When I first heard that a member of the House of Representatives was planning to boycott Pope Francis’s address to Congress next week, I was a bit surprised. Perhaps, I thought, this was some kind of misunderstanding, remarks taken out of context (shocking in Washington, I know) or an example of exaggerated media hype.
In fact, the reports were true. In a Townhall column entitled “Why I Am Boycotting Pope Francis’ Address to Congress” (and thus removing all doubt), Rep. Paul Gosar explains his thinking and decision. Certainly, members of Congress are well within their rights to attend or not attend congressional addresses. These gatherings should not be the grown-up version of mandatory school assemblies, in which the administration rounds up stragglers and issues demerits for truancy. But Congressman Gosar’s column points to a widespread illness plaguing our politics and church alike. If I were to give it a name, I might call it a “culture of entrenchment.”
A culture of entrenchment
Mr. Gosar begins by conveying his initial excitement at hearing the news that Pope Francis would address Congress, explaining that he saw the address as an opportunity to confront issues such as promoting religious freedom at home and stopping the violent persecution of Christians abroad, defending the right to life, and combating a culture of moral relativism. These would all be obvious and laudable topics for a papal address to Congress, and they very well may come up. But the congressman is unconvinced. After identifying the issues he would like to hear about, he follows:
Media reports indicate His Holiness instead intends to focus the brunt of his speech on climate change–a climate that has been changing since first created in Genesis. More troubling is the fact that this climate change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into “climate justice” and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies.
I find it disappointing that a member of Congress would base his decision to attend such an event on unidentified “media reports” about a speech that has yet to take place and which will be delivered by a man who is predictably unpredictable. But this is a habit in our “culture of entrenchment,” selecting analysis that aligns with our point of view and acting upon that alone, rather than doing the more difficult and “dangerous” work of research and consulting perspectives that differ from ours. We can see it in the increasingly caustic and partisan tone of the media and perhaps political discourse more generally.
This entrenchment, manifest perhaps most clearly in our politics but present in many parts of society, prizes isolation and defensive posturing, naturally leads to name-calling and caricature. It should come as no surprise then that we then see politically-charged terms and labels thrown about in the Church, as if we were at some kind of political convention or cable news talk show. Such an attitude of enrenchment deprives us of the opportunity to engage differing opinions in a meaningful way which, while making us open and thus somewhat vulnerable, ultimately will help us develop our own opinions and share the truth with those we encounter.
In theory, the congressman should be familiar with this kind of discernment and deliberate intellectual engagement. He cites in his article being the proud product of Jesuit education, an environment where he “was taught to think critically, to welcome debate and discussion and to be held accountable for [his] actions.” Perhaps exercising some of those skills would allow Mr. Gosar to engage the work of another product of Jesuit education, namely Pope Francis. After all, if Congressman Gosar had consulted the Holy Father’s recent encylical, Laudato Si’, he might’ve been surprised to learn that in the midst of a discussion heavily focused on environmental issues was a substantial treatment of the dignity of the human person, God’s only creation he described as very good.
An invitation to encounter
Pope Francis has often spoken about encounter in his pontificate — Jesus Christ encountering us and our encounter of Him, as well as our responsibility as people of faith to encounter one another in charity. Granted, this project is not easy. To open ourselves up to an encounter with Jesus is, as the pope has often said, to admit that we are sinners, that we so often fall short of God’s call, and that we are in constant need of the Lord’s mercy.
Encounter comes with a certain degree of unpredictability, which might explain our occasional hesitance. To open ourselves up to encounter the Lord means putting ourselves in his hands, operating on his terms, not ours. Similarly, when we open ourselves up to encounter others in love, following the example of Jesus, we run the risk of being hurt or misunderstood. But to take this step, to make ourselves vulnerable in love, is to live the life of our Lord! There is no more striking, beautiful image of vulnerability than that of Christ crucified, arms outstretched in love as he offers himself for the salvation of the world. Yes, this vulnerability came with tremendous pain, embarrassment, and isolation, but its effects were salvific, an expression of pure love. So too are we called to imitate the vulnerable love of Jesus as we encounter our brothers and sisters.
Pope Francis has also encouraged this culture of encounter on the level of the church, using poignant imagery as he so often does in his preaching and public remarks. He often cites the image of the Church as a “field hospital,” welcoming the wounded and offering healing in the midst of surrounding chaos. He also frequently speaks of preferring a Church that is wounded because of its openness than sick because of its isolation. These images are also invitations for reflection, to consider how we might help to promote this openness and welcome in our own communities. Authentic encounter does not mean watering down the truth, or settling for the “least common denominator” in our discourse. Rather, it is an opportunity to engage the truth in a new way, to share the truth as the great gift that it is, and to open ourselves up to conversion of heart guided by the Holy Spirit.
In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis offers an encouragement to encounter worthy of our own prayer and consideration:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. (no. 3)
The challenge of discipleship
In the “Great Commission” Jesus gives his disciples direct instructions — go, make disciples, baptize and teach — all with the promise of his presence through the very end. These directions apply to each of us according to our own vocation. We are called to open ourselves up to the Lord each day, to allow him to meet us in the depths of our hearts and in the life of the Church, and to take the beautiful fruit of that experience into the world. In short, we are called to encounter Christ and, transformed by that meeting, to encounter others. May we never tire of asking the Lord for the strength and zeal to carry out the work he has entrusted to us, giving glory to God in all things!