|Pope Francis and Raul Castro|
Photo: The Holy See
After the Holy Father Pope Francis received the president of Cuba in audience this past Sunday, Raul Castro said, among other things, "I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the Church, and I’m not joking." Maybe I am too skeptical, but I suspect this statement was more about scoring points and attention - in which it was quite successful - than about a sincere sentiment.
As might be expected, this statement quickly made its way across the blogosphere and the newswires alike. Writing for the Associated Press, Frances D'Emilio rightly noted the surprising nature of Castro's claim: "It was a startling assertion for the leader of a Communist country, whose crackdown on dissidents in the past had drawn sharp Vatican criticism." To my knowledge, the crackdown in Cuba on dissidents has not lessened.
Looking at his words from a different angle, Michelle Arnold recognized - rightly - that if Castro returned to the Church it would be a good thing, but she also recognized that "many American Catholics but an opportunity for kveteching." I hope this post will not be seen as kveteching; that is not my intent.
That said, the supposed motivation for Castro's hypothetical return to the Church of Jesus Christ should at least raise an eyebrow. He is not considering a return to the Church because he has recognized the truth of her teachings. He is not considering a return to the Church because of a true sorrow for sins. He is not considering a return to the Church because of a desire to be more closely united with God. Rather, if we take him at his word, he is considering a return to the Church because he happens to like Pope Francis. To his credit, Castro admits to reading all of the Popes words; he does not simply read the media's claims about what he said, so we can presume that Castro knows what Pope Francis actually says.
Even before Castro made his remarks, Al Gore said something similar on April 29th (which I somehow only saw this morning): "Well I’ve said publicly in the last year, I was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I could become a Catholic because of this Pope. He is that inspiring to me." Whether or not Gore reads all of the Pope's homilies and speeches, I do not know.
Liking Pope Francis, of course, is not bad, in and of itself, and the Lord can certainly use anyone of us to lead someone back to the Church, or to the Church in the first place. To be used in such a way as an instrument in the hand of God is a humbling grace, and one for which we should be especially grateful, both when the Lord uses me and when he uses anyone else; it makes no difference who - or what - the instrument is, so long as the conversion is sincere.
It may well be that both Castro and Gore have come to understand more clearly the truths proposed by the Church through Pope Francis and that through the gestures and words of Pope Francis they have come - or at least are moving closer - to embracing these truths for themselves (Pope Francis, of course, has not changed anything of the Church's teachings - nor can he - but has expressed them with a different emphasis). But this isn't what Castro or Gore have said.
Castro is, in his own words, "very impressed by his wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtues that we know he has." Gore said he is "very impressed by his wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtues that we know he has." Precisely what that means, I do not know.
My concern with the statements of Gore and Castro is that they are too much about the person of Francis and not about the office he holds; they are too much about his personality and not about what he teaches and in what he believes. To become Catholic because of Pope Francis' personality makes as sense as leaving the Church because of a priest's personality. If the next pope does not have the same personal qualities as Pope Francis (which is likely because we are all different), would Gore and Castro simply leave the Church because they aren't drawn so much to the person of the pope?
As I consider these thoughts, I am reminded of something the great J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael on 1 November 1963:
J.R.R. TolkienIn the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of shortcomings, folly, and even sins in the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). 'Scandal' at most is an occasion of temptation - as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scape-goat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on - so we pray for 'final perseverance'. The temptation to 'unbelief' (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be 'scandalized' by others, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe any more, even if I had never met any one in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call Our Lord a fraud to His face.
Tolkien is right to say that no one really leaves the Church because of someone else, but rather because of the person's own lack of faith. In the same way, no one should become Catholic because of someone, but because of the person's own faith.
Let us pray that through the example and teaching of Pope Francis, both Gore and Castro, and many others, will be led to embrace the fullness of the Catholic faith.