For some time there has been within the Church a robust discussion, if not conflict, between what being a follower of Jesus entails. The two sides seem to speak different languages. It seems, to quote Fr Brian Stoney, that there is a choice: do you want to be good or be a follower of Jesus. There are people who believe that life needs to be rule based, conforming and top down. The status quo needs to be preserved. Others focus on a Jesus-centred, heart-centred approach of mercy and compassion that allows for mistakes and growth.
Bishops in the Vatican, the USA and beyond have responded negatively to Pope Francis who has prioritised mercy and compassion, encouragement and focusing encounter as a way forward over ecclesiastical rules and precepts. It is not a rule book approach based on externals but a heart response that recognises God’s love and mercy in our relationships. Our hearts are challenged when dealing with whatever destroys relationships: anger, lust, adultery, divorce and making promises. In 2013, Pope Francis said: ‘There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.’ Guidelines for living are not rigid laws.
Fr Richard Rohr ofm, in a recent blog Simply Living the Gospel (https://cac.org/simply-living-the-gospel-2020-02-02/), referred to an alternative orthodoxy that emphasises ‘orthopraxy’ which is about right practice rather than orthodoxy being about correct beliefs. Rohr says this is something we have lost sight of and Pope Francis has been calling us back to this. For Rohr and Pope Francis, it is odd that a movement founded in Jesus’ name has resisted change and tending to love and protect the past and the status quo much more than the positive and hopeful futures that could be brought about by people agreeing to change. Rohr posits this as a possible reason as to why our earth is so depleted and our politics so pathetic.
At a recent symposium I attended a young new convert to the Catholic faith was told by a pastor that he should not come to church if he remains with his partner. How is that for pastoral care?. Orthodoxy alive and well. Fortunately, this young man has not been deterred. He knows there is a place for him. In Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis writes, ‘In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. God does not abandon us, God does not leave us alone, for God has united…….definitively to our earth, and God’s love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to God!’ . A woman and her mother were long time members of a parish. When the mother died, the pastor, on reading the obituary, learned that this woman was in a committed relationship with her female partner. Both were told they could not receive communion at the funeral. How is that for pastoral care?
Faithful and true spirituality cannot be about ticking off an obedience box but doing the work of the heart, of examining the real impact of who we are and how this works out in what we do and in our relationships. So the heart of our call is to embrace the quest to reflect God’s love, God’s goodness and God’s integrity. For Jesus, and Pope Francis, God prefers flawed, merciful people to meticulously loyal, self-righteous people. Our true mission, for Francis is ‘healing the wounds of the heart, opening doors, forgiving all, liberating, and saying that God is good, forgives all, is Father, God is gentle and always waits for us’.
The challenge is always to refuse to allow ourselves to live by minimalist standards of the law and choose to live from the heart that involves serving, seeking justice, welcoming the stranger, showing compassion, protecting the vulnerable and protecting God’s creation. Is it really more life-giving to just attend church on Sunday, or not steal, not kill, not commit adultery, when our hearts cannot be opened and moved in ways that make a healing and restoring contribution to our world. Living from the heart requires greater effort than merely obeying the minimalisms of the law. Clearly, if we have the courage to live from the heart, we will find a richness and fullness, a deeper connectedness and a more gracious way of relating and living together. Though few people would actually kill another, all are capable of destroying relationships by treating others worthless; when we ignore, bully, withdraw, fail to welcome people. Our deeper call is not to avoid some things but to be committed to upholding justice, dignity, truthfulness and peace at home, work, school, or when driving our cars. Where distance, boundaries, division or suspicion exist, we are called to bring trust and truthfulness, supplant guilt with joy, limitations with openness, and fear with affirmation and courage.
Pope Francis has said: ‘It hurts to see how in some Christian communities, and even among consecrated persons, we consent to various forms of hatred, slander, defamation, revenge, jealousy, desire to impose our own ideas at any cost, and even persecution that seems like a relentless witch hunt. Who are we going to evangelize with that behaviour?’ He seems to work for a Church where ‘everyone can admire how you take care each other, how you give each other mutual encouragement, and how you accompany one another.’ Rules will make you righteous, but relationships will make you real. The words of Pope Francis at Lampedusa in 2013 again spring to mind: ‘The ‘other’ is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort. In this globalised world, we have fallen into globalised indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.’
Legalistic approaches will not assist in responding to the millions of people seeking asylum; or those captive to modern slavery and trafficking; or people living with physical, intellectual and psychological disabilities; or change our attitudes to indigenous people; or people who are homeless or challenged in other ways. When we live from the heart, we can look them in the eye; we will not dodge them or pretend we did not see them. When we live from the heart, we allow ourselves to meet the other who is different and not allow our prejudices that are constantly being stimulated to determine our responses. We are called to listen to our hearts and find something the heart of God reflected there. The challenge is to allow our hearts to keep time with God’s beating heart.
As already mentioned, living from the heart is more demanding and requires greater awareness than legalism. It requires that our attitudes and conventions be continually challenged. We come to the liturgy, not because we are finished products, but because we want to place ourselves in the hands of the One in whose image we are formed.
In the gospel, Jesus calls us to discern the deeper meaning of the commandments ourselves. Those in authority are not the final arbiters. Nor are they always correct in their interpretation: ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ [Mt 5:20] Paul too, reminds the people of Corinth that there is continual need to seek wisdom and listen for the Spirit in our lives. God is still at work.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director, Missionaries of the Sacred Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia [NSW]
President, Pax Christi Australia