Recently, a former student came to me for advice about dealing with a group of people who didn’t share the Church’s ideas on a variety of subjects. I thought immediately of what Pope Francis might say.
I noted to the student that relationships take work. And many times we will encounter people in the world who do not share our beliefs. Our goal is not to be dismissive, but rather to stay in relationship with these people anyway. To dismiss them would sever the possibility of relationship. I also noted the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”
Too often people use these words to justify a position that we believers possess the truth, and if others don’t heed our words we should simply go on our merry way and disregard their friendship. However, a careful reading shows that Jesus required more of us. He said only to move on if people don’t welcome you or listen to you. They need not heed your words, but rather, simply listen to what you have to say and welcome you to their table despite obvious disagreements.
The pope seems to be taking his cue from Jesus in the same regard.
Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, called on the pope to answer a few of his questions. Scalfari calls himself a “non-believer for many years interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth” and put to the pope questions about those who do not believe. Scalfari’s queries were sparked by comments that the pope recently made about nonbelievers, followed by an initial recanting of those comments by the Vatican.
Pope Francis responded to Scalfari with a letter. He was direct and to the point, answering Scalfari in his usual pastoral style. The fact that Jesus was killed by those who did not believe in him should signal an obvious answer. For Christians, Jesus defeats death despite sin, not as some kind of spiritual “I-told-you-so.”
The pope states this plainly:
“This is, for the Christian faith, the certificate of the fact that Jesus is risen: not to triumph over those who rejected him, but to attest that the love of God is stronger than death, the forgiveness of God is stronger than any sin, and that it is worthwhile to spend one’s life, to the end, witnessing this immense gift.”
The humbleness of seeking the truth is also a central element of Pope Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei, which the pope references in his letter:
“‘The believer isn’t arrogant; on the contrary, truth makes him humble, knowing that, more than our possessing it, it is truth that embraces and possesses us. Far from stiffening us, the certainty of the faith puts us on the way, and makes possible witness and dialogue with everyone’ (n. 34). This is the spirit that animates the words that I write to you.”
Pope Francis seems to be making an attempt to quell the perception that the Church is arrogant. In short, discovering the truth isn’t an exercise in hoarding; rather the pope reminds us that truth can only be found within the context of relationship — an important point that many fail to see, or shrug off as unnecessary:
“Now truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship! So true is it that each one of us also takes up the truth and expresses it from him/herself: from his/her history and culture, from the situation in which he/she lives, etc. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective, quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. Therefore, it’s necessary to understand one another well on the terms and, perhaps, to come out of the tight spots of absolute positions, to pose the question again in depth. I think that this is today absolutely necessary to initiate that serene and constructive dialogue that I hoped for at the beginning of this my response.”
Pope Francis hopes to form a relationship with nonbelievers, and says relationship requires us to be in dialogue with one another. We need to learn from one another, but mostly we need to learn from the example of Jesus, who above all taught us how to love. To love even our enemies; to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus didn’t agree with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, but he would never have been accused of not loving them or of dismissing them.
For people of good will — those who want and hope for the best for humanity — we can and should move closer together on what we can see as true and good and beautiful. We might not always agree, but Pope Francis hopes that it won’t be for lack of trying.