Pope Francis not only called for a vigil of prayer and fasting this past weekend, but the Holy Father has continued a recurring theme of rejecting what he likes to call “false religiosity,” telling people not to keep certain devotions merely for the sake of those devotions, but to engage in devotional practices and works of charity that draw them closer to Jesus. This comes as he further invited people to “follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross,” and addressed a huge crowd at a Vatican vigil for peace in Syria and the wider world. The Holy Father’s recent comments may sound to some as if he is against or opposed to private devotions or dismissive of all private revelation, but I don’t think that is what he is getting at at all. Pope Francis wants our private prayer to become our public action.
We see evidence of this in the way that the Pope leads by example. For many years, quite a great number of us have prayed for an end to abortion, but what have we done to help facilitate that in our communities? The Holy Father recently called a woman who wrote him who is facing a difficult and unplanned pregnancy. She wrote the Pope explaining her situation because, she said, she had “no one else to turn to.” Francis called the woman back and shared with her how brave that she was being for that unborn child and said that he would be a spiritual father to her, and offered to baptize her baby.
The Church has a clear teaching that sex outside of the matrimonial bond is sinful (CCC 2352–2372), but women who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy as a result of such a situation don’t need to feel as though the Church has condemned them, especially if it is to the Church that they are coming seeking comfort and help. Francis wants us to put our years of speaking up for moral absolutes as a Church into action by living the faith we profess and fostering an ethic of life that goes beyond our prayers to end abortion, embryonic stem cell research, the death penalty, and other offenses against life. Pope Francis seems to be saying to us by his actions that one of the best ways to speak out in favor of the moral law of God, which we ought to be rightly keen to live by, is to embrace and act in solidarity with those who are marginalized.
The woman who Pope Francis called said that she hoped that her story would serve as an example that might bring others in a similar situation to her own back to the Church, saying that she wants to “be an example for other women who feel they may be distant from the Church simply because they have chosen the wrong man, they are divorced or they are with men who are not worthy of being fathers.”
The Holy Father has warned against allowing for personal devotional practices to become the only thing that our faith is about, reminding people that Jesus Christ should be the center of their faith. He told the congregation at his Daily Mass in the Chapel of the St. Martha House over the weekend that “If you aren’t able to adore Jesus, you’re missing something.”
Part of adoring Jesus is to follow Christ’s example, who said “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus ate with sinners and embraced them. Yes, he told them “go and sin no more,” but his mercy to all of us, who are all sinners, is endless. Jesus expects that we will treat others in the way that he treats us, embracing others in mercy and love as he does the same for us.
The Holy Father is trying to lead by example, and rather than preaching to us about how we should treat others, he is showing us how a Christian should behave.