I almost feel like I need to start a What Pope Francis Means is… section on RosaryMeds. It’s not that I think what Pope Francis says is wrong. In fact, both Pope Benedict and Saint John Paul II also said many things that, without looking through a well formed theological lens, one could interpret as going against Catholic doctrine. But because of Pope Francis’ off the cuff style, he opens more doors than his predecessors for incorrect justifications of uncatholic behavior for those who wish to take it.
“We all know in our communities, in our parishes, in our neighborhoods how much hurt they do the church, and give scandal, those persons that call themselves ‘Very Catholic,'” the pontiff said Sunday.
Francis was speaking Sunday in an off-the-cuff moment during his weekly Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square, which focused on one of Jesus’ teachings about the role of the proscribed laws of the faith of his time.
“The literal observance of the precepts is something sterile if it does not change the heart and is not translated into concrete attitudes,” he said, giving examples: “Opening yourself to the encounter with God and God’s word in prayer, searching for justice and peace, giving help to the poor, the weak and the oppressed.”
“The exterior attitudes are the consequence of what we have determined in the heart,” said the pope. “Not the opposite! With outside attitudes, if the heart does not change we are not true Christians.”
What Pope Francis Did NOT Say
Some people could take Pope Francis’ words to mean that it is okay to not embrace all the teachings of the Catholic Church. After all, you don’t want to be that goody-goody who is “very Catholic” or “too Catholic” as I’ve heard some refer to those who try to follow the precepts of the Church. Without proper reflection, the pope’s comments could be taken as an endorsement of “cafeteria Catholicism” where you can pick what part of the doctrine you want to follow. As long as you have a good heart or a just cause it’s alright to skip Mass on Sunday, support pro-choice causes, and not really buy into the “we are sinners in need of forgiveness” idea. After all, the pope says that being very Catholic can be a bad thing right?
Of course Pope Francis is not saying that you can embrace uncatholic behaviors and still be a Catholic in God’s grace. Nor is he telling practicing Catholics to butt out of the lives of those who have fallen away from the Church. Unfortunately, for those looking for excuses for their behavior and shortcomings, you can easily pick and choose the pope’s words to support your actions.
What is Pope Francis Saying?
In my view, Pope Francis’ comments come down to a single word: PRIDE. It’s not that trying to be a very good Catholic is a bad thing, but you start getting into sinful territory when you start to believe that you’ve achieved some state of heavenly perfection in this lifetime because you follow all the rules. You give scandal when you try to lord that false perception of perfection over others. The very act of believing you are a better person than others because you follow the rules prevents you from being a fully realized Catholic because you fail to acknowledge your sinful act of pride.
There is an old saying that I’m going to paraphrase — being wise means understanding that there is a lot you do not know. I think that’s important to meditate on when thinking about how good of a Catholic you are. Someone who is truly very Catholic understands that they have a lot of sins and shortcomings that they need to work on. No one can achieve perfect Catholicism in this world (Mary and Jesus excluded of course). That is a state reserved for the souls in Heaven. Even the saints acknowledged that they were poor sinners who had to battle various imperfections throughout their lives. Even those who were the most holy among us like Saint Pope John Paul II went to confession weekly because he had the humility to know he could still be a better Catholic.
The Rosary Connection
The rosary relates to Pope Francis’ comments in two ways. First, we pray it so that we can more humbly approach our faith. When I meditate on the various mysteries and think about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, I understand the long road I have before me in areas of my life where I need to improve. I don’t think anyone who earnestly prays the rosary can believe they are very Catholic when compared to the lives of Mary and Jesus or even the martyrs, apostles, and saints. If I ever do start to feel prideful and that there isn’t any more I can do to be a great Catholic, meditating on the rosary brings me back to reality.
The rosary also helps me become very Catholic, but very Catholic in the right way. As Pope Francis said, we should focus on changing our hearts, not just our exterior attitudes. Think about the Third Luminous Mystery of the rosary. Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven and calls us to a life of conversion. This conversion is a conversion of heart, not actions. Because when we do have a true conversion of heart and orient ourselves towards God, the actions will naturally follow.
Think of it like this, you aren’t very Catholic because you go to Mass on Sunday. You are very Catholic because you love God with all your heart and want to embrace Him by listening to His Word and celebrating the Eucharist at Mass. True conversion and becoming very Catholic starts from within with regular prayer and reflecting on what areas of your life need improvement. The rosary is a great tool that leads you to true Catholicism, not a false, prideful one.
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