Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Church of Mercy: A Book Review

"In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians. They must be revolutionaries through grace!"
~Pope Francis

Among the books I received as gifts this past Christmas was this one: "The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church," by Pope Francis.

A Caveat

I am not a Roman Catholic, nor do I recognize the office or authority of the pope as anything greater or lessor than the authority given to all believers. I believe in the priesthood of all believers equally, and that together with all believers everywhere, we make up a "chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [together] you [and I] may declare the praises of him who called you [and me] out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9).

Still, I recognize that the Bible does contain examples of leadership. However I am also strongly convinced that, whatever those examples of leadership that God originally gave us were intended by Him to look like, they've long since evolved into something very different in most of our modern institutions. I would suggest that this includes both catholic and non-catholic institutional church leadership, but on more than one occasion I've addressed that subject in other posts, and as such do not wish to regurgitate it further here.

A Fascination

Having said that, for some reason I am fascinated by Pope Francis more than I've ever been by any of his modern day predecessors. Why? I don't know for sure, but there's something about him that I like.

Maybe it's the fact that he's the first ever Jesuit pope; something that seems to come out in his teaching. Maybe it's the fact that he's from South America, a continent and culture that's very dear to my own heart, having lived there myself during part of my formative childhood years. Maybe it's the fact that he is the first non-European pope in over 1200 years, which in and of itself also suggests a change of thinking in the institution. Maybe it's the name he chose, naming himself after Saint Francis of Assisi, another favourite of mine. Whatever it is, and though I certainly do not agree with all of his theology, there's something about this pope that I like. Apparently I'm not alone, as Pope Francis was also named TIME Magazine's 2013 "Person of the Year."

Book Organization

This little book of 143 pages is made up of 39 short chapters, averaging no more than two to three pages each. These chapters are talks and homilies that Pope Francis delivered during 2013, his first year in office, and are grouped into ten parts. They are:
  1. The Good News of Christ
  2. A Poor Church for the Poor
  3. Listening to the Spirit
  4. Proclamation and Testimony
  5. Full-Time Christians
  6. Shepherds with the "Odor of the Sheep"
  7. The Choice of the Last
  8. Demolishing the Idols
  9. The Culture of Good
  10. Mary, Mother of Evangelism
Catholic or Evangelical?

Look again at those titles. Other than perhaps Part Ten, at first glance, I don't think any Christian would have an issue with sectional headings like that, and quite possibly, wouldn't even recognize the Roman Catholicism in them. As I read their chapters, I was struck by how almost "Evangelical" much of them sounded (I say that somewhat 'tongue-in-cheek'). And yet every once in a while, a theological blip or hick-up would jump off the pages and remind me that I was in fact reading a Roman Catholic author, and one with some significant differences of opinion to mine.

Still, as an old friend of mine used to like to say, "Chew on the meat and spit out the bones." I have read plenty of big-name Charismatic and Evangelical authors too who I didn't agree with 100% of the time. Non-catholics have also been known to promote some pretty twisted theologies. While I once likely would have focussed my attention on those differences, in more recent years I've tended to rather celebrate the things we have in common instead, such as in this blog post. Yes, my friend was right; "chew on the meat and spit out the bones," and there's lots of good meat to chew on in this book.

Some Nuggets

Some of the rich nuggets include a discussion about the importance of preaching our faith with our lives as opposed to only our words, tying back into the famous Francis of Assisi quote, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words." Pope Francis added, "One cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one's life ... Inconsistency on the part of the pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church's credibility ... Proclamation and witness are possible only if we are close to Jesus." I like and wholeheartedly agree with that.

I was struck by his humility, as in a chapter dealing with holiness and mankind's sinfulness, he includes "a sinful pope" on a list of sinners (p.30). His concern for the poor also comes out loud and clear when he asks, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" (1 John 3:17).

The Cult of the God of Money

Probably my favourite section was chapter 30, entitled "The Cult of the God of Money," which Pope Francis delivered to a general audience on 5 June 2013. In many ways it is bang-on with my own personal views too; it's almost as if I were the one who wrote this speech for the pontiff. And yet, I too am not without my flaws and shortcomings when it comes to money. Here it is in its entirety:

It is no longer the person who commands, but money, money, cash commands. And God our Father gave us the task of protecting the earth - not for money, but for ourselves, for men and women. We have this task! Nevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the "culture of waste." If a computer breaks, it is a tragedy; but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people, end up being considered normal. If on a winter's night - here on the Via Ottaviano, for example - someone dies, that is not news. If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news; it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street - this doesn't make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops ten points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by ten points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash. 

This "culture of waste" tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, is no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if that person is poor or disabled or not yet useful, like the unborn child, or is no longer of any use, like the elderly person. This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families suffer hunger and malnutrition. There was a time when our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any leftover food. Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value , which goes far beyond mere financial parameters, we are no longer able to judge correctly. Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out, it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry! I ask everyone to reflect on the problem of the loss and waste of food, to identify ways and approaches that, by seriously dealing with this problem, convey solidarity and sharing with the underprivileged.

We've All Fallen Short

Like all Christian denominations, and those of us who fill up their pews, the Roman Catholic Church is obviously also not without her flaws. Romans 3:10 quickly comes to mind, "There is no one righteous, not even one." We all alike need Jesus. Pope Francis would be the first person to agree with that, as time and again in this book he points his readers to Jesus.

Furthermore, since we've all fallen short, it seems to me that we who make up the the church of Christ, catholic and non-catholic alike, could all learn to be a little more gracious towards one another when it comes to our "dissections and factions" (Galatians 5:20), our denominations, all of which in and of themselves are "acts of the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:19). And who knows, books like this might be just the ticket to helping reduce that long-standing rift between us. If that were one of the outcomes - even just a little - I'm sure Francis would be pleased. Hopefully too, so would we.

If you're even remotely interested in Pope Francis and the things he believes in, I would recommend "The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church." It's an easy and quick read, and it gives a good basic overview of this popular pope's message of mercy, service, and renewal, without resorting to heavy dogmatic theological treatises.

Peace & Blessings. Thanks for stopping by.

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