Pope Francis washing the feet
of the poor
Evangelical Catholicism is thus a reality of Word and Sacrament, in several senses. The Gospel word preached is also the Word of God, the Lord Jesus, the Sacrament who is present to the Church through the seven sacraments which are never celebrated without reference to the Scriptures. Growth in faith, hope, and love—growth in friendship with Christ—is nurtured through a regular and frequent reception of the sacraments, and that growth in turn breaks open aspects of the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments that may have been previously obscure, unclear, or entirely hidden. It is all one package, one evangelical Catholic reality. Word and Sacrament are no more separable than Gospel and Church, Scripture and apostolic tradition, mission and service.
I really love this vision of who we are called as Church to be with Word and Sacrament as the channels of grace by which Christ is a living Presence in our lives. I know for myself that the interplay of Scripture and Sacrament has opened my heart to understand the profound mystery of the all present and abiding Compassion of God, not simply as a personal gift to me but as the overwhelming relationship with which God has chosen to establish with his creation. As Teresa of Avila wrote:
God’s mercy is so great that he has excluded no one from coming to the fountain of love to drink.
I think this is what excites me so deeply about this pontificate. For too long the compassionate love of God was something we would hear about from time to time but only amidst the cacophony of too-often contradictory messages. There was an inconsistency of focus that threatened to erode our faith—indeed, for many, did erode their faith. I am not saying that we don’t need to be challenged to ever greater fidelity—I am firmly convinced that rooting our lives in the Word of God will make us take long hard looks at ourselves in the mirror of the Gospel, but it will always assure of forgiveness if only we too accept and adopt the culture of Compassion which God reveals to us in how he has loved us while we were yet sinners (cf. Romans 5:8).
And I think that this Gospel of God’s Mercy is precisely what has alienated so many on the religious right from Pope Francis. They cannot bear the unconditional terms of forgiveness and reconciliation that he speaks without reservation to all. This weekend’s Gospel really speaks to me. What sort of ground does my heart provide for the seed of God’s Word? You know, I have been listening to this Word and reading this Word and have studied this Word for 40, 50, even close to 60 years now. I never turned away from it, but I think it that for a very long time—most of that time—my heart was the hard path on which the seed fell. I heard it but it never penetrated. I didn’t “get it.” I took it as doctrine, but not as Gospel and so it never really penetrated. O yeah, I believed the Pope was the successor of Saint Peter and Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and I honored my father and my mother. But it took a long time for that Word to sink in and take root and help me understand the unconditional love that God has, not only for me, but for all sinners and that that love was based not on any merit on my part but precisely on the fact that I am, we are, sinners.
And once one encounters the mystery of God’s merciful love, it changes the way in which we look, not only at ourselves, but at all creation. And we can see that in this world, God’s world not our world of lies and deceits, there are no “illegal aliens.” There are no “enemies.” There are no “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”There are no Americans or Brits or Italians or Argentines or Nigerians. There are no gays or straights. There are, ultimately, not even Christians or Buddhists or Baptists or Jews or Roman Catholics. There are only those whom God loves and wishes to bring into an ever-deeper communion with himself—a communion and Community reached through the Word he speaks to us and the Sacraments by which he touches us. All these things by which we let ourselves be divided from others are the work of the evil one, the kingdom that wants to divide and fracture in opposition to the Kingdom that desires to bring all humankind together.
I realize that this reflection isn’t very historical in the strict sense, but like good history, it has serious implications for how we see the future. I don’t think George Weigel and I would agree about the particulars, but I do think that narrowing our Catholic focus back to Word and Sacrament can build a Church that draws humankind closer together rather than reinforces the divisions that centuries of prejudice and narrow-mindedness have created.