08 October 2013

Francis as Enacted Parable

Because of the conjunction of the Feast of St Francis and the first months of the thus-amazing papacy of his name-sake it is hard not reflect on the similarities and differences between them. At the same time I am impressed with the people who have asked me about the Pope, commented on his interviews, spoken of the changes in the Church, mentioned possibly returning to the Church, asked about the roles open to them as adults in the Church, expressed an excitement they have not felt for a long time, etc etc. What is doubly surprising to me are the number of these people who are not Catholic, who have felt entirely alienated from the Church for a variety of reasons, who rarely speak to me about religion per se or their stance regarding the Church. Then too there are the Catholics waiting to see if the Pope REALLY does anything besides "empty gestures" or "meaningless words." Because of all this and more I was thinking about Pope Francis as a parable, a living parable-in-act who is challenging the whole Church to be what the Church is commissioned by her Lord to be. With Francis' papacy we (and here I mean EVERYONE) have a new chance to enter into this huge and complicated story of the mercy of God and choose between the visions of reality we find there.

When Jesus told stories his hearers entered into them alone to meet Jesus and the God he proclaimed face to face. Sometimes they carried personal baggage into the story and, for whatever reason, left with it once again apparently untouched by the encounter except for a hardening of their hearts following an initial disorientation perhaps. Sometimes they brought similar baggage into this holy space and found that Jesus' touch healed them of their woundedness and lifted the burden they carried from their shoulders even as it offered them a yoke of a different sort altogether. They left with a renewed step and determination to journey on with this man. Some found the story they were living was one they regretted and discovered Jesus' offered them a place in a new one with a new future and the hope they thought they had lost forever. Some discovered that the cost of entering the "Kingdom" Jesus offered in his stories was simply too high, demanded too much in terms of worldly status and prestige, required too much in terms of self-honesty or humility, paid far too little in terms of power or temporal security, offered only the company of other sinners --- and other disciples of God's Christ. Some of these simply walked away but others saw the danger of these stories clearly and became implacable enemies of the man Jesus and his entire project.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Francis is another living or "enacted" parable. (He is not a Christ but a Christian; he is what we are each called to be.) He is busy telling the story of the mercy of God, of a Church which is open to sinners (in fact it is ONLY open to sinners!) and to modernity with all the messiness such an encounter will involve. He is telling his own story, that of a sinner set free by the mercy of God; it is, as he knows very well, the story of a Gospel with a preference for the poor and  a God whose love is unconditional and inescapable (though we may choose to live our lives rejecting and trying to flee from it). He tells this story with his own gestures and words; he tells it in ways which are inviting and convincing, expansive and inclusive, humble and extravagant, and which therefore open up the reality of God's Kingdom to all of those who have felt disenfranchised for any reason whatsoever. For those in positions of privilege Francis' parable-actions are not so welcome perhaps. Putting a ring on the finger of the younger son and a robe around his shoulders also meant an unwelcome change for the older son --- despite the Father's reminder that all he has is the elder Son's and he is with him always.

I remain surprised at folks who say Francis has not yet done anything substantive. In fact he has changed the horizon of all of our hopes and expectations for the institutional church; he has reminded us all that we are the ones responsible for proclaiming the Gospel with our lives. He has offered us a living parable we can engage at any time just as we engage the Word of God in the Scriptures. He has begun to signal to people that the Church can be a home, that they too can come back from their travels to "far places" and be welcomed back as men and women of genuine authority, Sons and Daughters whose place is at the head of the table not mere servants groveling for the crumbs fallen from the feasts of their "betters". He has done more to evangelize the world around us in six and a half months of ministry than many have done as "soldiers of Christ" with their raging judgments and militant attempts to condemn and proselytize the contemporary world. As a result people are talking about their faith, their hopes, their excitement and their past disappointments and yearnings as well --- and they are doing so in ways I have not heard in more than 4 decades.

Francis is not perfect (thank God!). He is not Christ. But he is Christlike and he is that in a convincing way. He is creating a sacred space much as Jesus' own parables did and people can enter into that space whenever they desire to and at any one of many entrances. Dogma and doctrine, as fascinating as they may be to systematic theologians and as truly indispensable as they are in the life of faith, do not function this way. For those denying substantive change is actually occurring look at what happened because Jesus told homely stories about weeds and wheat, prodigal sons and fathers,  lost and found coins, wedding feasts, and turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. Look what happened because he ate with sinners, overturned tables in the Temple, called tax collectors to let him share a table with them. He was not crucified because he was doing nothing substantive but because he was overturning reality in an unimaginable way! He was crucified because he inflamed people's imaginations and unleashed long-suppressed hopes and vision. So too with Francis who has unleashed an energy I associate with the Holy Spirit. That Spirit recreated Francis and we must allow him to do the same to us so that we in turn can become Christ's Body and Blood broken and poured out for the world.