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Friday, April 11, 2014

What Pope Francis Teaches Me about not Marginalizing Others

The daily homilies of Pope Francis at the Domus Sanctae Marthae are a distinctive aspect of his pontificate thus far.  The homilies are informal, often given off-the-cuff, but it is clear that the Pope understands them to be a central means of communicating his priorities for the church.

I pay frequent attention to these homilies, and am often challenged by them.  In early November, Pope Francis delivered one that continues to live with me.  The homily was on Jesus' parable of the man who throws a great feast and invites the marginalized on the street when the original invitees decline (Luke 14:15-24).  I wrote briefly about this homily here, and a short video about this homily can be found at the end of this post. 

Comparing the feast of the parable to the church, Pope Francis emphasized the universality of the invitation to the church.  Everyone is invited to the feast, everyone is invited to participate in the church, to share of themselves with others.  And if we accept the invitation, Pope Francis continued, we must actually participate fully in the church.  This means that we can’t pick and choose our fellow invitees.  It is at this point that Pope Francis said the following: “The church is for everyone, beginning…with the most marginalized.  It is everyone’s church!”

I rejoiced when I first read these words, for I saw in them Pope Francis’ consistent call to welcome and embrace those who are on the margins of our society, and those who have been marginalized by our church.

It was my next door neighbour who led me to a much more expansive, and challenging, understanding of the Pope’s exhortation.  The day after the pope’s homily, I favourably cited on social media a controversial article that argued that the bishops should disband the Archdiocese for the Military given that it places the church in the untenable situation of providing legitimacy and support for military causes and actions that are not just.  This led to a congenial, but pointed, conversation with my next door neighbour about my viewpoints on the military.  I am a pacifist, and have long been troubled by implicit or explicit support of militarism in the church.  While my neighbour respected my argument, he was deeply troubled by any suggestion that Catholics in the military be without pastoral support.

Shortly after citing the article about the Archdiocese for the Military, I wrote a blog post about Pope Francis’ homily, emphasizing his comments about it being “everybody’s church.”  My neighbourr responded as follows: “I enjoy reading your blog posts.  After reading this one, I got to thinking about our conversation about the soldiers.  Are they invited to the feast?  I’m a rookie, so don’t push back too hard on my question.”

The reality was that I couldn't push back, because it was precisely the right question to ask.  While I still think a serious discussion needs to be had about Catholic attitudes toward the military and military causes, the reality is that such a discussion needs to be had with the recognition that the answer cannot be that we shut doors in the faces of those who are invited to the feast, which is precisely what I was suggesting we do.

I'm very thankful for my neighbour’s comment.  For as I thought about it, I came to the realization that, on a variety of issues and ideas, I tend to marginalize those with whom I disagree theologically and/or politically.  While I give lip service to the importance of diversity of expression in the church, the truth is that I frequently become so frustrated by those whose viewpoints I find troubling that I long for some way by which their voices would no longer be heard.

But, "It is everybody's church!"

Many of us were moved by the images of the pope embracing the man with neurofibromatosis.  But I’ve come to see that the marginalized are not just those who are disfigured, ill, or poor.  The marginalized aren't only those who have felt judged and condemned by the church because of their sexual orientation or their marital status.  The marginalized also include those persons I summarily and condescendingly dismiss as unworthy of attention because their views don't accord with my own. 

But, “It is everybody’s church!”

The Pope’s words and my neighbor’s comment led to serious self-examination, and what I discovered was this.  When confronted by people who have theological and/or political viewpoints different than my own, I marginalize them by failing to listen – truly to listen – to their arguments. I marginalize them by dismissing their ideas as ignorant, irrelevant, or backwards.  I marginalize them by continuing to view them as ‘other’ rather than as my sister or brother.

But, "It is everybody's church!"

To take seriously the Pope’s words is to be willing to see all persons as having surpassing worth and dignity no matter their viewpoints.  It is to have the humility to understand that I do not have a complete purchase on truth, and so to listen carefully and charitably to those whose viewpoints are not my own.  It is to see those with whom I disagree truly as my sisters and brothers to whom I am inextricably bound in and through the body of Christ.  It is to embrace, literally embrace, those who put forward ideas I consider to be problematic or offensive.

Because, "It is everybody's church!"

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