Last weekend, we embarked upon the season of Advent - that time of preparation for the Christmas feast during which we seek to hear the call of the precursor of Christ, John the Baptist, "Prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths" (Mark 2:3).
In so doing, I would suggest that we have a modern-day prophet in our new Pope Francis. In a remarkable interview with Jesuit-run America magazine, Francis offered some insights which provide an excellent Advent meditation as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior. (See www.americamagazine.org/print/15634 for the full interview.)
Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome? Francis states unequivocally, "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre....I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Anticipating Christ's coming at Christmas, we must have the same clear recognition of our own sinfulness - not, however, with the fear of judgment and condemnation, but with hope in the one who is "rich in mercy" (Ephesians 2-4).
With the great sorrow of having sinned comes the greater appreciation of Him who is able and willing to forgive us. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:15, "Christ came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost;" or, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20).
Commenting on Pope Francis' self-definition of being a sinner, Steven Bullivant, an ethicist at St. Mary's University College in England, notes that "from Paul to Augustine down to Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, it is always the saints who are most painfully aware of how sinful they are, of how desperately they need God's mercy."
In Francis' interview, he speaks of the "life of a person" as "a land full of thorns and weeds," but he points out that "there is always space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God." Thus, he outlines his vision of the Church as "a field hospital for the wounded." This vision of Francis recalls Christ's declaration that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come not to call the righteous, but to call sinners" (Mark 2:17).
I hope, then, that the Advent season will lead each of us to recognize that - like Pope Francis and St. Paul - we are sinners, but loved sinners, and consequently prompt us to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, wherein God's forgiveness and mercy abound.
Go and talk
In his interview, Pope Francis notes that the most important proclamation is that "Jesus Christ has saved you." Acceptance of this truth becomes the embodiment of the new evangelization - of Francis' call to "go out" to people; to build bridges, not walls; and to establish dialogue with people, even those who do not embrace all of the Church's teachings.
As Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., observes, Francis has invited us in the Church "to meet people where they are and walk with them on the journey to experience God's love in very practical ways, like an invitation to Mass or a conversation about faith."
Pope Francis shares that to do so takes "audacity and courage." It may mean that we will be ridiculed, scorned or rejected; that we will be accused of being over-zealous, condescending, paternalistic or engaging in "spiritual mugging," if you will.
But contemporary evangelization must not seek to proselytize, nor to impose our faith on others. Rather, evangelization seeks to propose our beliefs by sharing with others how faith gives purpose, meaning and direction to our lives, and to witness by our example a sense of God's love.
Thus, the Church Francis envisions "is to heal wounds and warm hearts." Then, Francis says, "we can talk about everything else."
Church for poor
Francis also has proclaimed that our Church must be "a Church for the poor." In an excellent article in America magazine, Bishop Robert McElroy, an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, posits that, with this and other statements, Pope Francis "has unswervingly pointed to the scandal of poverty in a world of plenty as a piercing moral challenge for the Church and the whole human community."
"In part," Bishop McElroy states, "the pope's message has called us to personal conversion, speaking powerfully to each of us about how we let patterns of materialism captivate our lives and distort our humanity. In a disarming way, Francis seeks to make us all deeply uncomfortable, so that in our discomfort we may recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects, rather than in relationship with God and others.
"Francis' message also has been an invitation to cultural conversion, laying bare the three false cultures materialism has created in our world: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of the created order only to savor them for a moment and then discard them; and the culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the suffering of others, no matter how intense, no matter how sustained."
Advent, then, offers us a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon how easily we can get caught up in these cultures - often unaware of how trapped we have become. It provides a chance to reflect upon our own lifestyle and to assess whether we need to live more simply in terms of our clothing, diet, transportation and entertainment - and, in terms of our awareness, of service to and advocacy on behalf of the poor.
Bishop McElroy observes that "the United States, which for so much of its great history, has stood for economic mobility and a broad, comfortable middle class, now reflects gross disparities in income and wealth and barriers to mobility. The poor suffer a 'benign neglect' in our political conversation, and absorb brutal cuts in governmental aid."
Take food stamps, for example. Op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times last month that "some 47 million Americans receive food stamps. A recent government study found that about five percent of American households have 'very low food security,' which means that food can run out before the end of the month. In almost a third of these households, an adult reported not eating for an entire day because there wasn't enough money for food."
Yet last month the government cut back five percent on food stamps, and recipients may face more cuts. Mr. Kristof notes that the Senate version of the pending farm bill "would cut food stamps by $4 billion over 10 years" and the House of Representatives version "would slash them by $40 billion.
"More than 90 percent of benefits go to families living below the poverty line, according to federal government data, and nearly two-thirds of recipients are children, elderly or disabled," he writes. Meanwhile, the same farm bill that would slash food stamp benefits for the poor "includes agricultural subsidies that don't just go to struggling farmers but also, in recent years, to billionaires" or companies in which they have an interest.
Food stamps work
Commenting on this pending threat to the nutritional status of poor Americans, Mr. Kristof later stated that research has proven that food stamps are working in important ways. It shows "women who as small children benefitted from food stamps were more likely to go further in school, earn more money and stay off welfare."
Thus, Kristof concludes, "slashing food stamp benefits wouldn't be a sign of prudent fiscal management by Congress. It would be a mark of short-sighted cruelty."
Similar arguments could be raised about the delay in immigration reform, the failure to raise the minimum wage for low-income workers and the refusal on the part of a number of states to participate in Medicaid expansion when the federal government would pay for this expansion and the money thus spent would benefit hospitals and the local economy, as well as the recipients.
If the Catholic Church in the United States is truly to be "a Church for the poor," then the needs of the poor must become a priority for us, institutionally and personally. Indeed, unless we address ourselves seriously to our brothers and sisters in need both domestically and globally, we run the risk of losing that which we already have: the right to be sons and daughters of that kingdom founded by our heavenly Father.
If, therefore, we truly believe in God's kingdom and if we are seeking to advance God's kingdom in our day, then the poor must rank very high in our values and our priority system. Otherwise, we are deluding ourselves, and it is not God's kingdom that we are advancing, but our very own.
Now, although there is a freshness to the words and actions of Pope Francis, he has said nothing new. Rather, as Rev. James Hanvey, a theologian at Campion Hall in Oxford, England, opines, "in a simple, direct, personal way, [Francis] is presenting us with the reality of a God who does not condemn the world, but loves it more than it can believe or imagine (John 3:16-17).
"A God who can enter into the depths of our suffering," as Jesus did at the Bethlehem stable and throughout His 33 years on earth, "is not repulsed by our woundedness or disfigurements, but...meets us wherever and whoever we are, heals us and brings us ever closer to Himself," Father Hanvey adds.
May the words and witness of Pope Francis provide us with rich food for our Advent journey. I urge you to read and reflect upon his full and illuminating interview.
(December 5, 2013)