“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and warms the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person it he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds …”
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8)
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
“Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” (Matthew John 5:24)
It happened that the still burgeoning reaction to recent statements by Pope Francis coincided with a series of speaking engagements that absorbed much of my attention over the past several weeks. Of course, in emails as well as conversations along the way, I saw or heard a good many reactions to his statements, especially those regarding the salvation of atheists and the priorities that are appropriate for the Church in today’s world. My engagements included speaking at events involving people deeply committed to defending the God endowed rights of life and the natural family.
Reading the pope’s words, I was struck by his vision of the Church as “a field hospital after battle” (italics mine). Given the situation in America today (and indeed in most other parts of the world), I think many Catholics (and others who truly believe in Jesus Christ) feel that they are in the midst of battle, not its aftermath. As the world understands these things, the priority they have given to the defense of innocent human life, and God’s natural disposition of the human family with respect to procreation, has not been without cost.
Like me, however, these combatants have found both peace and strength in the Word and promise that is Jesus Christ. His truth imparts an understanding that challenges and supersedes that of a world which takes little or no account of him. His truth gives words like “wound” and “healing” a meaning that corresponds to the newness of life found by those who accept to live on the sustenance Christ represents to all who believe in him.
When Pope Francis speaks of “wounds” and healing,” he must be taking into account the true meaning imparted to those words by the Church’s life within and through Jesus Christ. So the wounds he speaks of are not like the loss of limbs, or senses such as physical sight and hearing, inflicted by the world’s weapons. Rather his meaning must take account of the fact that people, whole in body, and prosperous in the eyes of the world, may in fact be multiple amputees, afflicted with abject poverty when it comes to the true life found only in Christ.
It is commonly reported that in the aftermath of amputation an amputee still feels the limb that he has lost. So people separated from the Lord may go on thinking that they have life and limbs and organs. But however it appears to them, they live only in the provisional sense made possible by the mercy of God, for the sake of their salvation. In that case, what is healing?
If their separation from God is not a matter of will but of semantics, they have only to encounter Him, along the way of life they already know, follow and understand. They will readily acknowledge the true nature of life, whenever they encounter Christ: as Paul did on the road to Damascus, or as other people and even nations have done, in the person of some true believer, whose faithfulness lets the light of Christ shine forth before men. It may even happen in some way, known but to God, as His Spirit calls some faithful worker to himself through the Word that was before and reaches beyond all worldly things.
But in any case, the way to true life passes through a moment of human self-determination, when each individual makes the choice God set before the Israelites – between blessings and curses, life and death, the way of the righteous in the knowledge of God and the way of the unrighteous, who perish because God never knew them.
When people presented with God’s choice consciously reject the way of life and blessing, is this the beginning or the end of their battle? They become as it were a continually self-inflicted wound, cut off from the only source of life, yet in their minds still thinking they are whole. Seen in respect of this battle, people who proclaim respect for life, whether for the elderly or the young or for nascent human posterity in the womb, proclaim withal the gospel of salvation. To do so is at once a sword in their mouths, clashing with the lie that continually severs the wounded from God, and a healing balm, upwelling from their Christ-filled hearts.
These proselytizers of true life proclaim above all the merciful will of God. But doesn’t this mercy include God’s insistence that, even though it costs the proselytizers their worldly lives, not even one whom God intends to save should perish? Should those who are called by his Holy name of Christ fail of the courage to bear true witness to the ultimate fatality that results from setting human hearts against God’s loving will? In a time of hardening hearts such as our own, the cost of that failure is not just the loss of innocent physical lives. It is the loss of souls that God intended and still intends to save by the sacrifice of His Son. Can there be peace for those faithful to Christ’s sacrifice, except they receive in peace the faithful burden of that witness, even when it wears the redolent name of martyrdom?