Like many of you, I have been following Pope Francis’ visit rather closely. Undoubtedly, his presence has impacted each of us in different ways, and I am very excited about the words and actions to come in the days ahead. As I sit here in my office with an unusual lull in activity, I am struck by two ideas our Holy Father has articulated, but are getting very little play in the news.
The first idea comes from his address to the U.S. Congress. While highlighting Abraham Lincoln, he emphasized unity, and Lincoln’s great struggle to bring union, freedom, and peace to a divided and war ravaged nation. Francis named the delicate balance of rejecting fundamentalism that threatens these great virtues that Lincoln fought for, while not sacrificing those same liberties in an effort to defeat these threats.
Within that balance, our Pope names the danger of seeing the world in non-negotiable black and white. I am particularly caught by this because I am often far too quick to judge, especially in a political or theological situation. If people don’t think like me, I reject their ideas as closed-minded nonsense. This line of thinking is all too common in our society. 24-hour news channels that cater to particular political views, blogs and podcasts that target niche groups, and seemingly endless gridlock in Washington reiterates to us constantly that dialogue is overrated, and if you don’t agree with me I have no time for you.
Unfortunately, there is a great danger in seeing things in black and white. When we see things in black and white we claim the moral compass; we claim to know what is righteous and what is sin. And when we get trapped in that line of thinking, there is no more room for anyone else in our lives, not even God. We declare our independence from what we view as wrong only to discover that we can no longer discuss and dialogue with those around us. Nothing anyone has to say is worth listening to.
Here is where the Pope’s message strikes deepest. President Lincoln in his first and primary purpose fought the Civil War to preserve the union, to keep these United States from dividing into isolation. Lincoln chose openness and dialogue, and that is where Pope Francis is calling all of us today. For too long I have looked down on those I disagree with thinking they are not as nuanced or educated as I am. Yet God speaks in history, and if I fail to speak with and be open to my sisters and brothers, how can I hear God? How can I grow? And most importantly, how can I live in union as a member of the Church and as a citizen of this country, if I fail to dialogue and work in communion to realize the Kingdom of God and build a more perfect union?
The second chord that struck me came from the address to the U.S. Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. While watching the reflection, I was unsure what the Pope was going to say, but I was deeply moved by the compassionate urgency he had while addressing the mission of the church in the United States. He acknowledged the heavy workload, the damaging reality of the sexual abuse crisis, and the corrosiveness of secular culture. However, he made very clear that it was in this context that all of us who minister to God’s people are charged with finding some way to evangelize, to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ as his disciples.
In my new job I am struggling to engage young adults in their 20’s and 30’s. I have a loose plan, and we are having our first event in a few weeks. However, like anything new, I am having doubts about how successful it will be in bringing young adults back to Christ. I went through all of this training and education and I don’t have a sure answer for how to lead people to discipleship. What if no one shows up?
Through that cloud of doubt, there was the Pope speaking to a cathedral full of bishops, but yet also speaking to my fears. Evangelization is the most important work. We must keep trying. We must keep praying, and we must keep going. Only God builds the Church, but we must keep removing barriers and facilitating encounter, so that the seeds of faith may be watered and eventually produce much fruit.
These last few days have already made for an incredible papal visit. The headlines will undoubtedly continue to be filled with the Pope’s stance on particular issues, and on his discussions at the World Meeting of Families. Through all of that, try to listen to the words surrounding the hot buttoned issues because there Francis is not telling us what to believe, he is rather telling us how to live as human beings. Pope Francis, in his straight talk and unassuming persona, has figured out how to remove those barriers to faith, and in his words over the last few days, I can’t help but feel that Christ has spoken directly to me.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on Catholic How and was reprinted with permission
This week's homily on sin brought up a host of questions during our RCIA class. Are some sins worse than others? Why do we need to confess to a priest? Why does the Pope go to confession so often? Now, truth be told, I was a little off my game that morning. It had been a late night, but my co-catechist and I were doing a fairly good job of breaking open a subject we had not prepared to talk about.
