Monday, September 23, 2013

Is Pope Francis Turning the Church Upside Down?

The pope’s recent interview has gotten a lot of attention.[1] Rumors are swirling that the free-wheeling pontiff from Argentina is changing everything, from the Church’s fundamental position on homosexuality, to abortion, to birth control. One recent headline reads, “Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.” Christian conservatives, both Catholic and Evangelical, are scratching their heads as liberals everywhere are touting the pope as their own personal champion (depending on their particular agenda).  

Whatever your proclivity, this invigorating time in the Church’s two thousand year history promises both comfort and challenge. While I can assure you that the longstanding theological foundations of the Catholic Church are not, and I repeat, not changing before our eyes, I can also say that we are indeed experiencing bellwether changes in the Church’s pastoral posture and missional emphases. You know the winds of change are blowing when in response to the question “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (that is his non-regnal name), Francis utters, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. . . I am a sinner.”

With the election of Pope Francis we are seeing an extraordinary resurrection of an ecclesial vision that isn’t exactly new, it has dotted the Christian tradition for over two millennia, but one that is being articulated and embodied in unprecedented fashion. “It is pure genius,” noted Vatican correspondent John Allen, “that a pastor [Pope Francis] is able to present Catholic doctrine to 21st century man in an original way.”[2] We are living in bracingly exciting times.

In his recent interview, Francis uses the image of a “field hospital” to convey the pastoral priorities of the Church in the postmodern world. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”[3] In an address earlier this year, Pope Francis called for a veritable “revolution of tenderness” and an approach to evangelization that engenders a “culture of encounter.”[4]

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. . . We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.

Yet it is more than just dedicated preaching that will reach the lost and heal their wounds today. Pope Francis goes on to say, “The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who can walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” This is the vision of incarnational evangelization par excellence, the vision of organizations like Young Life, modeled after the life of Jesus Christ who “being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”[5]

The pope is calling the Church to “be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor.” It is taking the time to step out of our own world and into another, with tenderness and mercy, patience and longsuffering, so that they might encounter the healing and restoration found only in Jesus Christ. “This,” Pope Francis says, “is pure Gospel.”

The missional moment is upon us. Beyond the distraction of headlines and political jockeying is the clarion call for a new evangelization. Pope Francis is showing us what that looks like.

[1] Over the course of three meetings held in Rome in August of 2013, Pope Francis offered an unusually candid interview to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal in Italy, in association with sixteen Jesuit periodicals around the world. The interview was conducted in Italian then translated into English, a 12,000 word piece issued last week in America, a national Catholic magazine published in the United States. You can access the complete interview at:
[2] John Allen, “Francis always acts on his own initiative and encourages others to follow him,” Vatican Insider (September 12, 2013), accessed 9/21/2013 at
[3] Ibid.
[4] Pope Francis, “Address to the Coordinating Committee of CELAM,” Sumare Study Center, Rio de Janiero, July 28, 2013.
[5] Philippians 2:6-7.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Do You Love Me?

When I was a teenager I once told my girlfriend (of two weeks) that I loved her “more than life itself.” I think I heard that in a movie somewhere. Of course what I had mistaken for “feelings” was only a sudden spike of adolescent testosterone and my vacuous proclamation deflated as quickly as the relationship. I did not love her. I had no idea what love really was at thirteen. But nearly three decades later, do I have any better an idea of what love really is?

Peter, that “rock” upon which Jesus would build His church (Mt 16:18), evidently had a hard time grasping the concept himself. This is the Peter who stood indignant at even the thought of Jesus’ suffering (Mt 16:22) yet was willing to betray Him in the final hour. The Peter who rightly exclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16) also denied even knowing Jesus before a whole courtyard of men. The same Peter who declared, “Even if I have to die for you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:35) also could not keep watch and pray with Jesus for even one hour (Mt 26:40).

