“We don’t always get the pope we want,” said my sponsor* as we discussed the state of the Church over a cup of rooibos tea in her kitchen, “but we always get the pope we need.” Pope Francis continues to shake things up and ruffle the feathers of the Church’s hyper-Traditionalist population, and today’s doodle was borne out of my musings on his recent instruction on the Rite of Consecrated Virginity. The instruction is controversial precisely because it states that actual, physical virginity (whatever that even means) isn’t necessarily required if a woman wishes to enter the ancient Order of Virgins.
Many members of the Order welcomed the Pope’s instruction gracefully, acknowledging that it merely clarifies what they already understood: that the call to devote one’s life to Christ in a sponsal commitment is a spiritual vocation which does not rest on one’s past sexual history. Others, sadly, were nowhere near as charitable in their responses. Can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.
The instruction only affirms what is written in the Scriptures, that everyone is a new creation in Christ and that: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8: 1). To condemn something or someone is to criticise them harshly on moral grounds, to force them to suffer, or to declare them forever damaged and unfit for a particular purpose. The Greek word translated as ‘condemnation’ is κατάκριμα – katakrima. Interestingly, the Greek word ‘krima’ can also mean ‘dividing out’, ‘sifting’ or ‘judging’. In other words, there are no distinctions based on arbitrary human rules and, as I’ve emphasised in previous posts, no first or second class members of the Body of Christ.
Our first Pope was a man who knew this well. As we explored during the Triduum, Simon Peter, overcome with fear, virulently denied Jesus three times. When they finally came face to face once again on the shores of Lake Galilee, however, Jesus wasn’t interested in giving Peter a hard time over what had happened. I’m sure He knew quite well that Peter had already spent enough time beating himself up over it. Instead, Jesus wanted confirmation of only one thing: “Do you love me more than these others do?”
Around this time last year, my parish priest in Newcastle pointed out that the word Jesus used for ‘love’ was ‘agape’, meaning the perfect, infinite love of God. The best Peter could manage in response, each time, was ‘filia’, meaning brotherly love. It wasn’t quite what Jesus was looking for, but He understood that it was the most Peter could give at that time, and still went on to make him the head of the Catholic Church. Evidently, He didn’t view Peter as damaged goods, either.
And what about the story of the prodigal son? In Jesus’ society, to ask your father for your inheritance was to wish him dead, to his face. The son then went on to live a life of debauchery and, at his lowest point, was living among pigs and ready to eat the scraps of their food – a level of disgrace and shame which would have been simply unimaginable to Jesus’ Jewish audience. The point the parable makes is that the son simply couldn’t have made himself more filthy or defiled, and it was only self pity that motivated him to seek his father’s mercy – not love for his father or sorrow for having hurt him.
The son doesn’t for one moment imagine that he’ll be allowed to resume a life of sonship – he’s been ceremonially cut off from the family and would have lost all of his legal rights. Yet, perhaps his father will be merciful and let him take up a role of servitude. Anything would be better than his current situation.
And what does the father do? He runs to meet his son before anyone else can get to him and drive him away. I once read a midrash on this parable which pointed out that men in the middle east do not run. Running involves hitching up your robes, exposing your legs and humiliating yourself in the process. The father doesn’t care. He takes his filthy, ceremonially unclean son into his arms and kisses him tenderly. He isn’t interested in the son’s carefully prepared speech, instead beckoning his servants: “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandles on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15: 22-24)
This is huge! The son is not merely forgiven but restored to his previous state - as signified by the father's command that he be given the best robe and a ring. The reaction of the dutiful son is telling, and sadly reminiscent of the way that some have reacted to the Pope’s aforementioned instruction:
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.” (Luke 15: 25-30; emphasis mine)
Again, looking at the cultural context of the story, the dutiful son’s refusal to go into the party would have been a source of great embarrassment for his father – hence the pleading. His peevish reaction is really quite natural for someone who believes they’ve earned something, and then sees it being given away for free to someone who they feel hasn’t. It’s not fair, or so we think – yet I’m quite sure that none of us would like to be treated ‘fairly’ by God. As evangelical preacher Todd White so eloquently puts it: “You want fair? Go to Hell!”
Pope Francis instruction, then, though offensive to many, stands as a bold affirmation of Biblical Truth: that God’s love for you is greater than the worst thing you’ve ever done. He really can – and will – do infinitely more for us than we could ever ask or imagine.
by Lucy Stothard
* when an adult converts to Roman Catholicism, their sponsor is a person who acts like a Godparent and is responsible for instructing them in the faith. Mine is awesome.