Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was a smashing success… right? He certainly seemed to capture the attention, at least for the moment, of the American people and that’s no small feat.
Will his visit, though, have any lasting impact?
The mission of a pope in the world of the twenty-first century is not an easy one. Far from being widely respected, let alone obeyed, as popes once were, the power to command, or even influence, people - even among their own flock - of pontiffs today is questionable.
In his authoritative early work, Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI relates the following story originally from Soren Kierkegaard, which might well sum up the position of the Pope (and even of the rank and file believer) in today’s cultural climate.
According to this story, a traveling circus in Denmark caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made up for the performance, into the neighborhood village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that this was no stunt, that he was not pretending but was in bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly - until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help, and both circus and village were burned to the ground. (p. 30)
Benedict asks whether this isn’t a perfect analogy to the task of the theologian, or indeed we might add any Christian seeking to evangelize in the world today. The clown, of course, represents the Christian, especially the Catholic, dressed in odd (we might even say Medieval) costume, fascinating the world with his performance, but not quite ever being taken in earnest. He pleads with his “modern” neighbors, warning of their impending doom, but they can’t ever quite get themselves to take him seriously. It is, they insist, all just a role he is playing, even the clown, after all, knows he’s just a clown.
This story, related by Benedict a half-century ago and written by Kierkegaard a century before that, is particularly relevant today, in the aftermath of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. Here the citizens of the United States, the epicenter in many ways of “modern culture”, cheered, celebrated, and watched - with baited breath - every movement of the Vicar of Christ on Earth. But where they doing so merely as the crowd in Denmark gathered to watch the clown? Was this just a sideshow, a moment to watch a man, dressed in oddly antiquarian garb, teach oddly antiquarian truths? Were the Holy Father’s pleas, diplomatically delivered, received with the same urgency that the clown’s were? And will the consequences be as terrible? Did Pope Francis with his visit succeed in getting Americans, including American Catholics, to realize a fire is threatening them or was he taken for a mere showman, a clown in a silly costume, who ought to be watched, enjoyed, but never taken seriously?
Now that the media coverage is over, now that the spectacle has subsided, the answer will become clearer and clearer. These questions can only really be be answered only with the passing of time.
But what if the answer is “yes?” Where does that leave us Catholics? What are we to do to get an increasingly deaf world to listen to our warnings?
Reflecting on our opening story, we might conclude the circus clown would have been quite a bit more convincing had he simply taken off the costume, the make up, and the big red shoes. If he could have just looked like everyone else, then the villagers would have listened to him and been saved from he flames. It seems like an obvious answer, doesn’t it?
We Catholics then ought just to get rid of those ridiculous, medieval, costumes!
Replace cassocks with shirts and pants, get rid of the religious orders’ ancient habits, substituting the same clothing any other person would wear, drop the incense, the Latin, the chant, and all that “sacred” art from the churches, in fact - build new churches that look like office buildings or schools!
In short, take off the “clown make-up” and put on modern dress and everything will be okay. This line of thought, called aggiornamento, ripped through the Church in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Nuns abandoned their habits, priests wore jeans and celebrated Mass on the beach, even the Pope got rid of his tiara.
Now none of these changes are necessarily bad in themselves. Our Faith isn’t in vestments, but in the beliefs of the Church and I’m not here arguing that a return to “Pre-Vatican 2” appearances are some magical panacea or that these changes, again though some semi-magical and never fully explained process, led to the current state of alienation of people from the Church. However, at fifty years remove, it is abundantly clear that aggiornamento, whatever your aesthetic preferences, wasn’t enough for modern man to take the Church seriously. Nor, I think we can safely conclude, would the message of Francis be taken any more seriously if he came in a neck tie or a t-shirt and jeans rather than in his simple, white cassock.
Aggiornamento, the changing of the exterior look of the Faith, wasn’t enough to fool modern man who still smells the odor of the centuries on the Church, a smell - the smell of tradition - which repeals modern man, fixated as he is on “progress” and “the future.” What is new, is “improved;” what is old, is “obsolete” and no amount of cosmetic surgery can possibly trick modern man into thinking the Church is anything but ancient.
Maybe, we might begin to think, it isn’t just the clothing we need to change. If our clown came running into the village, dressed normally but spouting jokes even as he warned of the impending danger of a wild fire, we could forgive the villagers for not taking him seriously, despite the costume change. What we need, then, isn’t just aggiornamento, but “demythologizing.” How is modern man to take us Christians seriously when, even in more modern dress, we go about speaking of miracles? Of men rising from the dead, of sin, and of things like Hell? Wouldn’t it be better to reinterpret our Faith to be more palpable? Jesus didn’t feed the five thousand by miraculously multiplying bread and fish… no! He got people to share, that was the “real miracle!” Resurrection from the dead? Yes, yes, we believe that, but not in the sense of a physical rising… no… we rather mean that the memory of Jesus lives on and His mission carries on with us, His followers. Etc.
This “demythologization” of Christianity has been ongoing for over a century and thanks to it we’ve seen a massive pouring of people into the Church… or not.
In fact, this doesn’t work much better than aggiornamento does it? The leading exemplar of a “demythologized” Christianity might just be the Anglican Communion where even belief in God is no longer the belief in something “supernatural” (“we believe in the objective value of the concept of God” says the demythologizer). Yet this tactic must necessarily fail for two reasons.
First, once you’ve finished “demythologizing” Christianity, you’re left with believing in well, something other than Christianity. We haven’t saved the Faith, we’ve abandoned it. We’ve not thrown out the baby with the bathwater, but we’ve found that we’ve meticulously preserved every drop of dirty bathwater and discarded the baby in the nearest dumpster.
