by Guest Author, Major Adam E. Frey
Clearly, not everyone in Catholic circles is happy with our new Holy Father. While many of the prominent Catholic journalists that I follow have expressed surprise and delight at Pope Francis’ shock-and-awe strategy of using love to bring people back to the church, I have seen a disturbing undercurrent of vitriol directed at him as well. They fear that the sky is falling, that His Holiness is abandoning doctrine in favor of popularity that the Church will begin to accept and celebrate atheism, abortion, gay marriage, and the other ills of society.
News stories that have clarified His Holiness’ now famous (some would say infamous) interview in America have done little to assuage their fears. Though Pope Francis has reaffirmed his position, for example, that the unborn child has human dignity that must be protected, these clarifications are ignored or dismissed as pandering. As an example, I’ve seen posters on one Catholic blogger’s site all but identify the Pope as the Antichrist, with comments such as“I just hope this pope is not the False Prophet as predicted, as Revelations did more or less predict that the False prophet would have millions following him…,” or “The most deception will come from Angels of Light who will mislead many.” Comments such as these go beyond fear and are symptomatic of madness—despite evidence to the contrary, there is a palpable fear that His Holiness has triggered the great apostasy.
I’ve been wondering exactly what would lead so many faithful Catholics to leap to this conclusion. Perhaps it’s years of disappointment in liberal churches, lax bishops, and the perceived weakening of tradition after Vatican II. Maybe there’s some personal hurt—years of self-perceived martyrdom in the public square. Maybe there’s been a great personal cost to some of these people—relationships or jobs sacrificed on religious principle—and they seek a pontiff who “sides” with them. Maybe it’s paranoia over the idea that, if St. Malachi’s prophecies are both authentic and literal, then we’re on the last Pope before Armageddon.
Maybe. But I think there is a simpler explanation, one which comes straight from the Gospels. We’re witnessing the story of the Prodigal Son in action.
Jesus was a pretty smart teacher. He knows that the gap between God and man is incredibly vast. He taught to the crowds—and continues to teach to us today through recorded scripture—how to understand God the Father through parables. Parables are metaphors that fill that gap between man and God by using human experience: things that we can understand through events which we’ve all experienced for ourselves.
We all know the story: a son demands his father’s inheritance, then wanders to “a distant country” where he wastes his money and becomes impoverished. Realizing his mistake, he returns home, where his father welcomes him home with open arms and a celebration. The metaphor is obvious: we sinners are the prodigal sons of our own stories, and God is the father who awaits our penitential return.
As I said, Jesus was smart. He throws in a curious addition to the story—the son’s older brother, who learns of his brother’s return and resents his father’s celebration. The elder son’s behavior, while understandably human, is not portrayed very favorably by Jesus. He becomes angry and refuses to enter his father’s home. When his father pleads with him, the elder replies (and we can almost hear the whine in his voice):
“Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
(Lk. 15:29-30) The father replies with ever patient love:
“My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
(Lk. 15:31-32) It’s a gentle yet strong reminder that the party isn’t about the elder brother. The elder always has been and always will be loved by the father. But the father loves his other son equally, not because on outcome but because he is his father.
Jesus knew that we can just as easily be one brother or the other. We might be the Prodigal, who has left the father to live in sin. But we might just as easily be the Prodigal’s righteous brother, who resents the attention that the father gives to the sinner. Pride creeps in: haven’t I obeyed the commandments and been faithful to the church? Haven’t I stood up for life, for traditional marriage, for God? Where are my kudos?
In our 21st century story, Pope Francis is playing the part of the Prodigal’s father, with one slight difference: his public statements to the press indicate that he is actively looking for his lost children. You’ll notice that in the parable, the father never seeks the son. Jesus does not explain why. Perhaps it was a matter of first-century technology: they didn’t have telephones, e-mail, or Facebook to use in looking for long-lost relatives. Communication was limited to couriers, so if your son moved to an unnamed “distant country,” the father may have had no practical means to seek his lost son.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, has the world’s attention right now. It’s an indisputable fact that when this man speaks, the world hears him. It may not be listening, as erroneous headlines are giving the impression that the Pope has declared that unabashed homosexuals and atheists have a free ticket to heaven. But the world is perking its ears and taking notice. Long-absent Catholics are curiously wondering if their Church has a place for them. Father Jonathan Morris reports that, in reaction to the Pope’s message that his sister, “legally married to another woman, [is] experiencing Jesus in a way that I haven’t been able to communicate to her, as well as I should have.”
The Pope’s message is that of what the Prodigal’s father would have been if he could have reached the son: come home.
And the Church’s lost sons are wondering if they should listen.
But if Pope Francis is the Prodigal’s father, then the reactions of traditionalist and conservative Catholics makes all too much sense. The reaction of the Prodigal’s brother was understandable but still prideful: what about me? I am the faithful one! I am the one who has served you! Why is your attention on him and not on me?
Would the Prodigal’s brother have objected to his father seeking his lost son? The story is unclear on that point. But it is clear that the brother has an elevated opinion of himself, that his good behavior warrants a higher place than the Prodigal’s waste. Maybe he would have protested his father’s plan, just as he did at the party. Why are you wasting your time on your son who left you? I am right here! Tend to me, not to him!
Traditionalists and conservatives need to swallow their pride and remember the gentle reply of the Prodigal’s father: you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. Pope Francis has not abandoned them for the sake of the brother. His statements affirming human life and opposing abortion for example—coming only a day after the famous interview—remind us that he is on the side of orthodoxy. He is effectively saying that faithful Catholics have done and continue to do good work. You are here with me always.
But like the father and the elder son on the day of the party, His Holiness is also saying: I love you, but today is not about you. It is about your lost brothers and sisters. The world is full of them, and we need to call them home.
Shortly before the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus famously reminded us that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Lk. 15:7) Pope Francis wants to prepare for that rejoicing—the father’s party in the Parable—by bringing the lost sons home. The righteous must now choose: they can complain that their righteousness is not being celebrated, or they can join their father’s mission to seek and find the lost brother.
Major Adam E. Frey is a judge advocate in the United States Air Force. He is a graduate of Villanova University and the Ave Maria School of Law, and is a current student in the University of Dallas’ Catholic Biblical School. He resides in Maryland with his wife and daughter.