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Small Chapel or Big Tent: What Should the Church Be?

Written by Rev. Donald Senior C.P.
March 19, 2015

by Rev. Donald Senior C.P.
This speech was delivered to the First Friday Club on January 10, 2014 and
originally published on January 13, 2014 by Learn@CTU
By every account, Pope Francis has been among the biggest news events of the year. In a few short months, from April 2013 to the present, he has sent a jolt of energy through the Catholic Church and beyond. His now famous gestures of washing the feet of Muslim women prisoners on Holy Thursday (violating liturgical rules in the process); his tender kiss of a man whose face was covered with tumors; his ease with children and they with him; his simplicity of life: driving an old Renault, paying his own phone and newspaper bills, living in the Vatican conference center instead of the apostolic palace, leaving aside many of the trappings of his office—for example wearing regular old black shoes and trousers instead of Prada red slippers—the list of anecdotes goes on! I was in Rome in late April for a commission meeting and had the opportunity of living in the same house as the Pope (me and 120 others). He would come in everyday for meals in the cafeteria and when he didn’t have special guests, would simply come to an empty spot at a table and say, “Is this seat open?” He would then sit down, take off his sash and his skull cap, tuck his napkin in and get to work…
As much fun as it would be, my point today is not to speak about Pope Francis as such but to consider the challenge he has raised about the nature of the Catholic Church. This is, of course, a specific Catholic issue but is not confined to that. I find wherever I go—other Christians and even non-Christians are observing what the Pope stands for and taking it to heart. The Dean of Fuller Seminary, an eminent Evangelical center, said to me in November, “If your guy keeps going this way, I’m afraid I will have to become a Catholic!”
The Pope’s words and examples have leveled several challenges about what the Church of Jesus Christ should be:
1. First and foremost, he has challenged the Church to be a welcoming Church—the big tent stated in the title of this presentation. There has been a perennial debate in Catholicism about how wide should the church open its arms to the world? Should it be the so-called “great Church” open to all or a confessing church where in order to belong you have to be committed and show up.
I think the Pope’s stand on this is very clear: the Church, he has said, is not a small chapel filled only with pure people but a church that is a big tent, a church of sinners, a church open to all who seek it. One of his images is startling: the church, he said, is like a field hospital after a great battle where the gravely wounded are being brought in. In a circumstance like that you don’t first ask about someone’s cholesterol level or sugar count; first you tend to their wounds—the other comes later.  In his most recent statement – a major declaration of his papacy – he urged clergy and church leaders to be welcoming. Don’t be a “sourpuss” he said – remarkable candor for papal rhetoric. Don’t look like you just came from a funeral. By joyful and hospitable, welcome the sheep, even smell like the sheep because you are close to them.
2. Similarly, he has challenged bishops and priests at all levels of the church to put aside the trappings of clericalism, and concern about their professionalism. The Church, he has said over and over, should be reaching out, not drawing in. To a group of Argentine bishops shortly after his election as Pope he said: “A church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms.” He has even challenged the Cardinals and high curial officials just a couple of weeks ago to take turns every Wednesday hearing confessions in Rome! – wanting them to have a sense of people’s struggles and the need for mercy.
3. He has insisted over and over that the Church must reach out to the world, especially to the poor and those most vulnerable. We see this not only in what the Pope says but in what he does—and what he has done for most of his priestly life. To do this, he urged the priests, religious and laity involved in the church’s ministry not to be afraid of making mistakes but, he added, “I prefer a thousand times over a church of accidents than a sick church.” When he visited Brazil and spoke to the gathered bishops of Latin America, he said the following: “We do well to recall the words of the Second Vatican Council: ‘The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well’ (Gaudium et Spes, #1).” The Pope went on to say, “Here we find the basis for our dialogue with the contemporary world. Responding to the existential issues of people today, especially the young, listening to the language they speak, can lead to a fruitful change, which must take place with the help of the Gospel, the magisterium, and the Church’s social doctrine… God is everywhere: we have to know how to find him in order to be able to proclaim him in the language of each and every culture; every reality, every language, has its own rhythm.
4. Finally, among many other challenges, one that I think is very characteristic of this Pope is that he says the Church should radiate a spirit of joy. This is the fundamental motif of his challenging exhortation just released—I urge you to read it—entitled Gaudium Evangelii—“the joy of the Gospel.” Pope Francis, I have observed, is not a booming personality, not a back slapper. He has, in fact, a quiet almost shy persona when you meet him and hear him speak. But in his personal warmth, in his evident kindness, in his sense of humor and the beauty of his smile, you sense that he is a man of great joy. In his recent exhortation, he roots the spirit of genuine, authentic joy in the ability to love another person, in the God-given call to go beyond ourselves and give our lives for the sake of others. His whole spirituality is built around the teaching of Jesus: “Those who lose their life will find it.”
As positive at the reception of Pope Francis has been, there is strong opposition to him as well:

