A Baltimore priest had noticed an interesting article about Pope Francis last Summer. Through the priest and his parish web site, I was called to its attention, too. In the news back then, an interview had pointed out that the niece of Pope Francis, Christina Bergoglio, had said ‘she had no personal need for Church.’ Christina is a pretty famous artist and she sells paintings for up to $25,000 in Spain, and, while that is nice, she said in an interview with a Spanish tv station that she considers herself “to be spiritual, not religious… and (thus) doesn’t need the Church, though she thinks that her uncle is great and that he will help to renew the Church.”
I thought: How about that! The pope has un-involved Catholics in his family circle. Like we all do. It makes no difference to them that their close relative is The Pontiff. Interesting.
After that article got out, you know that someone would have alerted Pope Francis. If you read the things that he publically wrote and preached about in the next month (after that interview of his niece), then you would have noticed that his niece’s indifference to the Church was a real concern to him, and probably high on his prayer intentions to God. He was affected by his niece’s words. Just days afterwards, the Pope gave a talk where he said that Jesus MEANT for His followers to be part of the Church. Yes, especially even the niece of a pope, his talk seemed to say. Pope Francis did not want the words of his niece to misguide anyone. Pope Francis spoke out that it was important for us all to remember to be part of the Church in following Jesus. He said: “We are not isolated and we are not Christians on an individual basis, each to his or her own, no, our Christian identity is to belong! We are Christians because we belong to the Church.” The pope added on another point about community and needing others in The Faith: “I remember the nun who taught me the catechism when I was a little child… (meaning that she was important, and had influenced the man to be the 268th pope) ” So, the Pope said, ‘likewise, we all need to also share that faith with others in the Church.’
The Baltimore priest preached on those same points that Sunday last Summer (on the Feast of Peter and Paul), saying: “Just like you and I have our first and our last name, that, if we are Christian, our first name really is I am Christian, and our last name is I belong to the Church. And the Pope said that really, all of us have benefitted from OTHER PEOPLE showing us the faith: Parents, godparents, grandparents, family, friends….they all taught us to make the Sign of the Cross and to see God in other people. (Point: We have needed other Christians from the start.)
Then what about young adults who wander off thinking it doesn’t matter that they do have community in The Church or not? What about when they self-justify their actions as saying that they can be believers without others’ support in The Church? These kinds of attitudes are ones that might call from you a comment or two to one you know in such a situation. What can you say to them?
Well, for starters, for Christians not to be in community with others is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught us to do. He did not say we could check out and go solo. He said that we should come together. His one great New Covenant commandment was that we would “love one another,” and by this sign people would see Jesus. It is His message as relayed in the Gospel of John chapters 14 through 17.
In another image, as matching the great First Psalm image, we were called to become one great fruitful tree besides His Living Waters. And the fruit on that tree is explained in Galatians chapter 5, as compared in that same chapter to the bad fruits of the world, as apart from Him and the tree. “I am the Vine and you are the branches,” said Jesus.
Going back to the papal story, the pope’s niece had probably disturbed the Holy Father a little bit, as when she said so casually that : ‘Well, I believe in God, and I believe in Jesus, but I don’t care about the Church… I can maintain a personal and direct relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church.’
I was examining other things that the pope said publically last Summer. He made this comment: “It’s true that walking together is challenging, and at times can be tiring: it can happen that some brother or some sister creates problems, or scandalizes us…. But the Lord entrusted his message of salvation to human beings, with all their gifts and limitations, and Jesus told us that He would come to encounter us and make himself known through the Church.”
As the Church ponders the eventual return of the Lord Jesus in Glory, we think of what He has told us about being prepared for it. His teachings speak of being not just individually prepared, but of being mutually prepared and in service to Him and one another.
Indeed, Jesus’ Matthew 25 parable story of God coming to review our lives includes a group of five maidens who are together in a shared vigilance in watching for their Master’s arrival, and the text says that this pleased the Lord. They had their flasks filled with oil for the night watch coming of the Bridegroom to call the wedding party together. This could be applied to being with others in the Body of Christ and serving Him until His Coming. Five of the ten maidens stuck together out of concern of the upcoming wedding and the Groom’s expectations of them to be prepared for it. The oil signified their lives being full of the Spirit of God.
