Last week, the Holy Father came to America and everybody fell in love. It didn’t matter what he said or who ought to have been offended, everybody was talking and almost everyone was effusive. People adore Pope Francis. And the buzz when he left got us all wondering: is this our renaissance? Will we look back on this week as the week that sparked the rebirth of the American Catholic Church?
But the news cycle finished, the media drunk on papal elixir sobered up, and they remembered that we’re the Church they love to hate.
And then they heard about Kim Davis. And they pounced.
And suddenly the Pope of Mercy is a fiend again. Or a fool. Or whatever else your narrative requires. And we’re back to picking at whatever point we think gives us permission to ignore the Gospel. Or we’re harping on whatever doctrine proves our superiority. Why??
Because it’s easier.
— CCSE (@CCSEMaryland) September 23, 2015
When Pope Francis was here, we all saw so much more than just him. We looked at him and saw Jesus. When he grinned at those special needs kids, we felt how the Father loves us, even when we’re sure we don’t deserve it. When he blessed those convicts, we knew that God’s mercy was reaching out to us no matter what. When he served lunch to the homeless, we saw how our Savior longs to serve us, to lay down his life for us. When he spoke with such joy and passion, we felt the Holy Spirit stirring into flame the fire he lit in us at our baptism. We saw mercy and truth and hope and powerful love. We were drawn to that. All of us. And that’s a scary thing.
Because if we really come to know the Lord, our lives have to change. And nobody wants that. But you can’t argue against Jesus Christ. You can’t argue against the love in his eyes or the mercy he offers or the way he leads you to the Father.
You know what you can argue against? Infant baptism. The Immaculate Conception. The Church’s teachings on sexuality. The preferential option for the poor. Those things you can argue against. So when your Savior is staring you in the eyes, welcoming you home, begging you to be healed, you change the subject.
“You are deeply loved.”
“Yeah, well only bigots oppose same-sex marriage!!”
“You were made for more.”
“You can’t tell me I have too much money. That’s communism!”
“I died for love of you.”
“It’s awfully legalistic to demand that people go to Mass every Sunday, really. Pharisaical, I’d say.”
That’s what we’re seeing right now. Pope Francis spoke the love of Jesus to the hearts of the American people and we had to choose between conversion and diversion. Enter Kim Davis. And the same sex couple he met with. And the gay monsignor on the eve of the Synod. Oh, good. Now we can go back to flinging mud at each other and nobody has to worry about becoming holy. Isn’t that comfortable?
And it’s typical.
It’s not just typical of the way we deal with the Pope. It’s not just typical of the media.It’s typical of every one of us. We’re afraid of the transforming love of Jesus so we get caught up in the details–either denying or defending–so we can stay comfortable.
We try to evangelize by leading with moral restrictions and we’re shocked when most people walk away unchanged. Because rules don’t change people. Only Jesus changes people.
We explain the Trinity with startling eloquence and wonder why RCIA isn’t bursting at the seams. Because somehow we’ve described the essence of God without speaking of his heart.
We spend our days debating the merits of lace on cassocks or decrying the “new” emphasis on the environment and not a word of it has anything to do with the Gospel.
This is the heart of Christianity: Jesus Christ. God made man to die and rise for love of you. You are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know you. That’s worth dying for.
And that means chastity. And it means poverty. And obedience. It means pro-life and pro-peace and pro-marriage. These things are true. But it’s possible to be distracted by the truth. The Gospel is not sobriety or apologetics or caring for refugees, much though those issues are a necessary response to the truth of God’s love. And none of those things is the Gospel, nor does it do anything but distract from the Gospel if it isn’t all tied up in the love of God.
We serve the poor because they are loved by God. We confess our sins because God’s mercy is so powerful that he wants us to hear it out loud. We save sex for marriage because it’s a sign of God’s never-ending love.
Every single thing the Catholic Church teaches is about the love of God. And every single thing the Catholic Church teaches can be used to distract us from the love of God if we forget ourselves, just like Pope Francis’ brief encounter with Kim Davis is pulling people’s hearts away from the image he is of Christ. We have to choose, every time those petty voices pipe up again, to focus ourselves back on the image of Christ. If you find yourself in a Facebook argument,1 speak always about the love of Christ. If you’re discouraged by the apparent stagnation of Church doctrine, ask yourself what it’s trying to show about the love of Christ. When your sins threaten to drown you, remember the love of Christ. When the sinners you love are too much, entrust them to the love of Christ.
May the love of Jesus be ever on our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. Church, let’s remember that the doctrines and disciplines and commandments and traditions exist only because of the love of Christ. Let’s stop losing the forest for the trees.
Why is the world obsessed with Pope Francis and Kim Davis? Because the devil couldn’t get us to stop talking about Pope Francis, so he got us to stop talking about Jesus instead. Don’t let him win.
- And I generally don’t recommend that you do so. [↩]