January 11, 2019

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Opening our hearts to the true light, Jesus Christ

“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12).

Last month, Pope Francis delivered his annual Christmas message to the cardinals and other leaders in the Roman Curia, the Church’s central administrative offices.

Using the themes of light and darkness, the pope offered reflections on “the light that links Christmas [the Lord’s first coming in humility] to the Parousia [his second coming in glory], and confirms us in the hope that does not disappoint.” This hope “does not disappoint,” the Holy Father says. “It is the hope on which our individual lives, and the entire history of the Church and the world, depend.”

Darkness seeks to overshadow the light that gives us hope, but the light of Christ is stronger than the darkness of sin and death. That’s why the Church, “at once holy and always in need of purification,” must be committed to penance and renewal “so that she may reveal in the world, faithfully, albeit with shadows, the mystery of the Lord until, in the end, it shall be manifested in full light” (“Lumen Gentium,” #8).

As Pope Francis says: “Jesus was born in a social, political and religious situation marked by tension, unrest and gloom. His birth, awaited by some yet rejected by others, embodies the divine logic that does not halt before evil, but instead transforms it slowly but surely into goodness. Yet it also brings to light the malign logic that transforms even goodness into evil, in an attempt to keep humanity in despair and in darkness.”

The “malign logic” is the way of thinking that values self-interest over love of God and neighbor. It is the way of ideologies that place the desires of the wealthy few over the basic needs of the poor and vulnerable. The light of Christ shines in our darkness when we can forgo our selfishness and pursue the “divine logic” that places the good of others ahead of what we judge to be in our own best interests.

“Being Christian, in general and for us in particular as the Lord’s anointed and consecrated,” Pope Francis says, “does not mean acting like an elite group who think they have God in their pocket, but as persons who know that they are loved by the Lord despite being unworthy sinners.” Humility is the pre-eminent Christian virtue because, in casting off our pride, we accept our true relationship to God, to our sisters and brothers and to all God’s creation.

“The Bible and the Church’s history show clearly that even the elect can frequently come to think and act as if they were the owners of salvation and not its recipients,” the Holy Father notes, “like overseers of the mysteries of God and not their humble ministers, like God’s toll-keepers and not servants of the flock entrusted to their care.

“All too often, as a result of excessive and misguided zeal, instead of following God, we can put ourselves in front of him, like Peter,” the pope says, “who remonstrated with the Master and thus merited the most severe of Christ’s rebukes: ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on the things of God but on the things of men’ ” (Mk 8:33).

Darkness permeates our minds and hearts when we are bound up in self-centeredness and pride. The light of Christ can transform our thoughts and attitudes only if we open our hearts and embrace the truth about ourselves and our relationship to God. That’s why Pope Francis cautions the members of the curia—and us—saying, “God’s salvation, freely bestowed on all humanity, the Church and in particular on us, consecrated persons, does not act independently of our will, our cooperation, our freedom and our daily efforts. Salvation is a gift that must be accepted, cherished and made to bear fruit” (cf. Mt 25:14-30).

“All of us, then, in order to make Christ’s light shine forth, have the duty to combat all spiritual corruption,” which the pope says is “worse than the fall of the sinner, for it is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14).”

As the pope admonished the cardinals and members of the Roman Curia who assist him in carrying out his ministry as St. Peter’s successor, the only way to overcome all the evils (both inside and outside) that threaten our Church is to acknowledge that we are “persons who know that they are loved by the Lord despite being unworthy sinners.”

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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