Second, and this is a direct consequence of the first reason, we’ve found that no one is really all that interested in our “demythologized” religion. So Jesus got people to share, modern man asks, “who cares?” So the Apostles kept the teachings and workings of a particularly kind man alive after his brutal execution? “thanks for the ancient history lesson, now may I move on to life in the twenty-first century, please?” A “demythologized” Christianity, aside from being both absurd and false, is entirely irrelevant. The “historical” Jesus, who is constructed in myriad, contradictory ways, but who always just happens to reflect exactly the passions of the constructor of the image, is just that - historical, trapped in the past and unable to reach man here and now. And worse still this ancient artifact, this “demythologized” Christianity makes demands, moral demands, on men to live in a way quite contrary to the spirit of the age. Why should I, asks modern man, deny myself to follow a first century Jewish nice guy (or political rebel or false messiah or what have you)?
Aha! We might think, that’s the key. It isn’t enough to change out of the ancient costume or stop speaking about miracles, what we really need to do to make Christianity relevant again is to change the moral teachings! Let the world lead the way and we Christians will follow. You are a feminist, we’ll have women’s ordination; a homosexual, gay marriage; promiscuous? easy divorce (and remarriage!); sin? forgettaboutit.
Finally, we might think, we’ve managed to get rid of all the clown and now we too are perfect villagers.
In fact, we’ve blended in so fully with the rest of the village that we’ve managed to forget about the fire and will be as surprised as the rest when we die in the flames. Not only that, but this move too (like the other two we’ve tried) simply makes the Church, the Faith, redundant. Modern man doesn’t need to bother with sitting in some church somewhere on a Sunday morning just to hear the same platitudes he can hear elsewhere and he quickly learns this. Why go through all the effort when the game is on, or when he can sleep in, or do whatever else he feels is more important and a better use of time? We’ve tried to save the circus and the village and managed only to lose both.
Is there any hope? Can we Christians do no more than either abandon our Faith entirely or be laughed at by an unbelieving age?
Introduction to Christianity has another story for us that might light the way forward, this one originally from Martin Buber.
An adherent of the Enlightenment, a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him, too, and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room, he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, rapt in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly, and said, “But perhaps it is true after all.” The scholar tried in vain to collect himself - his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But (the) Rabbi… now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you: as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps” that echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance. (pp. 34-35)
“Perhaps it is true.” That simple message, that awe-inspiring thought is enough to break down the futile resistance of our “adherent of the Enlightenment” (think New Atheist). We can imagine what would have happen in our village had one person said to himself, “perhaps it is true.” He would surely have escaped the flames, but more importantly could very well have saved both the circus and the village.
“Perhaps it is true,” those words must arrest any secularist in his tracks. Is he so sure of his knowledge and erudition (and when dealing with our New Atheists they tend to be painfully short on both these in the relevant fields) that he can entirely dismiss that “perhaps?”
But what of the vast majority of those who laugh at our clownish ways? They haven’t left off the Faith because of argumentation. Rather they have drifted slowly from the Faith, first failing to live the moral teachings of the Church, then denying those teachings altogether. What of this type? Can someone who has lost the Faith not through rational argumentation, but through immoral living be struck by the power of the “perhaps?”
In his seminal masterpiece, I Promessi Sposi, Alessandro Manzoni introduces us to the archetype of this modern man. He is so representative of everyman that he bears only l’innominato (the unnamed) as an identification in the story.
This man lived as worldly a life as one can - committing any and every sin to promote his material well-being, indeed he exemplifies the lifestyle that is the natural consequence of disbelief in God, summed up so well by Dostoyevsky, “if God doesn’t exist, all things are permissible.” Now, lying alone in his castle in the darkness and stillness of the night, he is haunted by a sense of his own mortality, of the possibility of his own death…
It was not death threatened by an enemy who was himself mortal; it was not to be replaced by stronger weapons, or a readier arm; it came alone, it was suggested from within; it might still be distant, but every moment brought it a step nearer. (p. 322)
And this sense of his own eventual demise brings with it just that same “perhaps,”
That God, of whom he had once heard, but whom he had long ceased either to deny or acknowledge, solely occupied as he was in acting as though he existed not, now, at certain moments of depression without cause, and terror without danger, he imagined he heard repeating within him, ‘Nevertheless, I am.’ (p. 322)
Most of the people who we must evangelize fall into this second camp. Maybe they are not the arch-sinners that l’innominato was, but they neither “deny or acknowledge” God, living “as though he existed not.”
How does the Church, how do we, reach them? With that “perhaps.” With that “nevertheless.” We need not worry ourselves about the costume we wear, about whether those outside the Church already believe the miracles and morality of the Faith (of course they don’t, else they’d be in the Church rather than out). We can’t pretend the Faith we hold is “new and improved” when we all know it is the common heritage of the Western world these last two millennia.
Dressing in different guises, blending in with the world, will do us no good. At best we become redundant, at worst we are seen as deceivers. What we need to do is what the Faith has always called us to do - “preach the word, in season and out” (2 Tim 4:2). Proclaim that comfort shattering “perhaps” to the unbelieving world. Is materialism true? Can science be the measure of all human knowledge? Or is there something beyond physics?
That’s not to imply that we can’t, through philosophy, know God exists. It isn’t to suggest the believer and the non-believer are alike stuck in a perpetual “perhaps.” It is, however, a place to start. That one powerful word, “perhaps,” can be what it takes to move someone from indifference (like l’innominato) or from outright disbelief (like our “adherent of the Enlightenment”) into serious, soul searching, dialogue. In that regard it also will do much more than aggiornamento, “demythologizing,” or dumping the moral teachings of Christ for those of Dr. Phil ever could to start the reconversion of the world, to launch the New Evangelization.
And I think that is exactly what Pope Francis’ visit achieved.
Time will tell.
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