Evangelizing with Mercy in a Post-Christian Culture

Originally at: http://archden.org/archbishops_writing/evangelizing-with-mercy-in-a-post-christian-culture/#.Vk7mwHarQdU

by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

It is a great joy for me to be here today! It’s not only a blessing for me to be in my home state, but it’s also a gift to receive such a warm welcome, the hospitality of the entire planning committee and my good friend Bishop Vann.

A few weeks ago, our country was blessed with the presence of Pope Francis. Some of you were able to travel to see him in person, while others watched the news coverage of his journey. I, too, was blessed to be in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to witness his encounter with the people of America. It was a great moment to be Catholic!

For Pope Francis, it was the first trip of his life to the United States, and people – Catholic and non-Catholic – warmly welcomed him to our country. What happened was truly extraordinary. In D.C., President Obama traveled with his family out to Andrew’s Air Force Base to welcome him, and he became the first Pope to address the U.S. Congress. In New York, crowds packed Central Park to give him an exuberant welcome. And when he arrived in Philadelphia, a city where the Church is still recovering – a city where only a few years ago priests were spat upon – strangers called out greetings to priests, religious, and bishops. It was wonderful to see families, old and young, with so many children, living their Catholic faith and giving witness to their faith in Christ and his Church.

This warm embrace was not lost on Pope Francis. On the plane ride back to Rome, he told journalists, “What surprised me was the warmth, the warmth of the people, so lovable. It was a beautiful thing … I was very struck by this kindness and welcome but also by the religious ceremonies and … the religiosity of the people … you could see the people pray and this struck me a lot. Beautiful.”[1]

I think what spoke the loudest to many people, and what has remained the overriding theme of his papacy, were the gestures of love and tenderness that he made. If one were to create a highlight reel of the media’s coverage of his visit, it would include some speeches, but throughout it one would see moments of embrace, kisses for children, words of consolation for the wounded, blessings on the imprisoned, and smiles of love. What people experienced was the Holy Father evangelizing with mercy.

I have chosen “Evangelizing with Mercy in a Post-Christian Culture” as the topic for my talk today for two reasons.

First, I think evangelizing with mercy is essential for spreading the Gospel in our time. And second, understanding the role of mercy in evangelization sheds lights on aspects of Pope Francis’ papacy that have been mysterious to some.

Cultural Context

In order to understand how we can best bring the Gospel to the people of our time, we need to understand the context we are living in. For that reason, I am going to take a few moments to talk about the cultural realities with which we are faced.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, my friend and predecessor as Archbishop of Denver, famously said in a 2010 First Thingsessay called “Catholics and the Next America,” “In the coming decades Catholics will likely find it harder, not easier, to influence the course of American culture, or even to live their faith authentically.”[2]

For many of us, the America we are living in now is not the one we imagined five years ago when Archbishop Chaput wrote his essay. The country we are living in now has cast aside its Christian values in favor of a relativistic, self-centered worldview more quickly than many of us thought possible. Just think of the annual Christmas battles that take place as people insist on removing all references to God from our culture. One wonders how much longer it will be before presidents will no longer be able to say “God bless America” because some find it offensive.

When one looks at the statistics for the number of former Catholics and those who are not affiliated with any religion, that growing secularization becomes clear.

The 2014 Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey found that out of the 37% of Americans who say they were raised Catholic, 41% no longer identify with Catholicism. This means that right now, 12.9% or 32 million American adults are former Catholics.[3]

The future doesn’t look very Christian either. In fact, the Pew Forum survey noted that the “religiously unaffiliated share is growing in all four major geographic regions of the country.” Here, in the Western United States, 28% of people told survey takers that they don’t belong to a faith, while Catholics make up about 23% of the population. That means that there are more unaffiliated people than Catholics.

What Pope Francis Teaches Us – The “Francis Option”

These are sobering statistics, but my guess is that they aren’t surprising to many of you. Those who live on the “margins of society,” as Pope Francis says, are growing in number, while the cultural strength of the Church is weakening. Butthis is not a predetermined outcome. Why? Because we believe in the transformative power of God’s grace to change people forever. We believe in the power of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection!

So where do we go from here?

One idea that is worth talking about is an approach to our cultural situation that is being discussed by scholars like Rod Dreher. This approach has been named “The Benedict Option,” and is inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue.

MacIntyre wrote about waiting “for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict,” who, like the founder of Western monasticism during the final days of the morally adrift Roman Empire, would help to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.”

