For anyone skeptical about religion, listen to Pope Francis

For anyone skeptical about religion, listen to Pope Francis

Pope Francis celebrates a Mass for cardinals and bishops who died in the past year, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

For anyone who is skeptical or worried about religion — as a potential hotbed for violence, as a means of a candidate getting elected, as the pain of youth, Pope Francis reminds of us of what it really is, which is focusing not on self but gift.

Commentary

In a week that included a Reformation Day celebration and prayers for Christian unity, Pope Francis on Thursday talked about real religion, the urgency of protecting religious freedom, and our real desire and need for it.

“May the religions be wombs of life, bearing the merciful love of God to a wounded and needy humanity; may they be doors of hope helping to penetrate the walls erected by pride and fear,” he said.

For anyone who is skeptical or worried about religion — as a potential hotbed for violence, as a means of a candidate getting elected, as the pain of youth, this is what it really is. Focusing not on self, but gift. Being grateful to our Creator and overflowing with this merciful love Pope Francis talks so much about.

Mercy is not something Pope Francis, of course, invented, but got from Jesus, God incarnate, in the Gospel and on the cross.

I read the pope’s remarks Thursday morning, which were delivered to an interfaith gathering at the Vatican, in the context of American reality. An hour doesn’t go by when I’m not reminded of the election — even when I’m praying or working (quietest spot in most cities) in the back of a Church, someone comes over and brings it up.

People are agonizing over what to do. They are worried about the future of freedom — of conscience, of the dignity of human life at its most vulnerable. They want to think about the persecuted Christians throughout the world, and especially in places like Iraq and Syria where the very future of the existence of Christianity remains an open question, one rarely adequately covered by the media, and no one who is running for president has adequately addressed.

Some other people know exactly what they are doing on Tuesday. Happily in some cases. Resolutely in others, defiantly against the candidate they are voting against — for abortion reasons, mainly, but corruption and ideology, too.

Some religious figures in the public square — mercifully not many of them Catholic (unless I missed something, not any of them bishops) — have seemed to squander credibility on one candidate or another. The morning after the election and days beyond are going to be times for as much prayer as the days before.

And this is where the rebuilding work the Church begins will be in a heightened way. People come and return to churches during “the holidays.” To give thanks, to celebrate. The country needs Catholics and other Christians to take this Advent more seriously than ever.

As I watch Americans end friendships over Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, social media and cable television explode with vitriol, capturing some of the layers of anger and confusion and misery our politics exacerbate, Pope Francis’s words on religion resonated as the tonic to counter the toxic.

He talked Thursday about “the grim depths to which our freedom can plunge when tempted by evil, ever-present, waiting to strike and bring us down.”

Keep reading, there’s more. There’s the hope.

“Yet precisely here,” he continued, “before the great riddle of evil that tests every religious experience, we find the most amazing aspect of merciful love.  That love does not leave us prey to evil or to our own frailty; it does not ‘forget’, but ‘remembers’, and draws near to every human misery in order to relieve it.  Like a mother.”

He went on to say: “Whatever the evil done by her child, a mother always sees past the sin to recognize the face she bore in her womb.”

At a time where we seem so divided, and yet, consistent polls — I think in particular of the Marist Polling the Knights of Columbus have been commissioning for a decade and counting now — show opportunities on the issue of abortion, for a start, which is a chief and leading poison that infects everything — our politics, our culture, our families, our friendships, you name it.

His focus on the uniqueness of the gift of life starting in the womb of a mother does seem to emphasize this, and give a political platform to the human face that only love can provide.

As if a reminder to everyone who professes to be Christian, Pope Francis Thursday issued one, an examination of conscience, a prompt for the coming weeks as the year begins to wind down. And as we look to recover from this awful presidential election into matters of transition and our need for transformation:

“In today’s ever more hectic and forgetful word, which leaves so many men and women behind as it races on, breathlessly and aimlessly, we need the oxygen of this gratuitous and life-giving love.  We thirst for mercy and no technology can quench that thirst.  We seek a love that endures beyond momentary pleasures, a safe harbor where we can end our restless wanderings, an infinite embrace that forgives and reconciles.”

You can read more of what he had to say here. As a general rule, that’s always a good idea. Few news stories or commentaries ever fully capture the richness.

And almost like how the physical walking of the Stations of the Cross add to deeper prayer, the actual reading of so many of his entreaties do morph into prayer of self-examination.

This pope knows many of us have missed many of the opportunities of the soon-to-end jubilee year of mercy. There are a few weeks left for a pilgrimage of faith “walking with humility and trust” “to find ourselves fully reconciled by the mercy of God” as he put it, seeking out a local holy door, along with Confession and prayer.

I’ve made my views about this election known — I’m not voting for either of the candidates — and not everyone is happy with me about that. But I’ve also emphasized the need to respect people’s freedom to decide what they need to do as a matter of conscience.

As we go forward, Pope Francis seemed to have words of advice here too: “Forgiveness is surely the greatest gift we can give to others, because it is the most costly.  Yet at the same time, it is what makes us most like God.”

The Holy Father’s pre-Advent gift to us is this: “May the religions be wombs of life, bearing the merciful love of God to a wounded and needy humanity; may they be doors of hope helping to penetrate the walls erected by pride and fear.”

That’s the work for us to do — members of the Body of Christ, about to move into post-election field hospital mode. To forgive. Refocus. Renew. To be beacons of hope as we love one another.

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