Repentance: A refusal to remain on the peripheries
One of the reasons Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis is because of the intervention he made at the meetings of cardinals prior to the conclave which elected him. These interventions, which highlighted what each cardinal believed to be the most serious needs of the Church, were not for public consumption. But after his election, Francis gave the Archbishop of Havana the outline he used for his intervention, and then he gave permission for it to be published.
It is worth rereading. But here let me quote just the initial point Cardinal Bergoglio made, from which the rest followed:
Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.
There can be no question that the Church must indeed be essentially missionary. This was a great emphasis—perhaps the great emphasis—of the Second Vatican Council. Clearly it too often goes unrealized. To understand more about what this means, and how it relates to the particular emphasis of Pope Francis, we will be wise to explore one of Christ’s most striking parables, the one that involves a banquet as a symbol of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom Banquet
We have the parable of the banquet in two forms, one in St. Matthew’s gospel, the other in St. Luke’s. As St. Luke recounts it (Lk 14:16-24), the parable concerns a man who sends his servants out to deliver a great many invitations to a large and sumptuous banquet, only to find that those invited choose not to come. We should also note that they make ridiculous excuses which demonstrate how little they care for the host.
In response, the angry householder instructs his servants to go into all the “streets and lanes of the city” and bring in those whom we might well call “peripheral” in worldly terms, that is, “the poor and maimed and blind and lame”. When there is still room, he sends his servants out to the geographical peripheries, the edges of the city (“the highways and hedges”), to “compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” But there is also a sharp side to this generosity: “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.”
In this same gospel, Our Lord went on to say something more, as we shall see in a moment. But first let us examine the very similar parable as recounted by St. Matthew (Mt 22:2-14). Here the story is expressly identified as a simile for the Kingdom of God. We find a king sending out invitations to the wedding feast of his son (a fairly clear reference to Christ Himself). Once again, the invitees refuse to come, so the king invites them a second time. But their hostility is so great that they mistreat and even murder his servants. This version of the parable has an even sharper edge: The king “sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”
Then the king sends his servants out to the peripheries (“the thoroughfares”, “the streets”) to invite “as many as you can find.” Thus they were able to fill the banquet hall, but there is still something important to be observed here. For the king came to see his guests, in effect passing judgment upon them, and he found one who had not bothered to dress in a suitable wedding garment (here again we have a rather obvious reference, this time to respect for his son, that is, to repentance). The result: “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
With the two versions of the parable in mind, we now return to what follows in St. Luke’s account. Jesus immediately turns to the growing crowd and says:
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple…. [W]hoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. [Lk 14:26-35]
Note as well how clearly these words connect with Our Lord’s earlier teaching that his followers are to be both the “salt of the earth” (which is useless if it has lost its taste, cf. Mt 5:13) and the “light of the world” (which is useless if it is hidden, cf. Mt. 5:14-16).
Salt and light
We owe a tremendous debt to Pope Francis for deliberately and clearly basing his pontificate on the Church’s missionary character, which continuously propels her to the peripheries. The Pope knows that this character has not yet been fully realized, and it should be obvious that this is so for two main reasons. The first is a kind of Catholic reluctance to go outside our comfort zones, which the Pope very frequently (and rightly) condemns. But the second is like unto this: Through the endemic moral and doctrinal confusion of the modern Church—confusion, precisely, about the demands of the Gospel—our light has been hidden and our salt has lost its taste.
I believe that Catholics are becoming increasingly aware of the need to go out to the materially and spiritually marginalized. At the same time, there seems to be an impediment which Pope Francis has perhaps not yet sufficiently addressed. For example, he mentions the need for repentance from time to time (e.g., to pilgrims and to Catholic organizations), but usually only to the most committed. He has not done so very often in efforts to attract the secular and the lukewarm—who are very definitely on the spiritual margins, even when they are nominally Catholic.
In any case, the big impediment to effective interaction on the peripheries is that huge numbers of Catholics remain reluctant to uncover their light. Or to use the salt metaphor, we are unwilling to spice the dish. What most Catholics offer to others is seldom clear and rarely personally challenging. Therefore it can have little attractive power. It appears to be either insipid or spoiled.
My point in saying this is that inclusion can be either bad, indifferent or good. It all depends on the goodness of what we are being included in. It is not enough to invite, welcome and accompany. These always imply a destination, and conveying an understanding of that destination is critical: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
Here we will benefit again from St. Matthew’s gospel where the evangelist describes the temptation of Our Lord by Satan (Mt 4:1-10). We must realize, as did Our Lord, that if the members of the Church do not live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, their forays to the peripheries, both geographical and existential, cannot bear fruit. Nobody wants to be like the fig tree Our Lord cursed! Taking a cue from Pope Francis, we must indeed go out. But we will accomplish nothing if we go out unprepared, if we are not ready to preach and teach in Christ’s name.
The good news preached by the Church was capsulized by Peter from the first, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Its essence is this: Jesus Christ, whom you crucified, has risen from the dead! But as soon as anyone who heard this fundamental kerygma asked what they must do in response, a specific instruction always followed: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:22-40; cf. Acts 4:8-12).
This is actually an echo of the very first message preached by Our Lord, when he began His public ministry, after John the Baptist was arrested: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15). We need to grasp this point: Sooner or later, everything comes down to one very personal requirement: The wedding garment.
What is the wedding garment, and how do we get it? Paradoxically, the greatest clue comes from the solitary leper who approached Christ, as recounted in all three synoptic gospels (Mt 8:1-4. Mk 1:40-45, Lk 5:12-15). Here is what the leper teaches:
The Kingdom of God consists of those who recognize their own spiritual and moral leprosy, those who are willing to kneel before the only Name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12), and those who yearn with all their hearts to make the leper’s words their own: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
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