However, I've also been noticing something these eight months that gives me pause and concern. No, it is not anything Pope Francis has done or said. Rather, it is the consistent "proof texting" that fills my Facebook feed, peppers conversations, colors secular news stories, and pervades the Church. We hear what we want to hear in his words, while some hear what they don't want to hear or hear the silence of what is not being said that they want to hear. I wonder if in the midst of all this proof texting, centered as it seems to be around our own preconceived agendas and notions, we aren't just missing the point.
Now, let me add a note of full disclosure before I share my observations. I was not a huge fan of the previous Pope. In fact, on the day he was elected I felt disenfranchised and very concerned about his conservative leanings, much of it based on what I knew of certain actions he undertook as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. If I reflect back honestly, I was suspicious of anything he wrote, said, or did. Yet, I read it. And in time I came to deeply appreciate how he carried the mantle of Pope John Paul II as being a voice of reason, hope and challenge to the Church and larger society in areas concerning globalization and ecology. His social encyclicals were profound and gave me pause and food for thought regarding economics and my own responsibility as a consumer in a globalized world to people who are poor and marginalized. Yet I had friends who refused to read, listen to, or ponder anything Pope Benedict said. I keenly remember one particular peace and justice commission meeting in my parish when two friends literally walked out of the meeting because I dared to offer a reflection from the Pope during our opening reflection.
Perhaps that is why I was so impacted by an article in today's New York Times: "Conservative U.S. Catholics Feel Left out of Pope's Embrace." The catchy title of the article obviously is a reference to this montage of photos which is all over my Facebook Feed these days:
This of course is a photo of Pope Francis embracing Pope Benedict. There is continuity. This is the same Church, although with a different style of leader. To the best of my knowledge, nothing Pope Francis has said or done has changed Church doctrine or broken with tradition. Respect for life and the dignity of the human person are key and core to everything he has said and done, as is a pastoral approach. This last is key I think. He is the Bishop of Rome. He is our pastor, not a lawyer or judge or other legal professional. These seems to be how he approaches issues of controversy, as a pastor, not as someone laying down the law.
Yet, when we give into the temptation of proof texting, we hear what we want to hear or lament that we don't hear what we want to hear. Whether it is amplifying out of context something he says about sexual morality or the role of women or denouncing his assumed silence on certain life issues, we miss his main pastoral message which is the message of Jesus: love and mercy.
This is summed up well, I think, by a woman quoted in the NYT article.
At the Pregnancy Aid Clinic in Hapeville, Ga., a Catholic-run nonprofit center where women who come for pregnancy tests are counseled against abortion, staff members gathered around a kitchen table last week and cautiously said they had been grappling with the pope’s message and were trying to take it to heart.
Alexandra P. Shattuck, the clinic’s director, said she had studied the pope’s interview in her parish’s Bible study class and concluded that the news media had taken Francis’ warning not to “obsess” about abortion out of context. She said he was really trying to teach about mercy.
“I think he was completely right,” added Katie Stacy, the development coordinator. “The focus should be not only on love and mercy, but on treating the women in these crisis situations with love and mercy.”Here is an example of someone moving beyond proof texting. Rather than focusing on what Pope Francis is NOT saying, she is open to being transformed and challenged by what he does say.
Am I guilty of proof texting the Pope? Of course. Regular readers of the blog might remember how pleased I was with his words and actions during the Syria crisis earlier this Fall. It is human to seek meaning in the words of leaders. My only concern is that at least in this country, we seem to be using our proof texting of the Pope as a divisive wedge, a defense of our own positions [or if we are no longer able to find a papal defense of our positions, we might experience a new feeling of alienation]. The Church is not about right or left, winners or losers, progressive or traditional. It is about being the people of God and the body of Christ.
As for Pope Francis, I am going to try to save my next round of proof texting for his first social encyclical! :)