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Discovering your Authentic Catholic Self: Lessons from the Pope’s Visit

by Very Reverend Jovita C. Okonkwo


Father Jovita color official portrait light blue bckgndI have been discussing the concrete behaviors necessary to fit the mold of intentional Catholicism. The behaviors in question include voluntary subordination, authentic self, covenantal relationship, responsible morality, transcendental spirituality, and transforming influence. Last month, I focused on voluntary subordination through which the Christian woman or man learns to subordinate her or himself to the other “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). In this edition, I would love to focus on authentic self which forms the engine of true discipleship. An authentic Christian self is not a self-made self, drawn from an inward projection. It is rather a transposition into or a swap of another self – that of Christ. St. Paul says, “Strip yourselves of the old self, with its deeds, and put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of its Creator” (Col 3: 9-10). In a similar passage, he says, “Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4: 24).

This implies an anthropology of man open to God, keeping in view that the perfect realization of the human is the man Christ, who is a divine person. It is only in the knowledge of something other than himself that man can come to know himself. Hence, for the Christian, there will be a constant battle to overcome the false self, made in the image and likeness of the fallen world in which it lives, in order to attain a true self, made in the image and likeness of God. The false self is the selfish self, also called ego that is often selfish, crabby, raucous and spoiled. The true self is the self we are meant to be and it is not revealed until the false self is removed. It is the self which philosophers call “subsistent” – that is, it is able to return to its own essence, to coincide with itself, to see itself as it really is, and to know itself by reflection (Sheen). The true self is the authentic self which has the capacity to display humility, integrity, accountability, security, and vulnerability (Sendjaya). This self is exemplified in Pope Francis and he displayed it in his recent visit to the United States. The authentic self does not seek constant approval from other false-selves because it habitually pushes hard to unite itself with the perfect self, found only in Christ. Authentic Catholics strive for “Christ-esteem” in place of self-esteem. Lessons from Pope Francis’ recent visit will help us explore this.

Like him or hate him, Pope Francis is a very popular person. Different people like him for different reasons. Media gurus love him because he says what they agree with, or they think he does. Environmentalists love him because he talks the environment. Animal lovers love him because he is Francis, the nature and pet lover. Liberals like him because of what he doesn’t say; the same reason some conservatives do not care so much about him. President Obama loves him dearly because in Francis he saw an ally for his landmark policies – diplomatic relations with Cuba, so-called clean energy, and at least in name, care for the poor. John Boehner loves him because he spoke to his heart; and he saw enough reasons to say bye-bye to politics relinquishing his role as the third most powerful public figure in American politics. The poor loves Francis because he speaks poverty and sides with the little guy; as reflected in his pigmy Fiat drowned in a sea of monster SUVs – the only leader whose escorts have better and stronger fleet. Women love Francis because he never stops praising their courage and strength. But Catholics love him because he is Peter, and they have grown accustomed to loving Peter. Real Catholics are the real lovers of Pope Francis. Why? They just love him. He is their pope and real Catholics love to love their pope. Period!

  • Be that as it may, there are clear lessons we can draw from the visit of the Holy Father.
  • The Catholic Church is not a minority point of view
  • Even if they don’t like Catholicism, they cannot ignore it
  • No human being on planet earth draws as much crowd as the pope
  • The pope speaks to all peoples and changes hearts

As I gave out communion on the Sunday the Holy Father was in Philadelphia, I noticed at least three people who wore Pope Francis t-shirts. After Mass, a woman told me that her shirt was sent to her from her daughter who lives in New York. The daughter in question, according to her, no longer practices the faith but she was among the crowd in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral who waited for Pope Francis to arrive. Another parishioner showed me a picture sent from her daughter who vowed she wouldn’t miss the attending the pope’s visit. Enthusiasm for Pope Francis was at fever-pitch and everyone spoke highly of him. It was reported that several people went to confession last weekend moved by the presence of the pope, his message of hope, mercy and compassion, and the holiness of his life. Some had not been to confession for decades, but turned a new leaf thanks to the pope’s visit.

Is this time to pick winners and losers? If so, the liberal progressives are ready to chant: “I told you we were right.” They can base this on the supposition that Francis, at least, in his speech to the Congress of the United States appeared to have used more of liberal buzzwords like dialogue, appeal to a spirit of welcome to immigrants, negotiations for peace, measures to combat global warming, and abolition of the death penalty. Conservatives will think that they lost because Francis steered clear of their own buzzwords in relation to abortion, the redefinition of marriage, no-fault divorce, doctor-assisted suicide, threats to religious liberty, and other cultural issues. They felt demoralized by Francis’ silence on the issues they have vigorously fought for, and for many decades. A leading voice among the conservative community thinks that Francis encouraged progressive Catholics, both by his silences and affirmations.

