Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
Renowned for his bits on food, one of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s best addresses the great American epidemic: McDonald’s. But not just the food. Sure, Gaffigan says, many insist that they’d never be caught dead in an actual McDonald’s.
“I’m tired of people acting like they’re better than McDonald’s. You may have never set foot in a McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonald’s. Maybe instead of buying a Big Mac you read Us Weekly. Hey, that’s still McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different.”
He then appropriately (prophetically?) describes our affinity for reading tabloids as the “...McDonald’s of the soul. Momentary pleasure followed by incredible guilt, eventually leading to cancer.”
With a proverbial nail in the coffin, Gaffigan quips, “How can we all name three people that have dated Jennifer Aniston? We gobble it up just like McDonald’s fries…it’s like ‘Who’s she dating now? I know it’s none of my business but it’s so salty…’”
Not a one of us is completely immune from this fascination with and comparison to other people, particularly to those high up in politics, Hollywood, or professional sports. Heck, it can even happen with notable, albeit less objectively famous, people in our lives: coworkers, family members, neighbors, or even bishops and priests.
In all of these cases, it’s far too easy to simply talk about such people, to share one’s opinion about the person and/or their state in life. In effect, it’s easy to pass judgment upon them, not necessarily in the sense of “wow, they’re going to hell,” but rather the Webster’s Dictionary, “a proposition stating something believed or asserted,” kind of judgment.
Which brings to mind a poignant quote by Mother Teresa:
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Now, to be sure, the correct interpretation of “judge” in this case is found in paragraph 2477 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, pointing specifically to our duty to avoid rash judgment, intentional detraction of another person, and calumny, or false statements about a person.
Interestingly, I think Mother Teresa was referring to judgement as much in the positive sense as well as the negative -- think of the “judgement” of a devoted fan to mimic the life of their idol. Because that positive assumption can be equally false. Like a negative one which fosters an inaccurate understanding of a person, an overly-positive judgement is equally an act of un-love, because it fails to see the person as they truly are.
And so, instead we’re called to love one another, which is to say we’re called to be in relationship with each other. Like God the Father loves us by willing a relationship with us, and as we truly love our friends by being in relationship with them, so too are we called, if only in a mystical way, to be in relationship with those we either idolize or vilify.
But how do we foster such a relationship? Pray for them.
No, like really actually pray for them.
This isn’t without precedent. On a recent podcast, Fr. Mike Schmitz talked about being a huge fan of Chris Farley (who was super Catholic), but considers him as a brother in Christ instead of merely a favorite actor. As a result, Fr. Mike said, “When he died, it really moved me. I regularly will pray for him, and actually I’ll regularly say Mass for him.”
Fr. John Parks, speaking at a 2015 New York City youth conference, noted his desire to meet Jimmy Fallon and invite him back to Mass. Despite realizing that his desire may partially have come out of vanity -- just to say he met Jimmy Fallon -- Fr. Parks’ prayer for a fellow member of the Body of Christ was nevertheless authentic and rightly ordered.
In our culture’s current state of affairs, I’d venture to say this is needed more than ever before, and it need not even be complicated.
Take, for example, Liam Neeson. While reading a feature story on him not long ago, I was saddened to hear that this former altar boy and titan of an actor, who’s now played a priest on screen no less than three times, no longer believes in God.
What if every person who read that article simply paused and said interiorly, “Lord, please work in Liam Neeson’s life. Holy Mother of God, intercede for him, that he might know the love of your Divine Son. Come, Holy Spirit.”
Doing such a thing is infinitely better than simply saying to a friend, “Hey, did you know Liam Neeson used to be Catholic? Yeah. Shame he’s not anymore.”
The latter does nothing. The former could do everything.
And so, especially in this Lenten season, would that we offer even the simplest of prayers for those brothers and sisters whose names are up in lights. Because we really are better than McDonald’s.