“I never tire of repeating those words of which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’”
Pope Francis offered these words (borrowed from his predecessor Benedict XVI) towards the beginning of his recently released letter to the world, The Joy of the Gospel.
At its heart, the papal letter is a call to live what we profess to believe.
If we believe prayer is true communion with the Creator and lover of our souls, then we must take time to pray. If we believe that the poor, the suffering and the abandoned are closest to the heart of Jesus, then we must touch them, love them, speak with them. If we believe that God fills the human soul with abiding joy, eternal purpose and soul-shaking awe then we must share this divine mystery with those who do not know Jesus or who have rejected him.
Being a Catholic is not simply a matter of knowing the words of the Apostle’s Creed or merely receiving the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first communion. These are vital to the faith but they do not encompass the full reality of being a friend and herald of Jesus Christ.
Despite the spin and highly selective reporting of the mainstream media, the message of our new and dynamic pope is not fundamentally political, economic or environmental. He sees a much deeper human longing.
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience,” Pope Francis says in his new letter. “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
The pope has rightly focused on the need for internal renewal among the faithful. Without a heart that burns with the love of Jesus Christ all our well laid plans will disintegrate into incoherent political sound bites and partisan agendas that exchange the truth of the Gospel for well-intentioned activism. And that’s the best case scenario. At the worst, we risk becoming self absorbed, concerned only with entertaining ourselves and pursuing individual agendas in which there is “no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”
As Catholics we have been given many doorways through which we can encounter God. We must do more than merely acknowledge their existence, for a door unopened is not much better than a wall that isolates and confines.
The pope is reminding us that we believe in extraordinary things. We believe that God is present at Mass, that he really does forgive our sins, heals our wounded souls and enkindles compassion, charity and patience that we could never muster on our own.
As this new year unfolds, let us take the pope’s exhortation to heart.
If we believe these astonishing truths, let use find ways to explore them more deeply and live out the consequences wherever they lead.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers 10 ways in which to live out the Catholic faith. This is merely a starting point, but that is how every adventure begins. Here’s the link: usccb.org/news/2012/12-150.cfm.
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.