: the right to hope. It is a new and living hope that comes from God. It is not mere optimism; it is not a pat on the back or an empty word of encouragement. It is a gift from heaven, which we could not have earned on our own.”
Pope Francis’s vision of renewal in the Church begins with hope and love, not condemnation. He wants us to begin by sharing God’s love and the message of Jesus Christ — something that many people, even Catholics, have never really even begun to comprehend. What use is moral doctrine to somebody who doesn’t yet appreciate the reasons it exists? As Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (referencing Pope Benedict),
“Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’” (14).
This approach is especially needed when encountering and evangelizing those who have suffered and are suffering. The last thing the child of critical parents needs is criticism from another authority. Someone who suffers from such shame and low self-esteem must be shown what it means to be loved unconditionally. And to show this love to others is not to affirm a “mistaken view of the human person,” but to affirm their dignity as a person that is God-given and can never be taken away.
As Pope Francis also said tonight,
“Everyone is in need of reassurance, and if we, who have touched ‘the Word of life’ (1 Jn 1:1) do not give it, who will? How beautiful it is to be Christians who offer consolation, who bear the burdens of others and who offer encouragement: messengers of life in a time of death!”
Imagine if the Church was known everywhere around the world as a source of reassurance, consolation, and encouragement. In such a world, who would not desire to become a Christian?
In order for the Church to be seen by more people as a source of healing, it is necessary to alter some of our preconceptions and to step outside of our comfort zones. Yet this is what we must do. In his February 2 address on ministry to the LGBT community, delivered at Georgetown to leaders of Catholic colleges and universities, Father James Martin expressed why this approach is necessary if the Church is ever going to reach out successfully to those with different sexual orientations. He said,
“The primary question for Catholic higher education, therefore, is not primarily a legal one, an ecclestical one, a financial one or even an academic one. It is a spiritual one: how to best care for people who have probably doubted they are loved by God, feared their parents will reject them, questioned whether they could find a place in the world, and, if they are Catholic, have certainly doubted or despaired about their place in the church, and who, because of all these things, may have contemplated suicide or self-harm.”
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the LGBT community. It is our Christian call to care for those who have been traumatized by rejection, bullying, or abuse; those who have found themselves in less-than-ideal relationship or life situations; those with addictions; and those who — for any reason — might feel unloved or unlovable. Caring for others means loving them as God loves them, with tenderness and compassion.
As Pope Francis reminded us tonight, “He, who rolled away the stone that sealed the entrance of the tomb, can also remove the stones in our hearts. So, let us not give in to resignation; let us not place a stone before hope.” God loves us, and God likes us. He refuses to let any stones get in the way of how deeply he cares for us and how much he wants to console us and heal us. Nor should we.