Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pope Francis Speaks of Joy as Leitmotiv of Gospel-Oriented Life, Some Catholics Respond, "Food for Worms": How Have We Come to This?

And so how does it come to this as 2014 begins, I ask myself? A new pope issues an apostolic exhortation which says that joy is the leitmotiv of the Christian life, a key characteristic of those who walk in the path of Jesus and his good news. Pope Francis tells us that having the face of a sour pickle is not the best way to communicate what the good news of God's amazing love for us in Christ is all about. 

And then a certain group of Catholics who define themselves as more exemplary Catholics than anyone else respond by arguing that the sour old tradition of speaking of those who have died as worm food --a tradition that has rightly waned in Christianity along with the tradition of burning witches at the stake or tormenting Jews or holding slaves--should be rehabilitated (and here) at this point in Catholic history. 

Especially, of course--and this goes without saying--if the object of that sour, joyless rhetoric happens to be someone who is gay or someone who has defended and loved gay people. Because what this rhetoric is all about, of course, is reserving the right to pass judgment on those who are gay or who stand in solidarity with gay folks, even when they have just died and the truly Christian response to news of their death should certainly be to lament our loss, show our gratitude for the legacy of their lives, and indicate that we'll pray for the person who has died and her or his loved ones.

What this worm-food rhetoric is all about, of course, when it's applied to gay folks (and not to others who have just died) is reserving the right to pass judgment. On human beings and fellow Catholics we've never met and don't even know. Into whose souls we have no window at all.

Solely because they happened to be gay or stood in solidarity with those who are gay. 

How does it come to this as 2014 begins, I wonder? A new pope asks us how any of us can claim the right to judge those who are gay in this way. When asked if he "approves of" homosexuality, he responds,

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: "Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?" We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.

Pope Francis repeats over and over again that we proclaim the gospel most effectively when we communicate the good news of God's love for all of creation with joy, and when we live mercifully. Not when we screw our visages into replicas of sour pickles.

And as the new year begins, a certain group of Catholics who believe themselves to be the most faithful Catholics of all want to respond to the news of the death of a priest who just died, who spent years reaching out with mercy to those who are gay, by crowing, "Food for worms." And by slapping down anyone who says this priest might now be in the presence of God.

And they want to call that being faithful to papal teaching. And they want to call that proclaiming the good news of God's astonishing love for all of creation in Jesus Christ.

How have we reached this point in Catholic history and Catholic life, I keep asking myself--and will keep asking as the new year unfolds.

The graphic: a photo of the Chapel of Skulls at Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic, from the Nothing Is Real blog site. Chapels like this, full of skulls and the bones of those who have died, were a "thing" at a certain point in Catholic history, in certain Catholic cultures. 

They've now fallen into desuetude, and one doesn't find Catholic communities building such chapels to proclaim the good news of God's love for the world in Jesus Christ. I wonder why this transition has occurred?

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