Evangelii Gaudium, Part II: Yesterday's Homily

It is not often that I am brought to tears by a text, but the homily Pope Francis delivered yesterday was one of those times. My colleague Joshua McElwee reported on the sermon here and you can find the full text at Vatican radio here. While the context for this homily was the Mass celebrated with the newly created cardinals, I think the Holy Father indicated the kinds of things he wants the Church's bishops thinking about as they prepare for the Synod on the Family next autumn. Yesterday's sermon was Round Two of Evangelii Gaudium, a programmatic vision of where he wants to lead the Church. 

The Holy Father drew on the readings of the day to come up with a very concrete proposal for the Church: “Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!  These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.” I am not sure of how these sentences get translated, but I do not believe that “reinstate” is a biblical term. It is a canonical term, yes? But, the Holy Father fills it with theological emphasis here, by pointing out that it is Jesus’ desire to reinstate the marginalized, to re-connect them with the community, not as lepers or even as cured lepers but as full members, to be no longer marginalized. I do not think you need a Vaticanista expert to see how this intuition plays out at next autumn’s synod.

Commenting on the Mosaic law that banished lepers from the community, Pope Francis states:

The purpose for this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly.  As the high priest Caiaphas decreed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50). Reinstatement:  Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality.  

“Fearful.” “Narrow.” “Prejudiced.” I wonder who and what the pope has in mind? Tomorrow, I shall write about the just released statement on marriage from Evangelicals and Catholic Together, a statement that is filled with fear, exceedingly narrow, and winks at prejudice. I do not mean to suggest that Pope Francis was responding specifically to ECT’s statement, only that he is responding to their approach for the past twenty years, an approach that has, heretofore, been considered the only viable approach for the Catholic Church in the United States.

Indeed, Pope Francis introduced a way of something that has been said, and said repeatedly, here at Distinctly Catholic. He said:

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper.  He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected.  Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences!  For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family!  And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal!  He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.  He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.  Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking.  The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

It was John Carr who first put this insight to me in a way that I have adopted as my own: You can assess the health of an organization by discerning whether it is looking for converts or for heretics. The Holy Father states the same insight only in a more fulsome way, specifically complaining about those who shriek “scandal” all the time, and asserting that this is the way the doctors of the law thought, and the pope contrasts that way of thinking with God’s way of thinking. I would never go that far, but then again, I am not the pope.

And, to those who fret that any change in the Church’s discipline regarding marriage, especially communion for the divorced or remarried, will somehow diminish those whose faithful marriages have not been challenged, Pope Francis is clear too: “In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy.  Rather, he frees them from fear.   He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother.  He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law.  Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the ‘older brother’ (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the laborers who bore ‘the burden of the day and the heat’ (cf. Mt 20:1-16).”

Let us be clear: A seminary professor might have come under suspicion a few years back for saying such things. But, our pope is saying them. Will the people of God listen? Will the bishops of the Church listen? Communion for the divorced and remarried isn’t the half of it. The Holy Father is calling us, again and again, with ever greater clarity, to ask ourselves if we are, as Jesus was, the merciful face of God in each and every situation, or if we are an impediment to the Gospel. That does not mean theological carte blanche, to be sure, but it does mean that pastoral theology, long viewed with suspicion or as a subset of moral theology, is now taking its rightful place as the most important theology for the Church to contemplate. Pope Francis is asking us how we interact with the lepers of our time, the marginalized. Do we even know them? Do we love them? Do we reinstate them into our communities, especially the community which is the Church? These are questions he never tires of asking. They are questions, alas, many Church leaders have not even been asking.



Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here