We live in an era of economic disruption, which is upending job prospects and forcing many Americans to reinvent themselves in order to land jobs. Political polarization culminating in the government shutdown furthers our unease. In such perilous times, our faith offers a refugee of hope and healing, as we navigate uncharted waters.
But recently, many Catholics have felt as if they are facing a fresh threat of disruption where they least expected it. Pope Francis has challenged the faithful’s expectations and stirred anxieties.
Some Catholics are second-guessing their present commitments to the Church, and others are upset that the Pope, in recent interviews, appears to dismiss the importance of critical ministries, like pro-life outreach or education on marriage matters.
Columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times described Pope Francis’ change in tone and focus as an attempt to re-engage the "middle" — those Catholics who have drifted away from the Church.
Douthat — who has written extensively on modern religious practices in the United States — predicted that Francis’ mission would be fraught with difficulty, because contemporary believers generally have abandoned the "middle." Instead, they migrate to opposite spectrums — on the one hand, they go to churches that hold to traditional doctrines and practice; on the other hand, they sever contact with their cradle faith and have no religious observance.
Some practicing Catholics view Francis’ approach with trepidation, he said, but not because they believe he plans to break with the continuity of Church teaching dealing with abortion or same-sex "marriage." Instead, "they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him, because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense." Such Catholics recall the Church’s stumbles after the Second Vatican Council, and they worry that his change in tone will be used as an excuse to revisit the failed pastoral strategies of the post-conciliar period.
Much of the turmoil has been generated by the Pope’s remarks in informal news interviews that present a striking departure from the formal papal statements and documents that generally accompany a pope’s official role.
Opus Dei Father John Wauck, a communications professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, suggested that Pope Francis wants to deploy secular media to engage lapsed Catholics, offering God’s mercy and challenging "false" images of the Church. (See interview on page 5.)
Father Wauck noted that the Holy Father has adopted a different approach when he speaks to Catholics at daily Mass. In that context, he has urged the faithful to live the faith with greater integrity, and that message has included a constant reminder to reach out to alienated Catholics and others yearning for God’s love and mercy.
At his Oct. 9 audience, Francis emphasized that the Church was not established by Christ as a sect, but as a home for all God’s children. In this age, it is true that an increasing number of cradle Catholics no longer see the Church as their spiritual home. Lapsed Catholics perhaps question whether they will even find a welcome after so long an absence.
But those of us who have remained close to the Father, the Pope said, cannot forget the needs of our missing brothers and sisters: "You cannot grow on your own; you cannot walk alone, isolated, but walk and grow in a community, a family."
And it is the same with the Church, the Pope said. "In the Church, we can hear the word of God, sure that it is the message that the Lord has given to us. In the Church, we can meet the Lord in the sacraments, which are the open windows through which we are given the light of God, streams from which we draw the very life of God. In the Church, we learn to live in communion, in the love that comes from God."
"Each of us can ask ourselves: How do I live in the Church?" he added. "Do I participate in community life or go to church and lock myself up in my own problems, isolate myself from others? … The Church is catholic because it is everyone’s home: We are all children of the Church, and we all belong in this house. … And there is this difference between the components, but it is a diversity that does not enter into conflict; it is not opposed; it is a variety that allows us to melt into harmony by the Holy Spirit. He is the true ‘maestro,’ and he himself is the harmony. And here let us ask ourselves: In our communities, do we live in harmony or do we fight between ourselves?"
During this time of disruption, Francis is calling us to ponder how we live in the Church. Are we content with the status quo? Do we still try to reach those who are absent?
The Pope wants to unsettle the faithful as a father wants to nudge his children in new directions. He is clearly determined to leave the 99 sheep to rescue the lost one and bring it home.
And he seems equally determined to make sure there is someone welcoming the lost ones at the door. Will we be there?