(I don’t remember much about the ancient Jewish practices for weddings, but I seem to recall how the Groom sometimes came to gather the wedding party, and then to take themn (hence, the maidens) to go surprise the Bride-to-be. Since the Bride was to be unsure as to when the Groom would arrive, so too then would the maidens also to be surprised as to when the Groom would come to initiate the Wedding celebration. The five maidens were together and expecting the Groom; while the five foolish ones were off doing something else, and symbolically without the oil of the Spirit full in them. I see those foolish maidens as those Christians who do not realize how they are called together to serve the Lord until He comes and to be in communion with other servants for the Eternal Wedding. Jesus is Coming; His Church is called to await Him. St. Paul speaks of the Eucharist as part of the waiting, when He says we “proclaim the death (sacrifice Offering) of the Lord, until He comes.” We in the Church aren’t sure as to when the Groom will be coming. We just know that He is coming. We know to be ready. It is a call of our being “Church.” As Hebrews 7 speaks of the Lord Jesus even being as Priest among us now, in our liturgies, so more does our vigilance matter. In certain ways, The Lord Jesus is among us in the here-and-now. Hebrews 7:26-28; 8:1 says “It is fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens… a priest who has offered Himself…a Son who has been made perfect forever…. we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true ‘tent’ that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” Can you notice how this verse is a reference to the Church and Her Savior and High Priest Jesus and His activity among us?
We are told that the Return of the Lord to us should be taken as a call to be together and to work in God’s purposes.
We are like maidens doing the prep work for the Marriage of The Church to Christ in Heaven.
*In wedding prep, sometimes the family and wedding party are quite needed and invaluable to the readiness for the Big Day. Right? Jesus has asked His Church to be the ones readying for the Big Day.
In Matthew 22:44 this expectation was clearly laid out. Yet, as Matthew 25:2-3 reveals, the other five maidens were foolish, and the text says “they took no oil with them…and as the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept…and could not come out to meet Him when He came. The wedding feast was started and the doors closed, and those (five) who were ready went in with Him…afterward the other (five) maidens came also, saying: ‘Lord, open to us.’ But He replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’
This Parable teaches us that Church involvement and being co-prepared for Jesus is an important aspect to Church practice. Just some verses later in Matthew 25, Jesus explains how their must be Other-centeredness of the Faith in the Son of Man. But there were five other scattered maidens. They missed their opportunity. Yet the others had reached out to the hungry and thirst…and to strangers… and even went out to prisons looking for the estranged (Matthew 25:35-40). These activities sound like what the Church is still doing—bringing in the hungry for food, the thirsty for God, and the strangers to God’s flock and getting them into the flock–whomever they are. Jesus says: ‘Truly as you did it for the least of people, so you did it as to Me.’
I think of some of the things that I do in God’s Name in the Church are fulfilling Matthew 25. I think the Church calls us to do things that we might not choose to do on our own. In reviewing Matthew 25’s list of visiting the hungry or visiting a prisoner in prison—I was inspired to do because I was part of the Church. I think I would not have done early-morning cooking for the poor or visits to prisoners of my own accord.
The Pope knows that he needs to get people, such as his niece, back into the Fold. While his niece may be doing some charitable things or acting as a nice person, Pope Francis knows that Jesus did not die on a Cross so to just inspire some nice things on earth; He came to save a people to Himself. He is the re-gatherer of humanity back to God.
Pope Francis looks back to St. Peter, the first pope, for a little inspiration. Let’s do that right here. It says that in Acts 15, Peter and Paul had some problems to overcome. Could the Gentile believers and the Jewish-only believers get along now as Christians? Should each group just stay alone and isolated from one another? In Acts 15, the apostles and leaders look to become united and to agree to work things out. They turn to a prophecy of the Old Testament for inspiration. “As it is written, in the prophets Amos and Jeremiah, I will come… and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; and I rebuild its ruins and I will set it up, that people may seek the Lord there and be called by My Name, says the Lord.”
Peter and Paul and all the others hear God calling them together to be His people. They hear that there is work to be done. They hear that their community of faith is meant to be as a Home for those seeking God and called by Him.
This sounds like Church to me.
I bet Pope Francis wants to see his niece come to Church and practice a shared Christianity. While Christina probably is a nice woman, Francis knows she is wrong when she says she can be good while “just being spiritual but not religious.”
Francis well knows that Jesus never said anywhere in the Bible that we should be “spiritual but not religious” and he also didn’t say anywhere in the Bible that Christians should look to the Bible alone or towards themselves alone for Jesus’ authoritative teaching. It does say, over and over, that Jesus gave authority to the Church which Peter and the apostles were given the job to start, and Jesus said that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church and it would last until He returned in glory (Matt 16:13-19). And not only that — for as St. Paul himself wrote to the Ephesians: “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”
If only some people could hear those words in Ephesians 5 as applying to them: Christ loves them for uniting with others in His Church, so to be His one body. We are called to become one as the believers in Jesus. It is among the highest priorities for a believer. Just read John 17. It’s right there (that we should be right there in community, in something like a parish).