There are two ways for fathers to respond to lackluster performance in their sons, ways that define the quality of the father: by lowering the bar or by raising the bar. A great coming-of-age father-son conversation to have ends with some variation of the phrase, “I expect so much more of you.” It is at one and the same time both challenging and uplifting. It is what lukewarm sons need to hear. It is what good fathers need to say.
The same assessment of fatherly quality can be applied to our spiritual fathers, the husbands of Holy Mother Church, the bishops and priests throughout the world. We can see it in the Apostles, challenging the first of Christians to live their faith well enough to die for their faith, if necessary. We can see it in the Early Church Fathers, navigating the barque through every sort of trial and war-torn debris. We can see it in saintly fathers of the Middle Ages, encouraging their sons to live the Evangelical Counsels (yes, I know St. Francis was only a deacon) and to build a genuinely Christian culture. We can see it in the Counter-Reformation, when strong bishops like St. Francis de Sales raising the bar for whole cities and lifting them back up to the Catholic faith. We can even see it in the Second Vatican Council, which, perhaps more than anything, called us to greater freedom and responsibility in light of our human dignity.
We cannot see it – not very well, at least – in those first decades following the council. There were strong fathers, of course, Blessed John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and many – but not all – bishops. There were not enough strong fathers. Too many priests and bishops in those painfully long years lowered the bar. Catechesis, based on the work Moran and Groome, was emptied of objective doctrines and morphed into a social self-expression. Homilies dumbed down doctrines and confessors transmogrified into permissive therapists. Youth ministry – which, understand, is very important – took pride of place over adult catechesis, which John Paul II called “the principal form of catechesis.” Ignoring the work of the council and even the rubrics of the new missal, poor spiritual fathers turned the Eucharistic liturgy – which Lumen Gentium called “the source and summit of Christian life” – into banal pageantry. Is it really a surprise that the Christian life would suffer?
There are over a billion Catholics in the world today, but most are lukewarm at best, the walking (spiritually) dead, zombie-Catholics who shift about a chaotic world and read papal interviews not to be enlightened by the Holy Father’s wisdom, but to pick his brain and mangle his thoughts. (Mmmm, brains.)
But Pope Francis is a good father. He sits down with the sons of the Church and tells them what all good fathers must tell their sons, “I expect so much more of you.”
The Holy Father chose his name rightly. The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi is tomorrow. They’re both all about injecting the faith into daily life and trusting completely in God.
Francis expects us not to proselytize but to evangelize. Not to launch the Gospel as an incendiary as if at an enemy, but to preach the Gospel as a loving gesture from a friend.
Francis expects us not to withhold the Gospel for fear that we’ll be misheard. (And boy is he an expert at demonstrating this for us!) He wants us to preach the Gospel, engage the culture, and ask questions. Every good teacher knows he can always fall back on the Socratic method: ask questions and work through the answers together. If a little confusion results, at least it piques curiosity and gets dialogue moving.
Francis expects us lay people to rise up and take our faith seriously. Not only to make it an entertaining puzzle for our brains, but to live it out, to put it into practice, to be people of the beatitudes and the works of mercy. He doesn’t primarily wish to turn the Church into a vehicle for social justice, but rather to strengthen faith with actions that evangelize by diffusing hope and charity into the world.
Pope Francis, a good father, expects so much more of the Church. There’s really no reason he shouldn’t get it. We just need to shake off the zombie-Catholicism and come to life in Christ Jesus.