The Sin of the Older Brother

My friend, working with a Protestant mission designed to “convert” Roman Catholics to “true Christianity” in Dublin, Ireland, sent me an email last November. Apologizing in advance if her youthful request made me feel archaic, she asked whether I remembered what I was doing the day President Kennedy was killed.

My memories spun as I recalled the dark world of those days, and the many tragedies and disillusionments that followed in the next two decades—more assassinations (Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon…), the Viet Nam war debacle, OPEC leveraging producing a massive energy crisis, double-digit inflation… The world seemed an apocalyptic mess, and many publications prophesied these turmoils to be the result of expanding godless communism (the great Antichrist) and an unhealthy resurgence of Roman Catholicism (the Babylonian whore) undermining the true WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage of the United States.

Return to Roman Catholicism

How the world has changed! Not only has the specter of global communism limped into oblivion, but the single largest religious affiliation group in Canada has become Roman Catholicism, comprising 40% of the population. In the United States, 30% of the members of Congress are Roman Catholics (comparing favorably to 25% of the general population), as are two-thirds of the Supreme Court justices. Hope College, where I teach, was birthed from the strident anti-Catholicism of 19th century reformed foment in the Netherlands and its subsequent migrations to North America. Today, however, the single largest religious group on campus, among both students and faculty, is Roman Catholic (41%). Even TIME magazine, which began publishing in the waning decades of the fiercely anti-Catholic “yellow journalism” movement of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, has now selected Pope Francis as its “Person of the Year.”

Pope Francis garners world attention for good reason. The first non-European in that office in nearly thirteen centuries, Francis is also the first Pope from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first Jesuit. But these markers mean far less than Francis’ public choices: sliver instead of gold for his emblematic tokens of office, simplified vestments, living in a relatively Spartan apartment rather than the usual plush papal palace, regularly washing others’ feet as a first encounter with new communities, and spending unusual amounts of time among the poor. He is truly living down to his namesake’s mendicant commitments, for it was Francis of Assisi who renounced the wealth and power of his family to walk with Jesus among the sick and dying.

“The Joy of the Gospel”

Confirming these gestures is Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, an official declaration by Christ’s supreme representative to both leadership and laity. Titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the 288-page instruction is wonderfully upbeat, lilting in tone and texture about the great gift of salvation and its marvelous expression through the ministries of the church. Evangelism is the identity and most natural practice of Christ’s church, Francis gently reminds us, quoting dozens of scripture passages from both Testaments. It happens at three levels: (1) in the renewal of clerical vocation and ministry joy, so that passion for salvation radiates from leaders to congregants; (2) among the baptized who newly claim both their special identity in Christ and the transforming lifestyle that ensues; and (3) when the church actively communicates the gospel to those who have not yet heard about Jesus and to those who have set themselves against Jesus to their own hurt and the world’s peril.

The Church is the House of the Father, says Francis, opening its doors to the prodigals of the world. But among these, the Church must first be mother to the poor. “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” admonishes the Pope. “I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” For this reason the Church’s journey must always be away from “economies of exclusion,” “idolatry of money,” “financial systems which rule rather than serve,” “selfishness and spiritual sloth,” “sterile pessimism,” “spiritual worldliness,” and “warring among ourselves.” A “missionary spirituality” involves all of God’s people witnessing everywhere at all times to the transforming message of the gospel.

Francis pays particular attention to “the homily” delivered regularly by priests, urging preachers to communicate winsomely and authentically the joy of Jesus, neither stooping to entertainment manipulations nor neglecting solid scriptural study. Good preaching, Francis avers, will nurture deepened and broadened social evangelization. In this, the church will actively advocate on behalf of the poor, seek social peace and reconciliation, and engage in meaningful dialogue with science, other branches of Christianity, and also non-Christian religions.

A “Reformed” Document?

Although tone and style would differ, everything Francis expresses in “Evangelii Gaudium” could have been written by Martin Luther or John Calvin, or any of the other 16th century Reformers. Even when Francis concludes his official exhortation by holding up Jesus’ mother Mary as the great example of hospitality and evangelism that all Christians should emulate and follow, he never references doctrinal issues that Protestants react against (the immaculate conception or bodily assumption of Mary, or her perpetual virginity). Only when Francis appends to his document a prayer directed to Mary does the Roman Catholicism of this teaching and its author come to mind.

The papal ministry of Francis is still in its early, “honeymoon,” phase, but his actions and declarations are consistent with the fifty years that Jorge Mario Bergoglios has spent as a priest and cardinal. Francis is engaging rather than combative, affable rather than standoffish, traditionally wholesome rather than rigidly doctrinaire, scripturally attuned rather than parochially confined, and exudes the gospel of Jesus from every pore, with constant reminders of Jesus’ special attention for the poor and marginalized. If he had led the church in the first decades of the 1500’s, it is highly unlikely that the Reformation would have taken place.

This is not to say that the Reformation should not have happened. Critical issues of theology and practice needed to be addressed. Yet, as Francis seems determined to remind everyone, Jesus is the center of all things, not the bureaucracy of the church, and the enemy is godlessness which dehumanizes the image of God among us, not other branches of the body of Christ on earth. If Protestantism has become more appreciative of historic sacramental liturgies and social consciousness over these last centuries, Pope Francis’ expressions of Roman Catholicism show remarkable new affinity with the three “Marks of the Church” highlighted in the Belgic Confession: (1) pure preaching of the Word, (2) proper administration of the sacraments, and (3) the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. While too much history and cultural divergence prevents organizational and confessional reunion between Roman Catholic and Protestant branches of the church anytime soon, Protestants ought to celebrate with Catholic sisters and brothers the gospel attitudes, actions, and affirmations of this truly inspiring servant of Jesus.

Whose House Is It?

When I was systematically preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism in my first pastorate, I trembled as Q & A 80, about the “condemnable idolatry” of the “Roman Catholic Mass,” marched closer. Beside my extensive study of scripture and theological tomes as I prepared my sermon for that section of the Catechism, I also spent time with the priest of the local Roman Catholic parish. I explained to him my Church Order mandate to preach on the themes of the Heidelberg Catechism, the background to Q & A 80 (it was not part of the first two editions of the Catechism, but was later added under pressures to ensure clear Protestant rejection of Roman Catholic sacramental practices), and my desire to present God’s good gospel message without unfairly caricaturing or building walls between Jesus’ people in differing communities. We ate a meal together, and then I accompanied him as a parishioner in his Saturday night service.

The next morning I brought a message based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. My focus was on the older brother who resents his wayward sibling’s return to their Father’s love and family celebrations. The Father does not love his older son any less for the good man’s righteous indignation toward his repentant louse of a brother. But the Father does remind his boy that the identity of both sons is found in the Father’s gracious love, and not in factional one-upmanship, regardless of its seeming legitimacy. All of us in God’s family, I reminded my Alberta congregation, are caught up in the stories Jesus tells of those two sons. We need to experience the overwhelming love and forgiving grace of the Father who always welcomes home his children. But we need also to separate ourselves from the self-righteous isolationist angry and antagonistic posturing of the older brother.

Because of the appropriate reasons for the Reformation, Protestants can sometimes carry themselves with sniffing disdain at their Roman Catholic siblings who don’t quite get it right. But Pope Francis, with whatever authority he speaks and acts, makes it harder to live comfortably in the sin of the older brother. It is, after all, as Francis reminds us, the Father’s House, not ours.

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