If we try to adopt a historical perspective on our development as Christians from the time of Jesus until today, we can note a few challenging factors. First, most of us grew up knowing more about church and church teaching than we ever did about Jesus Christ. Second, we were pretty sure we knew right from wrong, the precise moral limits on our human behavior. Third, we managed somehow to collapse the early centuries of Christianity into one big, indeterminate “way back then.”
However, right now Pope Francis is leading us back to Jesus. Truth be told, we’ve really drifted pretty far away from Jesus in the sense that we have prioritized creeds and catechisms over compassion, management and money over mercy, sex and sin over sensitivity to suffering. Jesus did not impose any creeds on us, wrote no catechism, said nothing about management, avoided talk of money (except to give it to the poor), had surprisingly little to say about sex or sin. His most important legacy was the command to love one another as he has loved us.
As Francis insistently reminds us, Jesus’ priorities were compassion, mercy, sensitivity to those who suffer. All the rest came later. That does not make “all the rest” unimportant in any way. But a historical perspective helps to put things in their proper place. And the question then emerges: if our priorities are not those of Jesus, why do we call ourselves Christians? Indeed, how dare we call ourselves Christians at all?
As we start this year’s journey walking hand-in-hand with Francis, it might be wise just to relax our dogmatic and moral certainties enough to let him lead us back to the Jesus we all profess but often don’t really know. The combination of working among or with the poor, plus our attention to Pope Francis’ words and attitudes, plus our sharing together both our experiences and our prayer can help us traverse all those centuries and come into closer contact with Jesus.
And that, as they say, is a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”
Simon (Si) E. Smith, S.J is a New England Jesuit with a broad background and varied international experience. He taught at different levels in Baghdad College, Iraq, Boston College, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and Nativity schools in Boston and Worcester. His major and preferred areas of instruction are Scripture and liturgy. He is known as an organizer and administrator, having spent a dozen years based in Washington, as Executive of Jesuit Missions for the U.S. and Canada. Si has published widely, is a popular lecturer, is fluent in French, Spanish and German and has traveled & worked extensively in the third world. And we are grateful that he also serves IVC as a Spiritual Reflector.