Perhaps this could explain why Jesus made a point to ask Peter “Do you love me?” no less than three times at the end of John’s gospel. Each time Peter replied and declared his love for the Savior, Jesus told him to go out and do something. “Do you really love me?” Jesus might be paraphrased, “Then go out and share the Good News, make disciples, love your neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for orphans, forgive your enemies, tame your tongue, pray, fast (and do both in secret), pay your taxes, rejoice when you are persecuted, and wash one another’s feet.” James puts it this way, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Js 1:22).

I’m left to wonder how many of us love with our hearts but not with our hands. Sometimes I wonder how much my loving feelings for God actually translate into loving actions for others. Today I hear the words of Jesus spoken not to some distant figure from an ancient book, but to me, right here, right now. “Do you love me?” And again (in case I was glossing). And again, as to make it abundantly clear that the question actually demands a response. Do I really love Jesus? Our response decides everything.

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love in a quite absolute and final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.[1]

[1]           A reflection from Jesuit father Pedro Arrupe, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus; Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2005).

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Chris Dillbeck: Building Bridges One Heart At A Time

This week I want to highlight the work of Chris Dillbeck, a Young Life area director from Owensboro, Kentucky and one of the rising stars in the Young Life-Catholic conversation. Chris’ ecumenical approach and his commitment to Christ is showing both the mission of Young Life and the Catholic Church how unity and collaboration can make a powerful impact on reaching a world of kids.

As a non-denominational Protestant raised in the South, Chris was all too familiar with the bias surrounding the Catholic Church. Then, in a stroke of God’s humor, Chris moved to Owensboro, KY, a town who’s population is more than 80% Catholic. “I knew right away that if I was really going to reach our community, I would need to do it side by side with Catholics,” Chris noted. “Some told me that we didn’t need Catholic financial support to make it. I told them, ‘That’s not the point. If we’re gonna reach every kid, we have to have Catholics on our team.’”

Since then, Chris has made an intentional effort to build bridges with local Catholics and cast a vision of reaching kids together. And his work has paid off. “I appreciate Chris on so many levels,” noted Charlie Hardesty, a Catholic youth minister from Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. “He’s one of my close friends. He’s one of the most genuine guys you’ll ever meet. I value that tremendously.”

Charlie and Chris could often be seen going to the school lunchroom together or sitting together at a ballgame. “Ya know, Jesus sent his disciples out two by two,” Charlie reflected. “I get to do that with Chris. He’s not competitive about kids. He just wants kids to meet Christ. It’s a great blessing to be able to do that together.” Charlie also commented on how much of an encouragement Chris is to him personally. “I know that Chris isn’t using my relationship to get to my kids. Chris just genuinely cares about me.”

Chris’ personal authenticity and relational style has opened doors even at the diocesan level. Melinda Prunty, Director of Youth Ministry for the Diocese of Owensboro, spoke about the impact that he’s had amongst local Catholics. “He just gets it. He’s so willing to engage, to be honest and share his passion for reaching kids. He understands the concerns that many Catholics have and he’s committed to walking side by side with Catholics to minister to kids in the most respectful and sensitive way.”

Recently, Chris’ work attracted the attention of the local bishop, the Most Rev. William Francis Medley, who invited him to share his vision for YL-Catholic collaboration in the diocese. The diocese is currently outlining a plan for a new evangelization that would bolster the Catholic commitment to reach lost kids and encourage a collaborative relationship with Young Life in reaching every kid, everywhere for Christ.

The momentum has spilled over into the realm of local Catholic parents who are excited about Chris and the work that he’s doing. Amy Carrico, a Catholic parent who was actively involved in Young Life when she was in high school, is leading a bridge-building effort so that local Catholics will come to understand the powerful work of Young Life and how it can bless local Catholic kids. In November she will be hosting a dinner, bringing other Catholic parents, youth ministers and diocesan officials together with Young Life staff to chart out a path for cooperative mission to kids. This is incredible bridge-building stuff!

Chris, you’re a wonderful witness to Jesus and a model for Young Life staff around the globe. I celebrate the work you’re doing and pray that the Lord of the harvest will bless and multiply your ministry to kids!

*If you want to support Chris' ministry, please contact him at:
Young Life Owensboro
5402 Beech Hill Ln
Owensboro, KY  42301

Chris (left) with kids at Young Life camp this summer.