Pope Francis during the morning Mass in Santa Marta


FORUM: Secular Slums and the Francis Option

Pope Francis’ approach to carrying God’s mercy to our post-Christian culture maintains a dual focus on outward mission and an inward strengthening of local communities

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This reflection is provided by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, Colorado

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In a few short weeks, we will celebrate the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which has great potential to bring many people back to the Lord, and to serve as a launching pad for bringing the Gospel to the spiritual slums created by secularism.

Bl. Mother Teresa frequently pointed out that the modern mission field for the West is not overseas but on our shores. The greatest poverty of the West, she would say, is not material poverty but the spiritual poverty that can be seen in the many people who hunger for love and have a desire to experience God’s presence. In fact, she would tell people who wanted to volunteer in India that the best way they could help was to bring love to their own homes, offices and factories.

During the Jubilee Year, we have the opportunity to carry mission territory to those who may not even realize that they are longing for mercy. When Pope Francis was asked who he is in an interview, he responded, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Being able to say that requires an openness to the love and mercy of the Father, which brings with it the gift of humility and an awareness of how God is intimately involved in every aspect of life.

Acknowledging our need for mercy returns us to our true selves, just as when St. Luke described the Prodigal Son’s realization of how badly he had fallen as “coming to himself” (cf. Lk. 15: 17). Whether we are the younger brother who squandered everything or the older brother who was filled with resentment, all of us need the mercy of the Father.

But what does this look like for the Church and each of our families, especially as our society becomes less Christian? By way of an answer, I would like to share some thoughts with you that come from a talk I gave to the Orange County Prayer Breakfast last month.

Some scholars argue that Western society has become so intolerant of faith that Christians need to start considering the “Benedict Option.” This concept was inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue, in which he wrote about waiting “for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” This new Benedict would help construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages,” just as the founder of Western monasticism did during the final days of the Roman Empire.

Rod Dreher, one of the strongest advocates of the “Benedict Option,” asserts that in order for the Church to survive the present wave of secularism, it needs to focus its energy inward, rather than outward.

However, it seems to me that Pope Francis by his words and actions is presenting the Church with a different way to respond to the secular world, which could be called the “Francis Option.”

From Jesus sending forth the apostles to proclaim the Gospel to “the ends of the earth” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 28:19) to St. Paul telling the Corinthians “the love of Christ impels us” to bring the Gospel of reconciliation to all (2 Cor. 5:14-15), our faith has always been outwardly oriented, while drawing its strength from the power of the Holy Spirit’s action within local communities.

The “Francis Option” places the emphasis on bringing God’s forgiveness to those on the spiritual and material outer limits of society, while also strengthening the health of our local communities with the balm of God’s mercy. In other words, Pope Francis’ approach to carrying God’s mercy to our post-Christian culture maintains a dual focus on outward mission and an inward strengthening of local communities. The “Benedict Option,” on the other hand, is primarily concerned with building inner strength.

By allowing the mercy of God to enter our families, we strengthen the most important of local communities and equip ourselves for bringing Christ’s mercy into the despair-filled spiritual slums that are becoming more common in our society. But Pope Francis is calling us to do more than bring love to our local communities, he is reminding us of Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19).

Christ showed us how to do this when he met the woman caught in adultery. First, he had mercy on her by protecting her from her accusers and the sentence of the Jewish law. Then, he spoke the truth to her, saying, “’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’” (Jn. 8:10-11). He does not condemn her but recognizes her sin and calls her out of it.

As we approach the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy on Dec. 8, I urge you to open yourself to God’s mercy through the sacrament of Reconciliation and strengthen yourself to serve as an instrument of true mercy, both in your families and in the world.

To read Archbishop Aquila’s full talk, please visit,http://archden.org/archbishops_writing/evangelizing-with-mercy-in-a-post-christian-culture/.

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