The risk of encounter

Today I lunched with a good friend whose disquisitions on matters ecclesiological are always illuminating. As usual, I emerged from this delightful reunion edified by the possession of new insight.

In a religious context, the word ‘faithful’ has different connotations. For some it is a mark emphasizing loyal adherence to a communal orthodoxy and orthopraxy, a system of beliefs and a code of conduct. To others it is more a mark emphasizing personal discipleship with our Lord, a relationship which the Church through her evangelizing outreach makes possible. Both connotations are valid and neither contradicts the other. Indeed, they are complementary because as each is genuinely explored it tends to lead to the other.

What brings this observation to mind is the world’s mixed response to Pope Francis, a response marked with both enthusiasm and reservation. The enthusiasm for the Pope is well known. His Gospel message is inviting. It “superscends” the walls that divide us and suggests that a shared relationship with God enables diversity to become unity. The reservation is the credible concern that the Pope’s emphasis on inclusion and mercy will be misperceived as a conscious downplaying, or even abandonment, of the Church’s moral precepts.

When Pope John XXIII ‘opened the windows’ 50 years ago the fresh breezes that entered brought some currents that were more destructive than invigorating, but the Church, the depositum fidei , has survived. Vatican II was an encounter between the Church and the modern world. The purpose of any encounter is mutual understanding; the risk of any encounter is misunderstanding or, worse, misrepresentation. But isn’t it true that there is a much greater risk of misunderstanding or misrepresentation when there is no encounter?

In his encounter with the world Pope Francis encourages all of us to be faithful – faithful to the presence of God within us. For many it is an invitation we have never heard or perhaps never accepted. The more each of us sincerely enters into that invitation the closer we will draw to God and to each other. Time will reveal how this growth in faithfulness will relate to the promulgation of the Gospel, but we dare believe that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the ‘body of the faithful’ will expand.

The Catholic Catechism states: “The whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful,’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals” (CCC785).

Its risk notwithstanding, the eventual result of this papal encounter will be that Catholicism will be more catholic and the Kingdom will advance.

Dana Robinson is the president of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.

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