Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pope Francis is good news

Pope Francis's interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, published in America Magazine, makes for inspiring reading. I have read it repeatedly, pen in hand, and each time I have found something new to think about.  

This pope, in my view, is good news for Roman Catholicism.  

What follows is a version of my most recent newspaper column.

Changing the tone 
From the moment he stepped onto the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s square, humbly bowing his head to ask for the blessing of the people, Francis began to change the tone of the hierarchical church at the same time showing the world what it means to be a Christian.

Within days of becoming pope, Francis’s small acts – paying his hotel bill, riding in the bus instead of the papal limousine, and moving into Room 201 at Santa Marta instead of into the papal apartments - communicated humility and largesse of spirit.

Over the last six months, we have seen examples of his pastoral style, his informal and gracious manner of bringing the face of God to people. Actions, such as casually chatting with reporters on a plane, responding candidly to impromptu questions, and making “cold calls” to people who have written him for consolation, speak volumes about this man’s expectations for the church’s engagement with the world.

A field hospital, not a laboratory
Speaking with Spadaro about the type of church he would like to see, Francis compared the church to a “field hospital after battle”, saying that today the church must heal wounds and warm hearts.  This image of the field hospital contrasts with another image Francis draws upon later in the conversation; that of the church as a laboratory. “Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.”

The contrast between these two images, especially when considered in light of Francis’s style, points to a change in emphasis away from moral pronouncements towards the proclamation of “the saving love of God” because “God is greater than sin”.  

It appears that Francis wants to take the church out of the laboratory and into the streets, where faith, culture and morality meet and frequently collide, and where abstract truths must be balanced against the actual circumstances of people’s lives.  He speaks about the necessity of proclaiming God’s merciful love ahead of moral and religious imperatives, frankly admitting, “Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.”

Shifting the focus, not the teaching
I think that by degrees, Francis is directing the church’s discussion with the world away from the obsessive discussion on gay marriage, abortion and reproductive rights towards the gospel message of mercy, compassion and love. He is also nudging the discussion on the ordination of women towards the less specific topic of the role of women in the church and its administration. 

These shifts in focus do not invalidate the church’s teaching, nor do they mean that Francis intends to change the substance of it. As he told Spadaro, “The teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

I read this interview with great interest, and received Francis’s comments about the church with enthusiasm but mostly I was captivated with the tone of humility that animated the entire interview.  

The pope's "dogmatic certainty"
Francis’s spirit is clearly evident in what he defines as his “dogmatic certainty”: that is, “God is in every person’s life…Even if that person has been a disaster…Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.”

Francis’s dogmatic certainty is good news and it gets right to the heart of the Christian faith.  The church is not a laboratory for the formulation of doctrine; it is the field hospital where an encounter with God is always possible.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Lessons from Cato, my cat

Opening a can of tuna will never be the same for me again.

The distinctive sound of the can opener puncturing the tin always brought our cat, Cato, running to my feet. She would sit, looking up at me with anticipation, before getting dangerously underfoot as I moved to pour the water from the can into her bowl.  

Tuna water was her favorite treat, and on one occasion I was able to coax her down from the top of a high tree simply by saying “tuna” and opening a tin.  Cato lived with us for 18 years, and during that time she became a member of the family.

The amount of money that North Americans spend on pets suggests that we have gone gaga over them. In 2011, Canadians spent $8.9 billion on their pets, and Americans spent a whopping $50 billion.  While it was not my practice to spend exorbitant amounts on Cato, I coughed up several hundred dollars without hesitation when she required emergency surgery after raccoons attacked her.

Pets win our affection
We lavish attention on our pets because they win us over. My relationship with Cato was a good example of the affects that a pet can have on an individual’s heart.

When Cato first came to us, the kids were more excited than I was about having a cat. As one of my children described it, Cato and I had a business relationship. She kept the mice out of the house, and I made sure she was fed.  

Cato, in the early days
Louise McEwan photo

While it is unclear if I trained her or she trained me, we came to understand one another almost perfectly. While I am not exactly a lover of animals in the mode of Saint Francis, who famously preached to the birds, I found myself talking to Cato on more than one occasion. 

Cato, the preacher
It was Cato, however, who did the real preaching. Even though she possessed an instinctual ruthlessness as a hunter by nature, her feline traits spoke to me of contentment, and her presence was soothing.   From her vibrating purr to her ability to lounge on any surface, no matter how hard and uncomfortable, she conveyed a spirit of softness.

In the hubris of my humanity, I never expected to learn anything from a cat. This was an ignorant, perhaps even a sinful, attitude, for as Saint Francis knew animals have the potential to deepen our awareness of the presence of the divine in creation and in the human heart. They have the ability to call forth deep levels of kindness and compassion; as the saint taught, “men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity will deal likewise with their fellow men”.

There is a deep connection between people and their pets

Dizzy reads along, ready to turn the page
T. McEwan photo
Saint Francis perceived an affinity between people and animals: people and animals originated in the same Creator, whose providential care sustained them both.  While not everyone shares Saint Francis’s worldview, most will agree that there is a deep connection between people and their pets.  

I was sad and upset as my cat’s life ebbed away and the inevitable visit to the vet loomed. I was unprepared for the lingering sense of loss I felt after she died; I did not expect to be looking for her in the old familiar places in the weeks that followed. Cato had brought a mellowness into our lives and the house felt quiet and empty without her.

The deep connection we have with our pets makes that final farewell difficult. The exceptional kindness of my vet and his assistant on that last visit made the parting easier.  Each of us understood the bond between person and pet.  It was there in Cato’s dying. 

I knew she was gone before my vet whispered the words. The light had faded from her eyes.  She had returned to her maker who was reflected in the intangible softness she had brought to our home.