By Cliff Garvey
During flights back to Rome from his journeys around the world, Pope Francis answers questions at length and in depth from the traveling press corps. These airborne press conferences are on-the-record and no-holds-barred. The pope is never afraid to answer hard questions from the news media. Seven years ago, just weeks after being chosen as Bishop of Rome, Servant of the Servants of God, and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Father surprised the world by answering a difficult question about sexual ethics with these words: “Who am I to judge?” This answer shows that Pope Francis wants the Church to focus its preaching and ministry on mercy, mutual understanding, and meeting people as they actually live and love. He wants us to build bridges, not walls. He wants us to reach out with open hearts and minds, not just with copies of the catechism.
To be sure, Pope Francis is a fervent defender of the Catholic Church and its teachings and traditions. At the same time, he calls us back to the basics, back to the Gospels, back to a foundational understanding of what it means to be a family of faith: love, mercy, prayer, goodness, kindness, honesty, fellowship, generosity, sacrifice, mutual respect, and mutual support. Over and over, Pope Francis reminds us that discipleship is about following in the footsteps of Jesus, who is our merciful redeemer, friend, and brother. He says: “Love is the first fact whereby God reveals himself and turns toward us. So let us open our hearts and trust in God’s love for us. His love always precedes us, accompanies us, and remains with us, despite our sins (11-20-16).”
In the Gospel of John (8:1-11), we see love, the first fact, in action. Jesus confounds those who are fixated on a strict obedience to rules and regulations. He discredits those who use God’s law as an instrument of division, humiliation, and punishment. When introduced to a woman who is caught in adultery, Jesus pauses to think. He bends down and appears to be working through his thoughts while writing in the sand with his finger. He stands and says: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone (John 8:7).” Jesus then offers the woman a new way of living. He says: “Go on your way and do not sin again (John 8:11).” Jesus does not condone the sin of adultery; and he does not condemn the woman. He sees her as a sinner among sinners: like me, like you, like all of the self-righteous hypocrites who sought to punish her.
Don’t we all pray for this kind of forgiveness? Don’t we all pray for a second chance? Pope Francis says: “The path of forgiveness can truly renew the Church and the world. The world needs forgiveness. Too many people are caught up in resentment; and they harbor hatred because they are incapable of practicing forgiveness. They ruin their own lives and the lives of others rather than find joy, serenity, and peace (8-4-16).” Throughout our lives, but especially now, during these dark, mean, and troubled times, we long for the consolation that comes with receiving the Lord’s gifts of mercy, friendship, and understanding.
Jesus makes love the first fact. His love for us is boundless and beyond words. Time and time again, forever and always, Jesus chooses love over hatred, compassion over condemnation, reconciliation over retribution, and unity over division. He offers a hand in friendship, never a hand eager to throw the first stone. Jesus begs us to open wide our lives to him and to our brothers and sisters — whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they believe, and no matter what they have done in this life. He beckons us to put down the stones of anger, hatred, and harsh judgment that darken our hearts, pollute our minds, and poison our actions. He calls us to choose the way of mercy, harmony, and solidarity. He calls us to embrace love as the first fact.
All around us, the foundations of our common life seem shaken, unsteady, and ready to collapse. The basic norms of polite society are now routinely ignored. The founding principles of our civil society are being debased and degraded on a daily basis. We see too much sickness and suffering; and so much grief and despair. We see too much corruption and deception; and so much inequality and unemployment. We see too much bigotry, hatred, and violence; and so much indifference. What can we do?
In a homily about racism in the aftermath of the murder of a black man by white police officers, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley calls for a new spirit of cooperation and solidarity and some good old fashioned hard work. Cardinal Sean says: “We need to turn again and again to face this situation, to nurture change and recovery. It will not happen without the sustained effort and focus of all people. It is not enough to draw near one for a demonstration or a prayer service and then turn our backs and cross over to the other side of the street. The symbolic gesture or compassionate word is not enough. We need concrete reform, transparency, and the determination to do what needs to be done, to pay the price, to work together, and to make it happen. This may be our last chance. It is impossible to exaggerate the sense of urgency we must have as Americans (6-19-20).”
The time to choose is nearly upon us. What will we do? In a speech at the White House in 2015, Pope Francis says: “Mr. President, together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics are committed to building a society that is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination…All of us are called to be vigilant as good citizens to preserve and defend freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” Here again, Pope Francis leads the way. He teaches us that discipleship and faithful citizenship can be compatible. He reminds us that good citizenship is about building up, not tearing down. It’s about bringing people together, not pulling them apart. It’s about holding fast to what is good in our tradition and letting go of ideology, resentment, and rigidity. It’s about choosing what is best — not for some special interest — but for all of us.
We can always look to the Gospels to hear what Jesus says to the first disciples. We can still look to the Catechism to better understand what the Church teaches. And we can look to the Communion of Saints and Doctors of the Church for good counsel and wise advice. But we see what is happening all around us. We know the difference between fact and fiction, right and wrong, love and hate, justice and injustice. What would Jesus do? What would Pope Francis do? What will we do? Will we throw stones? We hold these stones in our hands right now. Let them be the foundation stones for a better way. Let us use them to build a better community, a new civilization of love. And let us make love the first fact.
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Francis, pray for us! Saint Clare, pray for us! Our Lady of Angels, pray for us! Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for us!
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Souther Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is an experienced spiritual director, retreat leader, university lecturer, and writer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation.
Thank you for listening to the Assisi Project Podcast: Love Is the First Fact. This audio recording is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with members, friends, and followers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages to more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile; or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!