On Saturday evening, my friend Chris and I went exploring. Our first stop was a beautiful old Church in a once beautiful Pittsburgh neighborhood. Chris had happened upon the parish a few weeks back, but locked doors kept him out. This time, however, we timed our arrival to coincide with the vigil Mass. Locked door problem solved.
As we walked towards the steps, Chris pointed out a house immediately across the street from the parish. In its windows, hung a sign: “Stop Shooting. We love you.” Always reassuring.Nothing says “Welcome to the neighborhood” quite like this.
Inside, the Church was lovely. Unfortunately, it was also empty. Maybe 70 people sat in pews that easily could have sat 700. It was quiet too. No noises or cries from small children broke the silence. In fact, save for two teenagers and one young mom, Chris and I were the youngest people there. And at 45 and 38 respectively, spring chickens we ain’t.
After Mass, a small group of elderly people stopped us to chat. We paid a compliment or two and Chris mentioned he’d tried visiting before. The parishioners just nodded their heads.
“Can’t keep it open anymore,” one older gentleman told us. “It’s the kids. We just spent $35,000 fixing the stained glass. They keep breaking the windows. It’s the same in the school. It’s closed now, but we can’t board the windows up fast enough. And the pipes and gutters, they’ve taken all them too.”
“Copper,” another woman added, by way of explanation.
Right then, the priest, who was making his way back up the aisle, stopped to chat with our little group. The conversation repeated itself—“Such a beautiful Church.” “Such a bad neighborhood.”
“Sounds like you’ve cut your work cut out for you,” said Chris, adding some momentary variety to the dialogue. “You’ll have to get out and evangelize those boys.”
The priest rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Them? Not likely.” He then moved on to another topic—not in haste, just in total disinterest. To him, evangelizing the neighborhood wasn’t worth a second thought.
Not long after, Chris and I said our goodbyes. As we drove away, past homes with boarded up windows of their own, the conversation turned to Pope Francis and his now famous (or depending on your perspective, infamous) interview in America.
Since the interview came out, Chris has been more sanguine than I.
“He’s doing something great,” he’s reassured me more than once. “He’s going out to the margins. He’s shaking things up. He’s being bold. When you’re bold, you sometimes say things that get misunderstood.”
He said much the same thing as we drove away from the parish.
“That’s who Francis was talking to,” he said. “I’m sure that priest has many virtues, and that parish has many good people. But any life it’s got left in it is kept inside behind locked doors.”
He’s right, of course. That is whom Francis was talking to. He was talking to that priest and his parishioners. He was talking to every corner of the Church that’s tired, stagnant, and turned in on itself. He was also talking to the neighborhood around the Church, to all the people those inside the Church have given up on.
And, in all that, as I’m coming to see, he was also talking to me. And probably you.
Like that priest and his parish, most of us also keep something locked up inside, some piece of our life we’re not willing to give away, some death we’re not willing to die. Most of also have some task set before us by God, a task at which we roll our eyes because it seems too risky, too dangerous, too impossibly hard to even contemplate, let alone carry out. And the world around us, like that troubled Pittsburgh neighborhood, pays for that.
Personally, I’d rather not think about what I’m not giving or doing. I’d prefer to focus on Francis’ choice of words in his interview: what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I would have done differently. It’s so much easier to deconstruct an interview than change a life.
Deconstructing an interview, however, won’t get me to Heaven.
That’s not to say I’ve come around to thinking every word of that interview perfectly chosen. I’m not there yet. But I do see that every word of that interview wasn’t for me. Some words were for that Pittsburgh priest. Some words were for the boys playing in the streets outside his parish. Other words were for a woman wounded by abortion, a man wounded by greed, an ex-Catholic wounded by scandal.
I’m also coming to see that my task isn’t to worry about the words that were there for everyone else. My task is to focus on the words that were there for me. It’s to re-read every last line and ask at their conclusion, “Is Francis talking to me?
I can’t complain about that lukewarm priest refusing to ask that question if I refuse to do the same.
And yes, I know, I don’t have to treat the interview way. It’s a piece in America, not the Catechism. But, come Judgment Day, I won’t be answering for what Pope Francis said in some interview. I’ll be answering for the task I wouldn’t do, the death I wouldn’t die, the people I didn’t love, the Good News I didn’t proclaim.
In short, I’ll be answering for me.
Pope Francis sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but that’s not a bad thing. At the end of my life, I don’t want to look back and see that I was like that priest, rolling my eyes at my what God wants of me. Nor do I want to see that I was like that parish, hiding from the world behind locked doors, or like that neighborhood, bereft of life and hope and beauty. I want to look back and see that I was like Christ, that I walked a path on which I loved him and served him well.
That’s not going to be a comfortable path. It’s going to take a whole lot of poking and prodding to keep me on it. That’s what Francis seems to be trying to do, poking and prodding, keeping all of us—faithful and unfaithful—from getting too comfortable. I’m not going to say to No to that prodding. Like it or not, I need it.
My guess is you do too.