By Barry Schoedel
Recently, the Holy Father named 19 Cardinal-designates. A theme that has become integral to the pontificate of Pope Francis re-emerged in his letter to them: the temptation to worldliness in the Church.
He wrote this: “The Cardinalate does not signify a promotion, or an honor, or a decoration. It is simply a service that calls for enlarging one’s vision and widening one’s heart… this ability to look far ahead and to love more universally with greater intensity can only be acquired by following the same way of the Lord: the way of abasement and humility, taking the form of a servant.” He even takes his counsel a step further, asking them to refrain “from any celebration that is foreign to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty”.
His pontificate began with similar admonitions, an earlier homily includes a recognition that in the history of the Church we can see a spirit of worldliness manifest in the lives of “those who think that to follow Jesus is a career.” This admonition, while in this case directed toward clergy especially, is directed to each and every Christian. To be satisfied with a mere cultural Catholicism, or a type of Christian identity that seeks honor, self-praise, and promotion, is a betrayal of Jesus.
When meeting with the poor in Assisi the Holy Father reflected on the prophetic nature of St. Francis of Assisi’s evangelical witness: he reminded all present that there exists in the Church a grave and dangerous threat: a worldliness that the Pope connects to a type of idolatry of self and power. Then, during an audience of newly appointed bishops last September, the Holy Father sought to form them from the beginning through the lens of Christian discipleship—the lens of the Cross, urging the bishops: “do not fall into the trap of careerism! It is a form of cancer!” He goes on, “stay among your people. Avoid the scandal of being ‘airport bishops.’” And more recently in an audience with the Papal Gentlemen he instructed them that their service must be rooted in faith, in an “evangelical coherence unmarred by worldly attitudes.”
Ordinarily, one thinks of worldliness as a sign that a person is materialistic and shallow, that they don’t value spiritual and moral matters, yet in Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope reminds us that there is a spiritual worldliness that Christians are easily tempted by: “spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church… Those who have fallen into this worldliness reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters… they constantly point out the mistakes of others and are obsessed by appearances.”
The Pope is asking us to look within our own hearts prior to the discussion and assessment of the ills of modern culture. He recognizes these ills, yes—they are legion, but he is reminding us that the evangelical response, so different from the secular response to problems, is rooted not in mere criticism, ideology, or programs, but by radically uniting ourselves to Christ. An evangelical fidelity that contradicts worldliness is biblical, that is, it is rooted in Jesus as revealed in scripture, especially the Gospels, interpreted from within the communion of the Church but applied uniquely to our individual lives and circumstances.
Worldliness is a manifestation of an ill within the Church: the overlooking of the prophetic heart of Christ by not really knowing him or seeking to know him. By not fully embracing who Christ is, as he is revealed, we become spiritually and morally sterile. Indeed we personally may have strayed from the path of Life.
We may be experts on this or that teaching of the Church, but at the same time be perpetuating sin and evils within the Church—whether through commission or omission. What a danger it is to take credit for our own salvation and sanctification. For instance does the gift of faith make us proud; do we take credit for it? Does knowledge of the Church’s moral teaching make us feel superior to others?
When the People of God are not disciples of Christ they become people of the World. Catholics become merely another culture seeking to maintain and preserve their identity, an institution fighting for survival among an ideological battlefield. We may still make a claim to the name Christian, but our witness lacks the fire of the Spirit of God—it lacks credibility because it doesn’t deliver what it claims to be—it is undermined by a spirit of worldliness. The prophetic heart of Jesus is a fire that frustrates, challenges, even embarrasses those who seek to live lives of domination and self-exaltation based in sin and evil. It confounds the devil and liberates those enslaved to evil, darkness, and sin. In us, it may be that the Holy Spirit, through the teachings of Pope Francis, is rooting out duplicity and false witness by identifying and naming worldliness as alien to the gospel of Christ.
In his ongoing emphasis on worldliness in the Church Pope Francis is reminding us of two fundamental realities: 1) We are disciples of Jesus 2) We are missionaries of the Gospel. This is who Catholics are prior to any other initiative or temptation. Apart from these we betray both God and neighbor as to the claims we might make about ourselves.
Barry Schoedel is the Assistant for Evangelization and Technology for the Diocese of Juneau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.