Pope Francis just returned from his first trip to Africa a few days ago. Those of us who watch and pray for him were amazed once again at his courage, faithfulness and continued displays of pastoral mercy. Surely “mercy” does sum up what Francis says and does as pope. Thus it is not surprising really since he has declared the coming year to be a “Year of Mercy.” He recently said that he will make twelve big (“significant”) gestures, one each month.Each is mean to demonstrate God’s mercy. This is what the Catholic Church calls a Jubilee Year. This year was pre-launched last Sunday when Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic. One of the admirable features of Catholic Church life is the way this biblical concept of jubilee can be used to capture the minds and hearts of the whole church over a span of time.
In a brief interview in Credere, the official jubilee weekly magazine in Italian, Francis said: “There will be many gestures, but on one Friday each month I will do something different.” The pope officially begins the Year of Mercy for the worldwide church next Tuesday when, as in Africa, he throws open the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the same time next Tuesday (December 7) he will also celebrate a large outdoor Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). By the way, Francis has also invited the world to Rome for Pentecost 2017 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic charismatic movement. God willing, I would like to be there with many of my brothers and sisters to pray.
Most Vatican watchers agree that it is not clear yet what type of grand gestures of mercy Francis is actually planning for this yearlong jubilee. Many Catholics hope that one of these gestures will include people who are in “irregular marriage situations” (a canonical term the pope loathes) and priests who have left the active ministry for various reasons. Robert Mickens, writing in Commonweal, asks: “Is Francis willing to find a way to apply God’s mercy so that it can heal these and other situations? If he does go down this road he will be opposed by some members of the church.” Francis himself said at the end of the last synod gathering—even bishops with “closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” For those who do not understand the context or meaning here this is pretty significant stuff when it is carefully read. I ask, “Do many of our church leaders – evangelical, Catholic and Protestant – hide behind their church teachings and good intentions . . . to sit in the chair of Moses and judge?”
I am particularly interested that Pope Francis has specifically understood the danger of “fundamentalism” within the Catholic Church. (On his plane ride back from Africa he specifically referred to this danger by name!) Pope Francis said, “Fundamentalism is an illness found in all religions. We Catholics have some (fundamentalists). No, not some—a lot who believe they have the absolute truth and go around sullying others through calumny, defamation. . . ” he added.
My hope here is quite simple. I pray that the pope’s emphasis on mercy, which has been evident from Day One, will be used by God to preserve Catholics, and non-Catholics in my own evangelical circles, from falling prey to fundamentalist tendencies. These tendencies will likely grow stronger in the face of the acts of terrorism that have recently rocked the U.S. The world war has now clearly come to our cities and towns and none of us “feels” entirely safe any more. Now, how will the church respond? With mercy and love or fear and fundamentalism?
There are two things to note here. First, Francis uses the word “fundamentalist” in a very specific way. He is describing those who “believe they have the absolute truth and then go around sullying others through calumny [and] defamation.” Don’t be fooled by his words. He is not denying that God’s final revelation of truth is found in Christ and in Christ alone. He is THE truth! Francis is, after all, an orthodox Christian. But he is saying something extremely important. There is a huge chasm of difference between “fundamentalism” and the kind of gracious “orthodoxy” that is linked closely with God’s love in Jesus Christ. We who believe in Him “know” the truth and it is the truth “sets us free.” But that Truth is Jesus, not a system of concepts called THE FAITH. Second, the pope’s emphasis on “unity in reconciled diversity” (a term he borrowed from the German biblical theologian Oscar Cullman, and a reference which I have spoken about many times) offers all Christians a new way forward in the twenty-first century! We do not need to require that every Christian become a member of the same church to enter into God’s glorious gift of true unity. In this he often speaks of a unity we share in the martyr’s blood, a unity he spoke of so eloquently in Africa. Francis ended his interview with Credere by adding, “Each of us should say: ‘I’m a poor wretch, but God loves me as I am; so I should also love others in the same way.’” The great John Newton, the evangelical Anglican who wrote the world’s best-known hymn, Amazing Grace, could not have said this better. As an evangelical Protestant, who shares in this deep and real unity with multitudes of my Catholic brothers and sisters, I can only say a hearty and deeply moving, “Amen!”