With Pope Francis’ changes to the Holy Thursday liturgy last week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a young man during the Christmas holiday. He was visiting from Europe and was expressing concern about where Pope Francis seems to be taking the Church. He said that among his circle of friends and acquaintances everyone is concerned that the Pope seems too relaxed on doctrine and putting too much emphasis on feelings, on people, on the “pastoral”. He didn’t actually say it in these words – he said things like, “it’s not the way” and “this is not how the Pope is supposed to behave” (I paraphrase). He also echoed the concern that many seem to have about the Pope making changes.
Let me say, first and foremost that no one needs to be afraid that Pope Francis is going to change Doctrine. Doctrine is Doctrine and no Pope has the authority to change it. I fully believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge and the Holy Spirit was in charge during the Conclave. The Holy Spirit is always guiding the Church. We have the Pope that is right for this time. Pope Francis is as solid a Catholic as they come. That means his Doctrine is solid.
Now, are you concerned about doctrine being diluted? No worries. Read carefully what Francis says (not what others say he said). No diluting here. Concerned about what he does? Well, here’s where we should be following his lead.
Pope Francis is reminding us that, ultimately, everything we believe is reflected in how we navigate through the messiness of life. Oh, if life were clean and neat! Oh, if the Church were a clean and sterile museum! But it isn’t; it’s a field hospital. Field hospitals are full of blood, sweat and injuries, and amputees and there’s yelling and sometimes swearing and… well, you get what I mean.
But the doctors in the field hospital would not be able to do their work in the messiness of the place, had they not gone to medical school. If they didn’t know their doctrine, they would not be able to function in such a place. In fact, some doctors who are used to an urban emergency room cannot function in a field hospital, where they lack equipment and resources; sometimes there’s no electricity; no antibiotics; no anesthesia. You need doctrine and experience in order to navigate through the messiness of life.
“Doctrine is about ideas and ideas are always clear,” my uncle said to me once during a lovely brunch while I argued with him about abortion. “But we don’t live in a world of ideas; we live in a real world of broken and bruised people.” He’s right. But it’s having those clear ideas that allows us to find our way in the darkness and fogginess of that very real world.
Doctrine is what we can hang-on to while we wade in the murkiness of the waters. But wade in the waters we must. Grasping doctrine tightly with one hand and with the other hand rolling up our sleeves and pant legs.
This is why Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy. Perhaps it’s because he’s confident that we know our doctrine. We are secure in our doctrine; we had St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to work with us on doctrine; now it’s time to put it into practice.
And the only way to put doctrine into practice (and that’s really the only purpose, otherwise it’s useless – just ideas) is to always look at it and filter it through a pastoral lens. Being pastoral doesn’t mean going against the Magisterium. I would argue that the Magisterium calls us to be merciful and pastoral (in the true sense of the word; how does a shepherd take care of the sheep?).
Perhaps not coincidentally, today’s Gospel reading (3rd Sunday, Ordinary Time, Cycle C) has Jesus taking his missional cue from Isaiah: “…to proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18) That should be our missional cue as well: Everything we do, whether teaching, preaching and correcting (using solid doctrine) must be done as we proclaim good news. No matter what, we must always give hope. All our actions must proclaim freedom. We do all we do with compassion and love. That’s being pastoral. Maybe we need to be reminded of this. That’s why we need a Year of Mercy.
Maybe someday we’ll have a Year of Justice, I doubt it, but I don’t know; for now let’s have a Year of Mercy. That means a Year of pastoral approach: a year of not following just the words of the Law but learning and working through the Spirit of the Law.
In the next couple of weeks, I’d like to look at the difference between Justice and Mercy and why we are only capable of mercy.
CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching:email@example.com