One prominent American theologian has taken offense at what he considers the Pope’s informal manner. Many of his comments, the theologian said, sound like someone talking off the top of their head after a good dinner and a lot of wine.
At a symposium at U of C, one of the panelists analyzed the response to Pope Francis in his way: the New York Times is happy because the Pope has blunted the Church’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage, while on the other end of the spectrum loyal conservative Catholics are concerned that the Pope is eroding the Church’s identity and while we know what he is for, we don’t know what he is against—he lacks the moral insight or courage to stand up to the evils of the world in the way his predecessors have done. Luckily, one of the other panelists pointed out that there are a lot of American Catholics between the New York Times on the left and extreme traditionalists Catholics on the right—and that vast majority love the Pope and what he stands for. And, furthermore, if anyone doesn’t know what the Pope is against—they should ask Rush Limbaugh!

There is one point I want to make as I move towards the deadline here. For many, the words and gestures of Pope Francis might seem like innovation and novelty for the Church—with some being concerning about this and others delighting in it. For me, what the Pope is doing is something very traditional—something that in fact resonates with the Jesus of the Gospel and the New Testament:

The Jesus who himself welcomed sinners and ate with them—much to the consternation of some of his religious opponents, the ones who accused him of “being a wine bibber and a glutton, a love of tax collectors and sinners.”
The Jesus who fed the hungry crowds, when the disciples wanted to send them home.
The Jesus who touched and healed the leper and the woman bent double, and who lifted up Jairus’ daughter and told her parents to give her something to eat.
The Jesus who confronted the religious hypocrisy of those who lay heavy burdens on other people’s shoulders and condemn them but do not lift their own fingers to help.
The Jesus who invited those who were weary and crushed with life’s burdens, to come to him and “I will refresh you.”
The Jesus whose parables are filled with images of forgiveness and compassion: the Good Samaritan; the Father waiting for the prodigal son; the woman searching for the lost coin in order to rejoice over finding one that was lost; the banquet hall open to the poor and the lame; those who inhabited the highways and byways.
The Jesus who gave his life so that others might live.
The Jesus who laid down his life for his friends
The Jesus who summed up his teaching as “love one another as I have loved you.”

No, the vision of a church that is welcoming and compassionate and reaching out to those in need is not a modern innovation but a recall of the very heart of the gospel. A year or so ago, we had a program at CTU that was prompted by yet another announcement of clergy abuse of children. Kathleen Kaveny, of Notre Dame had written a very thoughtful article on this, asking what should a Catholic do in the wake of this kind of failure and the anger and shame it enkindles? I asked her to come and speak to our gathering, which she did and spoke very thoughtfully. During the discussion that ensued—with a lot of anger and frustration being expressed—one man stood and spoke. “I am at a loss on how to deal with these issues and how church authorities should respond… But all of this has made me think about my faith. I want to find out what it means to be a Catholic, a Christian. I am going to focus on the corporal works of mercy to help me find my way through.”
His comment struck me. I want to find out what it means to be a Catholic, a follower of Jesus. That, I think, is what the Pope is helping us do. To find out that we are to be a church made great by the mercy and compassion and courageous outreach of the Jesus who stands at the heart of our community.
Allow me to close with a personal note. This is a New Year for all of us—and in a particular way a New Year for me since my birthday is January 1 (it’s too late for presents, thanks!). I have been a priest for 46 years and have no regrets and am very grateful to God that I am a priest. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the church through all these decades—as have most of you. There have even been moments of great shame and embarrassment for us in the Catholic priesthood. But with the election of this Pope and the spirit he radiates, I feel a great sense of joy and confidence that God will see us through. It is not a matter of learning something new but the joy of rediscovering something precious that could overlook.
Thank you for the honor of speaking you today. May God bless all of us in this New Year.
Published with the author’s permission.