By Mark Azzara
I was astonished during Holy Week to read something I have believed for a long time but which I didn’t think I would EVER hear a priest say. And in this case the priest is the pope.
Pope Francis told his fellow priests on Holy Thursday that they cannot apply “truth” as an abstract idea that fits all people the same. Truth, he said, must be applied to each individual’s life and situation. His statement is long overdue in the history of the church.
Francis’ words may put him in hot water – again – with so-called Catholic “conservatives” who cannot fathom the pope’s insistence that priests listen to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit wants to apply truth to individuals rather than forcing individuals to conform to truth. That idea is incomprehensible to a lot of Catholics who are locked into obedience to laws and rules.
What conservatives fear is that “listening to the Spirit” will allow all of us to manipulate Truth – capital T – into something that conforms to our momentary wants or desires.
Yes, that’s a risk. But as a priest/friend told me more than a decade ago, “Truth not spoken in love is not truth.” That may be the Catholic Church’s single biggest problem: Truth is usually spoken without love – without any genuine caring for the one who hears it. Without any desire to cry alongside those who are in pain.
We all want to define “love” according to our own ideas. But we are obligated to inform our consciences about what is true (e.g., the correct definition of love). Church teaching is valuable for that purpose. The teachings help us evaluate the truth of what we hear.
I had a conversation recently about canon law with someone who knows a lot about how the Christian church – all of it, Catholic and non – operates. He and I agreed that it is pointless to talk in abstract terms about things such as truth and faith because people aren’t abstractions. They are real, and thus the truth must be real. It must meet them where they are, without denying the reality of their lives.
Jesus said it best (as always) when he proclaimed that “the truth will set you free.” By that, he meant that when you or I hear HIS truth we know it’s true because it surprises us and immediately cleanses us. It reveals the error of our thinking and then instantly replaces it with correct thinking.
God does not want us to wallow in the error of our ways. He doesn’t want us to be afraid of hearing Truth. He wants us to be excited because hearing Truth will set us free, and the gift of freedom from God is exhilarating because we are freed from the lie we once believed.
Those who believe they aren’t being heard and/or that their situations aren’t appreciated by pastors, ministers, bishops, etc., leave the church because, despite all the words, rituals and rubrics, they see nothing that points to Jesus. They are like Jerry Maguire: “Show me the love.” The church isn’t doing that, so they leave.
And as the Pew Center noted a few years ago, they are leaving in droves – 10 people for everyone who joins. So clearly something is desperately wrong with the way the institutional Catholic Church does church. And every other church falls into the same category when it demands that we obey laws rather than the Holy Spirit – the voice of Jesus.
Pope Francis just outed the entire church with his Holy Thursday statement, leaving it open to evaluation by all of us. Through Francis, God is giving us freedom to listen to the Holy Spirit and to obey the Spirit rather than “the church” when there is a conflict.
All God’s blessings – Mark