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Heading out for an encounter with God

January 16, 2015
Father William J. Byron, SJ

Pope Francis has a knack for taking familiar biblical phrases and turning them around to make a practical, if not necessarily devotional, point.

For instance, in speaking to lay Catholics more than a year ago he turned to Revelation 3:20 to make the critically important point that they are needed to help the church “step outside herself.”

He did so by first quoting the familiar words, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, (then) I will enter his house and dine with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). But Pope Francis turned this text around to have Jesus stand there, knocking, but saying, in effect, “Hey, let me out!”

The pope was inviting the church to ask itself, “How often is Jesus inside and knocking at the door to be let out, to come out? And we do not let him out because of our own need for security, because so often we are locked into ephemeral structures that serve solely to make us slaves and not free children of God.”

Pope Francis wants the church to move “to the outskirts of existence.” He wants us to move out of our comfort zones. In this “stepping out,” he says, it is important “to be ready for encounter” because that is what Jesus did and wants to do now through us – encounter others, especially the poor, the elderly and hungry children.

“We must create a ‘culture of encounter,’ a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith. They all have something in common with us: They are images of God; they are children of God. (We must be) going out to meet everyone, without losing sight of our own position.”

We must not permit ourselves to become “starched” Christians, said the pope. And by that he was referring to “those overeducated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No! We must become courageous Christians and go in search of the people who are the very flesh of Christ.”

Pope Francis insists that when you touch the hand of a poor person, you are touching the hand of Christ, and he is urging us – the church – to be doing exactly that, to be breaking out of our self-imposed enclosures to touch the suffering Christ wherever there is suffering in our contemporary world.

Christ is knocking at the doors of our hearts and asking to be let out so that he, through us, can heal a broken world.

To say that the typical Catholic parish community has not yet heard that knock is to state the obvious. But it is not to say that the knock cannot be heard and that no response will ever be forthcoming.

I have a friend who likes to say that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. So perhaps it is not all that coincidental that fewer young Catholics are showing up in parishes on Sundays.

Perhaps they are already “out there” and what they need right now is the push and pull of God’s grace so that, while not giving up their own original position in the church, they can reach back from wherever they are on the “outskirts of existence” and bring those they might meet there back with them into the fold.

I’m assuming that we who are still very much in and of the fold will be open enough to welcome them.

Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email wbyron@sju.edu.

 

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