First, forgive me for adding yet another commentary on this issue that is already far too commented upon by far better Catholics than I; I do so because I feel I must.
I must because the morale of the greatest saints I know may be at risk (those dedicated humble souls who day after day bear all the suffering that comes with praying and sidewalk counseling outside abortion mills, and do so with the greatest love and gentleness) at an important moment: today being the eve of the start of the Fall 40 Days for Life campaign. I will share, by way of personal story at the end of this, what I believe he did mean, but for now let me tell you what he did not mean.
Pope Francis did not mean “stay away from the abortion mills, stop praying outside of them, stop counseling the women outside of them and evangelizing passersby.” He did not even mean “take it easy on that; don’t be so zealous for it.” He meant the absolute opposite; he meant that the woundedness of our generation, thanks to its sinfulness, is so incredibly great that it no longer suffices in any degree (as it perhaps once did – to a degree) for the Church as a whole to merely make her opposition to evil known by way of denunciation.
He is not insisting upon falling back in surrender to a more comfortable spot of easy-going friendliness to the world; a succumbing to the times (which Benedict condemned as “blind conformity to the spirit of this age”); a softening of teachings; a shift of focus from sign-of-contradiction to just-getting-along.
Rather, he is insisting upon a radical advance; an advance to the level of the saints, that is to say, the level of Christ. The level of the One for Whom it was not enough merely to denounce evil; but Who instead annihilated it by permitting it to nail Him to a cross. If the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, then it must follow His life. I believe Francis is saying that we have now reached Gethsemane.
Francis is not saying that we must go from activist to apathetic. He is saying we must go from activist to warrior, and so long as the Satanic Prince of this World is in power (and he is now more than ever) – that is done by suffering violence, not by using it. As the woman getting an abortion feels the agonizing assault of her conscience, so we must stand or kneel on the sidewalks and bear with love the angry jeers of pro-abortion passersby, the cold snow and hot sun, and the alienation of certain friends and family members who will have none of that “fanaticism;” and even moreso we must look into the eyes of the women going in, feel their pain, and tell them that God became man in the womb of the Virgin so that we could be set free.
Were I to be asked just what it was I thought Pope Francis was saying, I would relay two personal stories:
Three years ago I was on pilgrimage to Medjugorje. I had foolishly not followed the advice given to pilgrims – to have a heartfelt confession be among your first activities – and had put it off for a whole week. That week was full of blessings, but I also struggled. I was not at peace with my pilgrimage group and was losing much due to that; some of them had behaviors that troubled me, I was bothered by their sinfulness, and some of them were not even Catholics. I remained reserved and ineffective in conversations with them because of what was likely a subconscious fear that I would be confronted with their sins or imperfections and have to deal with that. Finally I made it to that most merciful Sacrament, and tried my best to open my soul to a very holy Franciscan priest (a CFR). He paused, and said “… I’m not sure how else to say this, but: you’re not the Savior of the World. Jesus is.” It was as if a demon was exorcised from me. Afterwards I was able to see the person before the sin, have a Christlike love for them, and even enjoy their company. Ironically (but not really), it was only then that I was able to influence them away from sin by my witness.
In college, after I had reawakened to my Faith and was growing in zeal for its promulgation, I came to recognize that the vast majority of Catholics were, objectively speaking, in a state of grave sin. I had to do something about it. My engineering mind went to work and I put together a printout of what I deemed to be the most common sanctifying grace depriving behaviors there were (e.g. certain sexual sins, skipping Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day, etc.), so that I could post them everywhere, and people would then at least know. I neglected to consider that I was being far less gentle with others by employing methods like these (which, thankfully, remained uncompleted works in progress) than the Holy Spirit had been with me, in bringing about my own conversion. My methods are now far different and far more effective, but still with the same aim and the same motive: salvation, and love, respectively. Instead of the sin list, I now hand out this card that I made and printed 10,000 of. I speak first and foremost about the Divine Mercy, the love of Our Lady, the ease with which Our Lord is approached, and the like. I urge you to do something similar.
I believe, in fact, that Pope Francis is merely trying to teach the whole Church what most dedicated sidewalk prayer warriors and sidewalk counselors already know, for they learned it through that very ministry. They learned it by by seeing some misguided yet zealous soul shouting “murderer” at a woman on her way in, or standing and scowling with a sign, that reads in huge letters, “THOU SHALT NOT KILL.” Their hearts recognized that such an approach was not Christlike, and they even observed the complete lack of effectiveness of that approach. So they chose to approach the matter very differently; they pray the Rosary, they bring cards with the Divine Mercy and Our Lady of Guadalupe on them, they assure each and every man and woman going into those places of death that they love them and are praying for them, they talk about the mercy of Jesus, the love of God, and the power of Our Lady. They endure much suffering on those sidewalks, but they bear incredible fruit. It is as if they heard this very interview long ago, and followed its spirit perfectly, for in the interview our Holy Father said “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner… it is necessary to accompany them [sinners] with mercy … when we speak about these issues [abortion, etc.], we have to talk about them in a context… Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials: this… is what makes the heart burn…ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently…”
But he is also trying to teach the Church that lesson that brought them from merely being pro-life and denouncing abortion to being a sidewalk counselor or sidewalk prayer warrior: “[What] the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds… it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle…There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory…you cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious…it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there…”
There is nothing else he could have meant by likening what we ought to be to a field hospital. It is as if he had said “your anti-war activism and pacifist principles are correct, but milquetoast. You need to feel the bullets whizzing by your head; you need to risk their implantation into your heart, and you must immediately go bandage up up your brothers and sisters who are dying of their wounds in the battlefield from this unjust war.”
I know that I am called to spend more time outside of abortion mills these 40 days than I have in the recent past. This Papal interview reminds me of that. I pray you feel this call as well, and know that our Holy Father will thank you for it, if not in this life, then at Judgment Day. But it is not even Pope Francis whom we do this for, after all; it is Our Lord, Who sees us every moment and knows our heart. Follow the conviction of your heart with greater zeal than ever; do not permit the devil to snatch that great gift away by means of misinterpretation of a Papal interview, or secular media spin thereof. Rather, be further inspired by its powerful true meaning. If you only knew the reward that awaits you for your faithfulness, you would die for joy and receive it now.
In Christ, through Mary,