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On Sunday I headed to Mass with my parents where the new pastor of their diocesan parish introduced himself to the eager congregation. He skillfully utilized a story about growing up with “boat people” here in the Seattle area to offer a little background on his upbringing and simultaneously make a point about the day’s scripture readings. His mother is a life-long sailor, and met his father, a football player, when he came to her for sailing lessons at the university recreation center. When they married they bought a “fixer-uper” on the lake so sailing could continue as a regular part of their lives together. Consequently, this pastor grew up on the water, “rowing before he could walk.”
He recalled that the first thing his father taught him about sailing concerned steering. “Figure out where you want to go and pick a spot in that direction on the horizon,” his father instructed. “Steer the boat in that direction.” Trouble arises, he explained, when things distract the sailor from that far-off guide-point. When this occurs one’s steering shifts, thinkingly or unthinkingly, and the boat will quickly veer off course. “We must, as Christians, keep our eyes on that right spot in the horizon to ensure that we’re steering our lives in the proper direction,” the pastor exhorted.
As I continued to ponder his illustration after the liturgy, it began to reframe an issue I have been grappling with for a couple weeks now. At the end of July my friend Dan over at datinggod.org and America reported that Pope Francis had formed a “ground-breaking lay committee.” The committee “will have broad, unprecedented powers at the church’s highest levels” he explained. Dan’s commentary illuminated the significance of this reform within the Vatican: “This move marks a significant change in the way that the Vatican power structure had been previously organized”—a change that empowers lay people, satisfying (at least in part) an enduring hope among many who rally for anti-clerical church reform.
Yet, amidst my excitement about the symbolic capital of this committee, I found myself distracted by a number of nagging doubts. “I wonder if there will be any women on this committee….” This was one of the first thoughts I had upon the news of the committee. I would learn that there is one female committee member. “Just one?” As I read the comments on Dan’s posts, another disappointment arose. Someone observed that there is only one committee member from outside Europe. “Just one?” I found myself asking again.
Even as the virtual comments about this committee echoed doubts I had already named or disappoints that quickly resonated when I read them, they bothered me. They bothered me, and have subsequently led me to reevaluate my own response to this good news from the Vatican: Why is it that disappointment is one of my first responses to this good news of reform? Why is it that negative observations about this committee ring much louder in my mind than points of appreciation? Why am I so vulnerable to being distracted by the shortcomings of Vatican happenings, even when I am confronted with such positive signs of reforms? Why do I so quickly render this reform a failure of some sort?
These comments bothered me because the shortcomings of the lay committee seemed to garner more attention (from me, and from many others) than its apparent gains. I thought about this after the homily this weekend. The pastor’s sailing image poignantly presents Christian life in terms of orientation. It invites us to consider whether we are headed in the right direction, generally—whether we are on our way toward the proper destination, a destination that is always ultimately out of reach. It invites us to consider whether or not we respond to the happenings of the world in a way that keeps us oriented toward God.
We can consider this as individuals and as a church community: As an individual, I suspect that my doubt and disappointment can distract me at times from hope in the world and my church. Pessimism about the Vatican distracted me from encountering good news with hope—the kind of hope that is so central to a Christian orientation in life. It distracted me from recognizing that the Church may be changing, moving—oriented in the right direction. And in fact, my pessimism may distract me from participating in the movement of the Church.
That is not to say, of course, that one is misguided in recognizing and responding to the shortcomings of the church. We are a pilgrim church, a reforming forming church, and we must work toward a more Christian life together. However, it is tempting as a Catholic to be distracted by the endless shortcomings of the institution and the people who make up our church. (Likewise, it is easy to be caught up in one’s own personal and perpetual failings as a Christian). This orients us toward our failings rather than the orienting point in the horizon—a point we will never reach but nevertheless steers us in toward better life together.
Attending to the shortcomings of our community is imperative to staying the course of Christian life. My struggle as a Catholic (and I suspect I’m not alone) is learning to tend to our personal and communal failings without being so consumed by them that I shift my gaze and the direction of my life toward them alone. In order to move in the right direction, we must fix our eyes on the guiding point that will lead us toward God and a more holy life together.
I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry. From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.
Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long? Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long? With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.
Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church. This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.
Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always but. But the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?
My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.
In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us. Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable. We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.
Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism. I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism. For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter? It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.
While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.” It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly. I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other. “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.” That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.