Does the Pope want to change Catholic moral doctrine by saying that abortion is no longer the destruction of a human life and that homosexuality is a good thing? Does he want us to stop calling something sinful when up until yesterday it was considered such? That is not what Francis said. Indeed, what he said was, “the teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church.”
The change, or rather the “pastoral conversion” the Pope is asking for and most importantly illustrating with his actions – in his meetings with people and in his preaching – is quite another. It is to do with the proclamation of the Gospel. “When the Catholic faith is no longer felt by many as the common heritage of society and is often seen as an insidious and obfuscating seed by the ‘gods’ and lords of this world, it is very difficult for it to touch hearts through simple discourses or moral exhortations, still less through vague appeals to Christian values.” “Nonetheless, the simple enunciation of the message is not enough to reach people’s heart; it does not touch their freedom; it does not change their life. What fascinates people is especially their meeting with believers who, through their faith, draw them to the grace of Christ, by bearing witness to Him.” These are not Francis’ words. These forgotten words were pronounced by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, during a speech to Portuguese bishops, in Fatima, on 13 May 2010. At a mass celebration for Fr. Giussani’s funeral in Milan’s Duomo cathedral, just a few weeks before he was elected Pope, Ratzinger had said: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism. Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”
How did Christianity spread over the centuries? How have people found the Christian experience, letting themselves be drawn in by it? There have of course been cases of conversions in light of mystical visions or inner enlightenment or through rational thinking. Throughout history there have also been conversions propitiated by sovereigns. But in the vast majority of cases faith spread through encounters, relationships and welcoming gestures. Today Francis stresses that evangelising is not about repeating the Church’s teaching on non-negotiable values – and the public condemnations that come with those – at set times, like a mantra. A Church that turns these values into its main and constantly repeated message, risks pushing people away rather than attracting them. The Pope says that the Church must focus its message “on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus…”. Most importantly, it needs to go back to announcing that “Jesus Christ has saved you!”. Ministers of the Church must above all be “ministers of mercy” because “the proclamation of the saving love of God” comes first.
That said, I do think that many who have never truly experienced a life-changing encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ are using the Pope’s words as a cloak for pushing a fuzzy, anything-goes, nice-guy Jesus of their own making.