Some within evangelical and Catholic circles argue that the “Benedict Option” means that we need to engage in a tactical retreat from the public square and the political realm and form local communities to sustain Christian culture. To be fair, both Dreher and his supporters say that this does not mean giving up fighting the cultural battles and abstaining from voting. However, they maintain that in order to survive the wave of secularism the Church needs to focus its energy inward, rather than outward.

But I think that Pope Francis has shown us another way to live within a post-Christian culture, which could be called,the “Francis Option.”

From Jesus sending forth the apostles to proclaim the Gospel to “the ends of the earth” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 28:19) to St. Paul telling the Corinthians “the love of Christ impels us” to bring the Gospel of reconciliation to all (2 Cor. 5:14-15), our faith has always been outwardly oriented, while drawing its strength from the power of the Holy Spirit active within local communities.

The “Francis Option,” I would argue, places the emphasis on bringing God’s forgiveness to those on the spiritual and material outer limits of society, while also strengthening the health of our local communities with the balm of God’s mercy. In other words, Pope Francis’ approach to evangelization in a post-Christian culture seeks to maintain a dual focus of bringing Christ’s healing to society andstrengthening it in our local communities.

The Holy Father demonstrated this outward focus when he encountered the crowds in D.C., New York and Philadelphia. His love for the poor, the abandoned, the sick and children, the imprisoned, spoke to the hearts of many.

The communications director for our archdiocese told me how she watched jaded journalists covering Pope Francis begin their assignment with a professional demeanor but by the end become “Francis fans” who were just as much enamored of Christ shining through him as the faithful were.

The joy that Pope Francis brought to millions of Americans did not appear out of nowhere. It was nurtured in his loving, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ through a life of prayer. The intimate encounter with Jesus Christ is the foundation of his life as a disciple and the foundation of his ministry. His joy flows out of his priesthood and the graces that he receives as the successor of St. Peter. One could describe it as flowing out of the small, local community of the Pope’s relationship with the Lord, his friends, and family, but there is also the gift of the far larger communion of the Church – both the Church here on earth and in heaven.

Last January during daily Mass at the Vatican guesthouse, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of healing the most important of local communities – our families.

The topic came up during a homily on the strained relationship between King Saul and David, who almost killed each other on several occasions.

“In order to dialogue,” he preached, “meekness is needed, without yelling. It’s also necessary to think that the other person has something more than me.” Like when David said, Saul ‘is the Lord’s anointed, and more important than me.’

As is characteristic of Pope Francis, he couldn’t resist using one of his now famous analogies to underscore his point. “To dialogue, it is necessary to do what we asked for in prayer today, at the beginning of the Mass: become all things to all people,” he said, adding, “all of us knows that to do these things you have to swallow so many toads” of pride.[4]

Pope Francis took up this theme again when he gave an off-the-cuff reflection at the Festival of Families gathering in Philadelphia. He began by noting that a society is strong and solid if it is “built on beauty, goodness and truth.”

Then he added, “sometimes people tell me ‘Father, you speak like that because you are not married.’ Families have difficulties…families, we quarrel. And sometimes plates can fly. Children bring headaches, and I won’t even speak about mothers-in law…”

“In families there are always difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome by love. Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty… Only love is able to overcome them.”

Post-Christian Evangelization

Thus far I have spoken about the dual focus of external outreach, coupled with strengthening the interior that has marked Pope Francis’ ministry. But it is also important for me to say a word about how to bring the Gospel to our post-Christian society.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for us to fall into a dynamic that no longer works in a post-Christian society. As a bishop, I receive dozens of letters every month from people who are concerned about something in the Church, a person in their family, or even about society in general. Maybe some of you have written to me, adding to the stack on my desk.

In reading these letters, one theme that I hear fairly often is, “If you would only put your foot down, then all these problems would go away.” A more historical application of the same argument goes like this, “If only the bishops had been more authoritative after the Second Vatican Council, then we would be in much better shape.”

But in my experience, asserting authority only goes as far as the misbehaving person cares about the consequences. And in a relativistic culture, many people don’t care about authority.

Instead, I would like to propose a different solution. We undoubtedly need strong bishops who will feed their flock with the Word of God, speak the truth in charity, appreciate the cost of discipleship from having encountered Jesus, and defend the faith from distortions, but we must also understand human nature. We need to understand, as Pope Francis does, that people who are mortally wounded could care less about a broken finger.

