Lent: The Pope Francis Effect – Part 2

Pope Francis

BY JAMES HUG S.JApril 3, 2014

What do you think a Lent in the spirit of Pope Francis should look like?

Pope FrancisAs I indicated in my last posting, for most of the Lents in my life, I looked on it as a penitential retreat time, forty days of fasting and reflecting on the patterns of sin in my life and among us as a community.  The backdrop was Jesus’s command to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!”  The frequent refrain: “Jesus suffered and died on the cross for my sins, for our sins.”

The last two popes, Benedict and John Paul II, have emphasized our need to avoid sin and live the perfection God has shown us.  The U.S. bishops have picked up that spirit in their religious liberty campaign resisting the birth control provision of the Affordable Care Act as “cooperation in evil,” and they continue to fight society’s increasing acceptance of marriage equality for all people even while we pray in the second Eucharist Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation to gather “people of every race, language and way of life to share in the one eternal banquet.”

Pope Francis has a strikingly different approach to law and people who don’t obey it.  Here he is one day asking publically in a press conference, “Who am I to judge [homosexual people]?” There he is on another day putting a wreath into the sea in honor of the very people many Catholic politicians and their supporters in the U.S. denounce as “illegal immigrants,” criminal lawbreakers.  And then the pope criticizes those who fight to keep these “illegals” out as being infected with the sin of a culture that treats some people as disposable.  Nor does he have any patience or intellectual respect for people who hang onto a belief in trickle-down economics and can be indifferent to the billions of people trapped in desperate poverty while they live in comfort.

The key to understanding all this may well be found in Pope Francis’s belief that the most important Word of God for our times and for all times is the Good News of God’s mercy, forgiveness and love.  It is a theme he returns to continually.  “God never tires of forgiving, we just tire of asking!” he says over and over.  Francis has even spoken of these times as a “Kairos” for mercy, God’s special graced and chosen moment for it.

The central message of his extended teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium confirms the primacy of mercy for Francis: It is the profound gratitude and joy that come with the personal experience of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love that compel us to spread the good news about it to sinners, to enemies, to social outcasts and undocumented immigrants, to everyone who might be saved through experiencing God’s mercy, love and forgiveness through us.  “Shunning” them or refusing to have any contact or collaboration with them can’t communicate love and mercy. Do they disagree with the official Catholic positions on economic justice, abortion, peace, gay marriage?  That doesn’t change the fact that they are God’s beloved children too and they need to experience God’s love and mercy in our mercy and graciousness.

Maybe that is why Francis isn’t concerned about us being out in the streets.  Living God’s mercy and love for those who need it most demands that we get out where they are.  It may get us bruised up a bit, maybe dirty or smelly, but that’s where we need to be – being perfect as our loving, merciful God is perfect – not perfect keepers of some law, but perfectly merciful, forgiving, loving.

In fact, one of St. Paul’s profound conversion moments was when he realized that everything he did to be perfect according to the law, to achieve his own righteousness, “was a loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3:4-11)  It is a stunning realization:  Trying to be perfect according to the law can be our worst sin.  Addiction to perfection of that kind is still destructive addiction.  Our true perfection should be like God’s, perfect mercy, love and forgiveness.

So, as we enter more deeply into Lent this year, let’s review our lives to see how we can live more in that spirit, reaching out to everyone with love and honest caring.  That would certainly help keep Pope Francis smiling!  And it would be a great way for us all to celebrate Christ’s ongoing resurrection in our lives.

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