“The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
Yikes. Scandal. Gasp. The Internet explodes and sides begin to form. One side gloomily predicts the end of the world; the other side joyfully predicts women priests. What does this mean?
Pope Francis speaks those words into a world desperately in need of truth, of the knowledge of right and wrong, of how to be truly happy.
Those words felt incredibly uncomfortable to me on first reading. My brain wailed in protest: WRONG, MR. POPE! SHOULDN’T WE JUST TELL EVERYONE WHAT THEY NEED TO DO TO FIX THEMSELVES?
Growing up, I had the good fortune to go to a small, very nice, private Catholic school. Everyone believed pretty much the same thing, the skirts on the girls’ uniforms were barely above the knee, and everyone trooped to Mass on Friday afternoons. Parental involvement was high. Teachers were kind and concerned. The students were all quite remarkably kind to each other— minus the occasional squabble and disagreement which calmed fairly quickly. The worst thing that ever happened was that someone might skip school for an afternoon, or play an over-the-top prank on a teacher. Mostly, it was a safe place to be, a haven away from who-knows-what at other schools.
As my friends and I moved into our later teen years and drifted into our twenties, the ease of our friendships began to be disrupted. Some traveled away. Some started living with their boyfriends or girlfriends. There were a few out-of-wedlock pregnancies. There was way too much drinking. The occasional person declared smugly and in a superior voice that she had decided to not be Catholic anymore. Some struggled with same-sex attraction.
I began to realize that it is easy to be friends with someone who agrees with everything that is important to you and lives by it. It is much harder when you can’t take that for granted anymore. My initial reaction was to get all preachy. It seemed a duty, an obligation even, to inform my friends of the list of reasons why they should cease and desist their harmful behaviours.
That was rarely successful. In fact, it was downright harmful. My words made them feel beaten down and caused them to retreat, to run away from being judged and argued with. Slowly, slowly, I learned to say less and listen more. It became more important to show my love for them, than to compose eloquent arguments designed to shake them into sanity again.
I learned that, yes, if a close friend of mine was really screwing up, an occasion might arise where it might be wise and even an obligation to say something along the lines of: “I don’t agree with what you are doing because it is hurting you. If you want to talk, I am here.”
The key, I realized, was to emphasize my love and desire for their happiness, and leave it at that. Their knowledge of my love for them made it much more likely that if they actually needed to talk to me—if they needed me for anything at all—they would ask me for it. But they had to want what I could offer; it was not my job to force it on them. In the meantime, all I could do was to create an environment which they wanted to be in.
I remember one hard week when I discovered a cascade of difficult truths about a close friend. Could I still be her friend, I wondered? Did being her friend mean I supported things that are fundamentally against my moral framework?
But it wasn’t about me. She wasn’t asking me to participate in actions against my belief system. She wasn’t even asking for me to approve of her. All she really needed was someone to understand that she was in a hard place, a struggling place. Our history of friendship hadn’t gone away because suddenly we weren’t aligned in our beliefs and actions anymore. We still had our similar likes and dislikes and ability to laugh hysterically together until we almost peed our pants.
In a perfect world we would have perfect friendships with people who live happy lives and make good choices. But…fail. We’re screwed up. We live in a broken world, a world imperfect and fallen and full of pain. And that is where the love that should exist in our friendships plays its crucial role. In our friendships we work through our disagreements and find our common ground; we strengthen the ties that bind us, and help each other through our pain and brokenness.
We aren’t in this world to form perfect communities of holy people. Christ didn’t come down to hang out with saints. He waded through the muck and settled in. We are the muck; let’s not pretend otherwise. And really, it’s not the muck that is the problem. The problem comes when we believe we are conquered by it and can’t escape it.
The only antidote to that despair is love. The only way to prove that love is to show it. And thus the pope shoots another nugget of wisdom at us: “In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
Meet people where they are. Join them on their journey. Love them. Start there.