In his now famous interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Pope explained it in terms of a field hospital.

I see clearly, that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.[5]

Even so, doing this is harder than saying it. We have to be people filled with an awareness of God’s mercy for us if we are to extend that same mercy to the hurting, lonely and far-off. We must have reflected on the questions: What is the meaning of life? Why do I need a Savior? How has Jesus transformed my life? And is Jesus my Lord and God, my best friend?

The truth is this: If we haven’t personally experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness for us and embraced the truth that we cannot save ourselves, then we often end up doing more harm than good. We become either too rigid or too lackadaisical in our approach to people.

In spiritual and emotional terms, this means that those who are far from the Church need to hear a word of welcome; they need to first know that they are loved and not condemned, even if they are in a state of sin.

We see Jesus doing exactly this, when the adulterous woman was brought before him by the Pharisees. The first thing Jesus did was not to confront her about her sin, it was to protect her, to extend his loving mercy toward her by asking the Pharisees, “Whoever among you is without sin, cast the first stone.” Then, once she knew he would not condemn her, he charged her, “Go and sin no more.” He speaks the truth to her – “to sin no more” – as it is the only way that will bring her dignity and true happiness.

We can also see this meeting people with mercy first in Jesus’ encounters with Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and with his apostles. We saw it in the encounter with the rich young man that we heard in this past Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus looked at him with love, before calling him “to sell everything.”

Our culture knows it has cast off Christianity; it feels the guilt and pain of turning away from God. And that is why it is so eager to hear words of mercy.

Pope Francis, through his gestures, kisses and embraces extends mercy to us who so hunger for it. This mission of mercy must be undergirded by the support of strong families and communities, which need to be suffused with God’s love and mercy.

In order to effectively bring the Gospel to the post-Christian culture we find ourselves in, we need to consciously adopt the model of evangelizing that Jesus used with the woman caught in adultery, and which Pope Francis is showing us again.

First, we must welcome people with mercy, then, once we have earned the right to be heard, we can share the liberating truth of the Gospel with them. If we are successful in doing this, then these same people will become the leaven in society that is needed to bring our country back to the Christian roots that have caused it to flourish.

I believe the place we can observe this type of approach is within many of the new movements and apostolates in the Church, whether it be the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Christ in the City, Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and so many others.

I will never forget the first time that I went to a Lenten gathering of the Neocatechumenal Way in 1988 in Rome. A priest friend invited me. At that gathering, people young and old gave their testimony of how their encounter with Jesus brought them out of a life of sin and back to the Church. Whether they were drug dealers, prostitutes, drug addicts, same-sex attracted, promiscuous, or adulterers, their encounter with Jesus by others inviting them into the Way transformed their lives and took them out of darkness.

More recently, I hear similar stories from young people in FOCUS, who had left their faith or had no faith, and through the invitation of other young people come to encounter Christ.

I want to close with a story that I heard from a Christ in the City Missionary. This missionary outreach was first established in Denver almost 6 years ago and now is coming to Los Angeles. It reaches out to the homeless primarily through a ministry of presence.

A couple of years ago a missionary told me how she and her fellow missionaries kept meeting a homeless man over the course of a month. He was quite disheveled, yet they loved him, spoke of the love of God for him, and fed him. He disappeared for a few weeks and then reappeared, clean-shaven and better dressed. When asked what happened, he shared with them, “you were the first people who told me that God loves me, just as I am. I believed that, and I have dignity that stems from the love of God. So I went out and found a job and I am confident of God’s love for me.”

Though not every case works out like this, many do. It demonstrates what happens when one begins with Jesus’ love and mercy and shares the transformation by grace that can occur in the human heart. Some of the homeless have become Catholic and others have had their lives transformed.

I pray for all of us today that we may, in our encounter with Jesus, be led to encounter the mercy of the Father.  And I pray that in that experience will have the joy of the Gospel, the joy of Jesus (Jn. 15:11). May we then live each day the words of Jesus as they burn within our hearts, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:36).” Thank you and God bless you with his mercy and love!

[1] http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-transcript-of-pope-francis-inflight-interview-from-philadelphia-to-rome-60499/

[2] http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/09/catholics-and-the-next-america

[3] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[4] http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-swallow-toads-of-pride-in-order-to-dialogue/

[5] Originally published in Italian in La Civilta Cattolica. Translated into English and published in America Magazine as, “A Big Heart Open to God,” on Sept. 30, 2013.

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