In the runup to the first ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops in nine years, one of the more successful initiatives by lay faithful has been the so-called ‘Pauspetitie‘ on Facebook. Probably best translated in English as ‘Popetition’, it aims to collect the wishes, hopes and desires of lay faithful across the Netherlands, asking readers the question, “What do you want to tell Pope Francis?”
The range of questions, reflecting the page’s rapid popularity, is great, but can generally be divided in two major categories, both of which are somewhat concerning.
First there is the popularity of Pope Francis. Of course, there is nothing wrong with faithful loving their Holy Father. But it seems that for many, Pope Francis is the great reformer who will do away with all the hard parts of being Catholic. No matter that he speaks more than any Pope before him about such topics as the Devil, the radical following of Christ in poverty and Confession, and has authorised the excommunication of an Australian priest who was very publicly in favour of same-sex marriage and non-mandatory celibacy for priests, Pope Francis is seen by many as a great teddy bear who will make being Catholic easier for all of us by allowing women priests, abolishing celibacy, allowing everyone, Catholic or not, to receive Communion… you name it. Reality is different, but that doesn’t change the image that people have of him. Related to that is the thought that the popes before him, even the very popular Blessed John Paul II were somehow wrong, and bad popes.
Second there are the wishes that the Church change her doctrine and dogmas, elements of the faith which can not be changed, independent of what people think of Pope Francis. This indicates a serious lack of knowledge of their faith on the part of many. Catechesis in the past decades has been sorely lacking, as the number of people who simply do not recognise the nature of faith and religion is – perhaps shockingly – great.
In both these points, and perhaps inherent to personal wishes and hopes, is the fact reflected that personal opinion and desire takes precedence over the thoughts and teaching of the Church, which is the teaching of Christ. In essence, we may say that many people who profess to be Catholic do not follow Christ as much as themselves and the society they live in. Even when confronted with the Biblical basis of any of the ‘hard’ teachings of the Church, these people are not swayed.
People simply no longer know what the Church they are part of is: the community of faithful established by God through His Son, led by St. Peter and his successors in unity with the other Apostles and their successors, in other words: the Pope and the bishops. This Church is tasked to share the faith in Christ, but als to safeguard it. Christ, after all, is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow (Heb. 13:8), and so is His message, both the appealing parts and the difficult ones. Faith is not dependent on society or people. The Pope, be he Benedict or Francis, is not the one who decides what the faith is, and so he will not be able to change it to fit the wishes of the faithful. Rather, the faithful are called to change to fit the wishes of the source of the faith, God. And He makes us able to do that, by following Him through His Church and the shepherds He has given us.
So what do we do when we find an aspect of the faith hard to accept or understand? We don’t demand it be changed to make it easier for us. Rather, we try to reach a level of acceptance or understanding. And most of all, we try to gain some trust and faith in the Church and Her shepherds, for that is the same as trust in the Lord. Does that mean we shouldn’t think, or express hopes and wishes? Of course not. Thinking is required to be faithful, and hopes and wishes motivate us to grow in faith. There is much to improve in the Church, but the faith, the very heart of the Church, is not among those. How that faith is communicated, taught and shared, however, is. But when we are asked to hear, learn and accept what is being shared, we should try to do just that and not cling desperately to our own personal convictions. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by the Lord. And the first obstacle to be removed for that transformation is ourselves.
Does all this what I’ve written above make the Popetition something wrong or bad? No, it doesn’t. It invites people to hope and share, to be open to one another and hopefully to the Church and the faith. Perhaps all the hopes and wishes shared there can be an inspiration to many to change what can be changed at the local level, in parishes, homes, schools and other communities where the faith must be kept alive. Pope Francis is not going to be able to change the goings-on in the parish. The bishop sometimes is, but we, the faithful as well as the local clergy, always are. If we reignite the faith our communities in the light of Christ and in union with His Church, we put hope into practice.