Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,
was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and when nine months had passed since his conception,
was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah,
and was made man
—The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh
The seasons of Advent and Christmas offer an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the church and the world. The uproar that surrounded the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region suggests that the timing could not be better.
October brought the growing controversies of the Francis papacy out into the undeniable open. The problem was so much in the air before the Synod that reporters asked Pope Francis about it in September. The Pope’s spokesman, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, has said that there is an internal “campaign of disinformation against Pope Francis.”
EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo brought Bishop Joseph Strickland (who deemed Archbishop Carlo Mario Viganó’s 2018 allegations against Pope Francis “credible” before they had been public for even 12 hours) on the air to deny any break with the pope, asserting that the pope does not have opponents in the church.
There only are people “who believe that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ—it’s those people who are concerned.” Does the bishop mean that those who follow the pope do not believe in the Real Presence? If so, he only agrees with Phil Lawler, writing at LifeSite, who tells us Francis “is willing to break with our fathers in faith.”
But I do not want to dwell on that.
Rather, as we embark on the mystery of the incarnation during these dark weeks of December, I think that some of those claims can help us if we examine them more closely.
There has been considerable unease among traditionally minded Catholics since the 2014 synod on the family explored questions of pastoral care for LGBT persons and persons who are divorced and remarried. Questions raised at the more recent Amazon synod have only deepened that unease. And unease is understandable. It is natural when something seems new. Yet, the vital question is about how the church should engage such things.
Bishop Strickland urges Pope Francis to “teach the truth of Christ clearly.” He tells us that “all this confusion isn’t helpful [for people of real, committed faith], for their children, for their grandchildren,” and he assures us that all that is needed is to “live Jesus Christ” which is a helpful piece of advice—just perhaps not in a way that Bishop Strickland might have meant it.
“Jesus Christ, desiring to consecrate the world . . . was made man.” Jesus entered the world. Three decades later, he ascended into heaven and left the world more or less as it is. Jesus might have defeated the Roman legions, but he left them where they were. Jesus might have brought down the Roman Empire, yet it stood for more than four centuries after his death and resurrection.
Jesus might have cast out the tax collectors and prostitutes, the Roman centurion and the Samaritan woman. For some reason, he did none of that. And I suppose it is confusing. Probably, we all experience that confusion (and, frustration) every day. Why would God enter the world at all, only to leave it filled with injustice and sin, division, and conflict?
Quarrels about the pastoral care of LGBT or divorced persons, the inculturation of Christianity in the Amazon, or the ordination of married men only continue the controversies that follow the reception of the Second Vatican Council. They are entirely about the word that Bishop Strickland chose: confusion. How should the church face the world? Why does God allow all of this?
We should listen closely to the Proclamation of Christmas at Midnight Mass. When we hear that Jesus Christ desired “to consecrate the world,” we should notice that it was not merely the church consecrated by the incarnation. Rather, we Catholics believe that because of the incarnation the whole world is a field of grace. And by that, we mean the world in which Pontius Pilate and Pope John Paul II acted. We also mean the world where good priests celebrate the Mass and where gay, lesbian, and divorced couples love one another.
This is challenging. This is confusing. But I think it’s also true. It is what we believe.
Newark’s Cardinal Joe Tobin spoke once about “creative tension,” saying, “We can’t walk, we can’t talk, we can’t sing without tension. You need to have tension in your vocal cords and your back, let alone a guitar.” The world has been consecrated, yes. But the tension has not gone away. More than that, we know that God does not want it to go away. God consecrated a world in tension, and we are meant to sort through the confusion in this consecrated world where grace can be found but must be searched for.
Clarity would be so much easier. But our baptismal calling is more challenging. We must discern where God wants to be found in the world. And, experience tells us that quite often God is found in the tension.
We find God powerfully in moments of reconciliation. Yet, reconciliation only is possible where there has been sin and harm. We also might find that God is present in the cultures of the Amazon or in the loving relationship that two divorced, lesbian, or gay people have. How shall we respond to God in the world as we find it?
I do not have clear answers for Bishop Strickland or for myself. The last word is not yet written in God’s Creation. I only have faith that a child was born, a son was given, and Bishop Strickland was correct: the best answer is to live Jesus Christ, King of the Universe swaddled in a squalid manger, a God who confounds our expectations in every encounter.
Image: Unsplash cc via Dan Kiefer