Then, however, came the question, "But are little sins every now and again really a big deal? I mean as long as you are generally a good person, aren't a few sins here or there ok?" Well, I fell flat on my face, and found myself waste deep in relativism. Thankfully my partner saved me from committing the greatest sin of any minister: leading the faithful astray.
My big blunder in the vocal vomit of my answer was forgetting Jesus. In my attempt to reassure this person that we are all human, and mistakes and sins are part of that humanity, I had forgotten the all-important challenge of being ever more human, that is, to be ever more like Christ. The Pope goes to confession so often because he has grown close to Christ in his life, and encountering the person of Jesus so intimately, he more easily recognizes the imperfections that you and I tend to miss completely.
Confession then is not meant to berate you for the bad things you have done, nor is it meant to embarrass you by telling seemingly trivial things to a strange man in stranger clothes. Rather, Confession is about looking at your relationship to Christ and seeing where you were not Christ-like in your life. After all, all sins are relational because sin never affects me individually. Sin affects those around us: our family, friends, co-workers, and God. When we ask God through the priest to forgive our sins we are asking God to begin the process of healing those strained and broken relationships in our lives.
Viewing sins as a relational reality also requires that we not stop our penitence once we leave the confessional. Being more Christ-like means working to mend those relationships we have strained by our selfish and sinful actions. We are challenged to become more selfless, more giving, and more loving as Christ was in his life, death and resurrection. Throughout life we are very much on a journey to know and encounter Jesus ever more closely, and it is in that pilgrimage that we see how we ought to live as women and men of faith.
So, to finally answer that person’s question, yes, we are human and we will make mistakes. We will constantly need to return to confession again and again often for the same little things we keep doing. We are on a journey to be more Christ-like, and that encounter challenges us to love and act as he did. The great hope in our life is that we get better at being Christians as we deepen our relationship with Christ. Confession gives us the grace to do this, and to be transformed ever more fully into who we were meant to and will become.
Brian Niemiec is the Curriculum Consultant for the Catholic Apostolate Center
Editor's Note: This Post was originally published on Catholic How and was reprinted with permission
My girlfriend watches Grey's Anatomy. I must admit, I am not a fan of the show, but I was in the room this week when she was watching an episode. Even though I was doing work, and I am almost incapable of multi-tasking, one of the characters caught my attention: the Cat Man. When he was a teenager, the Cat Man had many surgeries to turn his face and hands into forms that resembled today's common feline. He had done it because he thought it resembled who he was. He was trying to find meaning. Now, however, when he looked in the mirror, all he saw was shame and regret. He was alone, broken, and desperately seeking a way out.
As we begin this Lenten journey tomorrow, I find myself laughing at the use of such an extraordinary TV character as a segue into this most holy time of year. But Lent is a time when we, too, look into the mirror. We examine our actions, choices, and relationships. In today's culture, which requires success, money, vanity, and friends for self worth, the mirror can be a terrifying thing. So many look and see only brokenness from sin and the imperfections of this world. They see only hopelessness.
Yet hopelessness is the opposite of what this season is all about. This reflection, this time of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving is not meant to rub our faces in our brokenness. It is meant to show nothing less than the transformative and salvific power of the love of God. In Lent, we come before Christ again, and prepare our hearts to receive and experience the Paschal Mystery. And when we do that, when we turn back to the one who created us, we see the image of God in us.
Yes, Lent is when we look into the mirror. And since we are created in God's image, it is a time when we look and see if our lives reflect the sacred beauty that is in us. We ask how can we be more like Christ, more like the one who made us, more like ourselves. Because in the end, becoming more of who we are is what God wants us to do. God created each of us, and if we continually try to be ourselves to the fullest as Jesus showed with his life, ours will be filled with beauty, joy, and fulfillment. Look into the mirror. Do not be afraid. Look and see the beauty waiting to shine forth.
Be sure to check out the Catholic Apostolate Center's Lenten resources, by clicking here.
Brian Niemiec is the Curriculum Consultant for the Catholic Apostolate Center