So, the radical progressives won? If so, Hurrah! Given that they, more than the conservatives, are the ones who mostly have abandoned their faith, the challenge is for them to return to the Church and claim their heritage. Francis is a marksman, and that was his mission. His appeal to mercy and compassion appears to equal decades of anathemas to those who disregarded Church teachings and in anger and resentment drifted to unbelief. Whether the radical liberal progressives will embrace Francis and rediscover their Catholic identity is left to be seen. The conservatives who believe they’re fighting a culture war are not better than radical progressives because each group flaunts their aggressive sense of moral superiority. They often think that they need clubs and arrows and bombs. Those are instruments of rupture. Every word of Francis affirms perennial Church and biblical teachings, which, especially the conservatives, should have the courage to embrace and even include into their battle-cry. The only winner in this divisiveness is the devil, whose name “diabolos” means division. He is happy when people fight each other and claim winners and losers. My suggestion: Drop your conservatism and liberal progressivism and just become an intentional Catholic.

Blame the enthusiasts of sea-change in Church perception, practice and worship for the hermeneutic of rupture that affirmed self over revealed truth prior to and post Vatican II. What the hermeneutic of rupture gave us is a band of confused Catholics who are extremely arrogant and too sure that they have clearer insight about spirituality and Christian living than millennia of Church teaching and practice. They belong to a number of radical activist groups that today call themselves “nones, dones, and prodigals.”

According to a blogger, the “nones” who are the fastest growing “spiritual” demographic in America, aka, “religiously unaffiliated,” are those who have never been really connected to organized religion and see the whole thing as unnecessary. The “dones” are those who drifted away overtime saying “good riddance” to the phenomenon of religion after they became tired of the hypocrisy, political infighting, turf battles and obsessive fixation with money, which they found in religion. The “prodigals” are away and gone; after being made to feel unworthy, judged less than, and pushed out. Poor babies, they are nursing the injury the big man called “Church” inflicted on them. They need numerous apologies, appeasements, and “religious candy” to bring them back. While there is some truth in these positions, yet, they remain overly exaggerated. Extremely judgmental, radical progressives call everyone judgmental who does not sing their anthem. They have a litany of crimes to which they accuse followers of Christ: Being right over being loving, Denial of rights, Homophobia, Intolerance, Exclusion, Sexism, Hate, War, etc. If you are a believing Christian, these brothers and sisters judge you as “narrow-minded,” “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” For them, the only thing that is not judgmental is their judgment of others. Any position other than total acceptance of the radical liberal position makes you a target of their senile attacks.

Moving from a hermeneutic of rupture to a hermeneutic of continuity requires divine intervention and Francis has his work cut out for him. Radical progressives aren’t joking. They are authoritarian and in many different ways they have outlined their demands. First, Francis would need to be firmer in his housetop bashing of priests and bishops to the hearing of all. For example, in the full view of the world media, he would need to publicly spank a cardinal, ground a few bishops, and whip a good number of priests. Second, he must ordain as many moms and grandmas as Revered Fathers, officiate in Andy’s marriage with his husband, and top it with a pontifical thanksgiving mass for Rachel and her wife. Third, he must issue a decree mandating all priests to either marry or leave the priesthood, and turn over the Church’s annulment process to US lawyers and judges. Fourth, Francis would be required to sell the major basilicas in Rome (signs of the Church’s opulence), mandate all bishops to sell their cathedrals and all sacred vessels and turn over the proceeds to the victims-club of sex-abuse by the clergy. Finally, priests should be made to live out their poverty by sharing the corners of bridges and overpasses with the homeless. Then and only then will the “nones,” the “dones” and the “prodigals” be appeased and “may” consider returning home. Meanwhile, the official prayer of the Church should include apologies to them at lauds, vespers and compline. You may wonder, how many apologies will be enough! The world heard St. John Paul apologize. Pope Benedict followed and Pope Francis has apologized many many times. They all fell on liberal deaf ears. Radical liberal progressives want something not even God can give. They find power in rupture, and power is not easily surrendered. Francis’ appeal to mercy should be for them alone, but they must not be expected to forgive and show mercy.

Pope Francis realizes that the hermeneutic of rupture enjoys the sympathies of the mass media and has tapped into their sensibilities to frame a new hermeneutic of reform and renewal to which the accompanying slogans are those easily understandable to them. That was why when he was in the US he took a humble, nonjudgmental approach wishing to maintain a position of a bridge-builder and avoiding the polarizing issues in contemporary American society. Pope Francis knows that faithful Catholics will continue to be faithful, even when they feel unsupported and their causes ignored. It is the conservatives who, like the liberal progressives, crave for attention, affirmation, and support in their so-called culture war. Authentic and intentional Catholics are forward-looking and do not demand “religious candy” because their faith informs them to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness; and every other thing shall be added unto them (Matthew 6:33). Have you discovered your authentic Catholic self?

May our blessed Mother Mary intercede for God’s Church with her children and shield her from the current attacks of the enemy!

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