Culture

I Am a Pathetic Sheep

(Jovani Carlo Gorospe/Dreamstime)
Pope Francis, a Mass interrupted, and the Christian way

A man interrupted the Mass I was attending Thursday evening at St. Francis of Assisi Church, a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. He walked up toward the altar and said some incomprehensible words. He stomped on the ground and yelled seemingly from the depths of his soul. He was angry and he was letting it be known. Without laying a hand on him, a few men in the congregation encouraged him to leave, and walked with him out of the church.

Mass resumed, but I couldn’t help remembering a homily from another Mass. Earlier in the day, Pope Francis had been talking about inclusion.

Viewed through a political lens and with an eye toward conventional categories, the reflex may be to associate it with all kinds of progressive interest-group rhetoric. Dismiss or cheer depending on your “side” and move on. Be confirmed or affirmed.

Or you can read on.

Thursday morning Pope Francis said (as Vatican Radio translated it and wrote it up):

Jesus, the Pope said, acts like His Father, Who sent Him to save us; “He seeks to include us,” “to be a family.”

He also said: If I exclude I will one day stand before the judgment seat of God, I will have to give an account of myself to God. Let us ask the grace of being men and women who always include, always, always! in the measure of healthy prudence, but always. Not closing the doors to anyone, always with an open heart: ‘It pleases me, it displeases me,’ but the heart is open. May the Lord grant us this grace.”

This is typical of one of his morning homilies. They are challenging if you read them through the lens of a sinner in need of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

The gospel of the day talked of Pharisees. A lot of people are inclined to be certain he was yet again excoriating conservatives.

Well, I’m a conservative and I have Pharisaic tendencies. I’m a sinner. I’m not a saint, though I pray to be one. That’s what God wants for me, what all Christians are called to be. And Heaven knows the world needs more saints. But I sin and I struggle and I go to God for forgiveness and strength to do better.

I saw that same day a line from St. Gregory Narek: “I am like a pathetic sheep.” Guilty! I am a pathetic sheep. In need of mercy. Does anyone not get caught up in the distractions of life? Does anyone among us who call ourselves Christians not fail to trust God as much as we ought? This mercy stuff is for all of us. And you can’t give what you can’t have. Which is why I smile when I have to wait in a long Confession line.

But what about the soul who does not feel welcome?

I have no idea what happened to that man who interrupted Mass. Obviously, something had to be done, and he did not appear to be interested in an encounter as much as a statement. And yet, there is something he needs. And I assume he returned to the crowded city. The crowded city is full of people angry and hurt, scared and lonely.

This particular church provides literal food for the hungry, respite with the Lord, temperature-controlled shelter, and sacraments for the hungry soul. Its Confession lines are long and its hours are many. When Pope Francis talks about a welcoming Church, he means a church where we come to know and love Christ who overcomes sin and death. It’s a welcome to sainthood.

But first, there must be triage. There must be an opportunity for an encounter (a favorite Pope Francis word) and peace with the Lord.

Some time ago, Pope Francis went to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa — where he talked about refugees who were dying fleeing “the Arab Spring,” before doing so was cool — and said:

“Adam, where are you?” This is the first question which God asks man after his sin. “Adam, where are you?” Adam lost his bearings, his place in creation, because he thought he could be powerful, able to control everything, to be God. Harmony was lost; man erred and this error occurs over and over again also in relationships with others. “The other” is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort. God asks a second question: “Cain, where is your brother?” The illusion of being powerful, of being as great as God, even of being God himself, leads to a whole series of errors, a chain of death, even to the spilling of a brother’s blood!

He went on to say: How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed.

The man who interrupted Mass had looked into many of our eyes as if to cry: Can you see God in me? Can you see God in me? You say we’re made in the image and likeness of God. Can you see? Can you show me God in me? Can you help me meet him?

The man who interrupted Mass had looked into many of our eyes as if to cry: Can you see God in me?

A Christian has to include him, to care about him, to have a place in his heart for him, to help him. A church has to have an answer for him. A Christian has to see God in him and hear the questions and help him see.

Dr. James Black works for the church in Philadelphia. He is a licensed psychologist who serves as assistant director of the Youth Services Division of Catholic Social Services (where he has worked for 22 years) and is director of mental-health programs for Saint Gabriel’s System “serving the least, the last and the lost,” as he puts it. His department gives troubled kids hope and a fighting chance. During a talk there in August, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput described the number of social services the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has. Jim told me of his dream that Pope Francis might fly by helicopter to see such love in action at the St. Gabriel’s home for young men just outside the city. Here in New York, the pope did visit a school and a Catholic Charities site that helps immigrants find a home. He visited a seminary, where he stayed. The mission of the Church is love in the truth of Christ. So Christians serve as we seek redemption and salvation.

#share#It might not have been practical or safe for me to help the man who interrupted Mass in that Midtown Church other than with prayer. The pain in his voice betrayed a need, like that of another man who had done something similar in the same church a week before. His words may have been expletives and anything but actively seeking aid. But do I care? Am I changed? Does his cry stick in my mind? Do I seek out opportunities to help people who do ask for help? Are they drawn to be helped by Christians who exude love? Do I exude love? Do I respond when called to tend to wounds?

I often don’t. I often think I’m too busy.

We are all busy. And we all have duties particular to our vocations. But we should never be content with simply fulfilling those normal duties. I know I’m not alone in needing to give more, needing to love more. The need is great. And Christ, our model, gave all.

Outside that Midtown church is a plaque above a statue of a homeless person. “Whatever you did for one of my least brothers or sisters, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)”

Disruptions like that Mass disruption should disrupt our lives, stretching our hearts, and opening us to the radical nature of Christ’s call. Mass goes on, life goes on, but are we changed?

#related#Pope Francis talks frequently about the dangers of lukewarm Christianity: It is not Christianity! And so he implores and invites. That mercy stuff he talks about is in the light of faith. Listen to Him in full and see if you aren’t challenged to walk with Him — that is in following Christ — in a constant state of conversion, conviction, transformation.

We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s why we go to Church. That’s Pope Francis, Kathryn Lopez, and the man with the Sprite bottle and the baseball cap yelling after the Gospel reading.

Radical conversion. Sanctity. When I listen to Pope Francis preach, that’s what I hear. I’m grateful, because it’s just what I need to hear. It’s just what I can’t ignore. It’s what the world needs. For the hearts of Christians to be purified so that we will be equipped to give the world what it most needs: God.

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