What do we have that works?
In the movie, Apollo 13, there is a scene shortly after everything starts going wrong with the space craft where Flight Director Gene Kranz tells everyone in Mission Control to calm down. He says,
“Let’s approach this thing from a position of status. What do we have that works?”
In recent days there have a been a few opinion pieces in both the Catholic blogosphere and the secular media highlighting that while Pope Francis is winning the hearts of many, he has made a lot of the more conservative Catholics a little nervous if not downright crestfallen. A sentiment or a suspicion seems to exist among the more orthodox that Francis is giving away the perceived gains that have been made with past pontiffs, namely Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
Perhaps the genius of Francis is his simple recognition that in order to right the ship, he might have to focus on what is working versus what is not. And even that’s not a really good statement as the ship is righted, but the perception of the non-believer is that it’s listing. Might it be that the post-Christian era population is going to be more open to hearing the Gospel by listening to what the Church is for more than what the Church is against? It’s a debatable position to take. A good argument can be made for stating that the Church militant must rise against many of the social ills that have infected Western culture. Not saying anything can certainly be seen by many as passive assent. There are some huge problematic issues such as abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and the like that are non-negotiable for the faith. That our culture actively defends the right to kill a human being inside the womb is no small matter and must be addressed; however, the Church cannot evangelize very effectively if she simply hangs her identity on the opposition to the culture’s most popular sins. What is the alternative she brings?
Orthodoxy has its challenges of comfort and frustration. For a Catholic, there is comfort in knowing that one practices the one true faith handed down from generation to generation and that we can trace our lineage all the way back to Peter, our first Pope. There is frustration and sadness in seeing all the disunity of thousands of protesting ecclesial communities who broke away from the Church and then broke away from themselves. These are good people who love Christ, but for whatever reason have deviated from the Church Our Lord established. Naturally, they would vehemently disagree with that statement and lean more towards that Catholics are practicing in error and that they have discovered the correct way. And so the debate goes on, though in truth most Catholics expend little or no energy trying to convert Protestants. Their protesting brethren for the most part have been validly baptized, seem to know Christ, and the rest is very much in God’s hands.
In a similar way, the orthodox believer finds comfort in that he is practicing the Catholic faith in the way it was intended yet his brethren have often gone off into the weeds. The orthodox believer may feel that many in his parish are not even practicing the same religion. Out of this frustration orthodox believers tend to cloister into small groups or small parishes and turn their focus inward. This can sometimes be a problem as orthodoxy without love leads to the deadly sin of pride.
Francis seems to be calling the orthodox to come out of the bunker, but it may not be in the way the believer prefers. He seems to be saying, “Yeah, good on you for following the rubrics to the letter of the GIRM, but what have you done for the poor, today?” Or “Yeah, I pray the rosary a couple of times a day myself, but when was the last time you really loved your enemy as Christ instructed?”
This author is not making a case against orthodoxy. In point of fact, he desires stricter adherence to the teachings of the Church and her mission. Nevertheless, orthodoxy in of itself is not a destination but rather a means by which one demonstrates two vital things, love of God and love of neighbor.
What do we have that works?
First, we have the Mass. Regardless of how orthodox or liberal the priest, when he prays the words of consecration and simple bread and wine through the miracle of transubstantiation become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, God’s love for his children gets witnessed. Eucharist is the greatest miracle that happens every hour of every day. Now, good luck trying to explain that to a non-believer, but that’s not the point. More important is we have this tremendous gift from God from which to draw strength.
Second, we have the other sacraments. Again, explaining the sacramental nature of the faith is a tall challenge to the non-believer, Protestants, and good many Catholics who should know better. Yet these sacraments are additional sources of grace from God that should give us strength to focus on work at hand.
Third, we have a mission given by Christ, and that mission works.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matthew (RSV) 28:19-20)
And he said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark (RSV) 16:15)
We have a mission to preach the Gospel to the world not the choir. What Francis is demonstrating is the most effective way to preach the Gospel to the non-believer is not by a dissertation on the rules, but rather by a more pragmatic expression of love. The rules are more than important. They are vital. When we go to Mass, the rubrics should be followed to the letter. We should observe all of the holy days. We should pray as Christ instructed. We should work for change in our laws that permit many of the social ills destroying the culture. Ultimately; however, people will be drawn by our love and they may wonder about the source of this love because they want not only to receive but to give it themselves. It is after this demonstration or expression of love that the door opens to explain that the love comes from Christ and this is what he said and this is how we worship.
What do we have that works?
It is our very orthodoxy if it is practiced with caritas. John Paul II gave us the philosophy. Benedict XVI gave us the theology. Francis is demonstrating how to apply it in a very real and personal way. So have faith my fellow orthodox brethren. Francis is challenging us to step out of our comfort zone. Let us embrace this as we go out into the world to share the good news.