Walking Past the Battle Lines

Much of value has been said already about Pope Francis' interview with America Magazine (I particularly liked Emily Stimpson's take, as well as Michael Gerson's writeup at the Washington Post). One particular section of the interview - just a few paragraphs, really - has received most of the attention. Here is a snippet:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time...The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

Rather than attempting to dissect the Pope's words, I wanted to offer an image that may help us to better understand, and, more importantly, to put into practice what Pope Francis is getting at. I borrow this image from the life of the Pope's namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. With Pope Francis taking the name of this great saint, I thought it was time to finally pull Chesterton's biographical sketch of St. Francis off the shelf. The fact that the Pope chose to take Francis' name means that he wants us to learn something from his life. I felt that one brief mention of an episode in St. Francis' life perhaps held the key to understanding our Pope's comments above.

Chesterton alludes in passing to St. Francis' attempt "to end the Crusades by the conversion of Islam." Call it zeal or bravado, you have to at least call it GUTS! St. Francis, as it were, walked right through the battle lines, into the palace of the sultan, and preached Jesus Christ to him. (It's worth pointing out that he did this in a way that didn't get himself killed.)

Perhaps this is what Pope Francis is asking us to consider. We are in a battle - there is no doubt about it. But have we so drawn the battle lines that we have lost any opportunity to preach the heart of the gospel to our "opponents"? Have we lost the chance to show the heart of Christ? Ultimately Jesus is the remedy. If we were able to bring Jesus to our "opponents," and bring them to Jesus, we may just find these "issues" drying up fairly easily.As with so many aspects of our Catholic faith, this need not be an either/or. It is not proclaim the Gospel or work to end abortion, for instance. One shining example of someone holding these two together is Abby Johnson, former Planned Parenthood director turned pro-life advocate. Her primary mission is to reach out to others in the abortion industry and help make it easier for them to leave. Abby is walking past those battle lines and reaching out to the person on the other side.

This is, after all, the way that God works with us. We do not become acceptable to God once we "get our act together." God offers his transforming love to us right in the midst of our mess. This is the "one thing," the "heart of the message of Jesus Christ," the starting point, the sure foundation on which we can begin to work out our own "issues."