I have been thinking a lot about Pope Francis’s ‘Eldest Son Problem’. If you remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother who has worked hard and kept the rules all the time seethes with resentment as the dissolute younger brother is forgiven and embraced by the father. In fact his resentment at the Father (Gods) unlimited mercy and forgiveness stops him from going in and enjoying the banquet. They appear to be a sizeable group – particularly in The States, often an elite of some type or other, who seems to resent the popularity of Pope Francis outside of the borders of the church. It;s as if they don’t want the wrong type of people included in their church which has become a comfortable country club. They can seem to dominate the English Language Catholic Blogosphere and so they appear to be many, but in reality they create an ‘echo chamber’ and they are not representative of most Catholics.
Francis’ inspiring model of the ‘field hospital church’ that gets out there in the middle of the messiness of life, that tends wounds and listens to those hurting, is very threatening to some people, even if it may well be very close to Jesus’s vision. So an alternative ecclesiology is at play – rather than the field hospital church it is the ‘officers mess‘ church. They create an elitist Catholicism, have an ideological spin on history, often use the labels of tradition and orthodoxy as weapons and don’t seem to take into account the reality of many peoples messy lives. So they create a type of Virtual Gated Community – and their criticisms of Francis are out in the open, relentless and already they are splintering (always a sign of the bad spirit). What worries me is the effect that these blogs are having on some of my students – perhaps even on some of our bishops. The less you are pastorally engaged – the more tempting it is to live in these echo chambers, and feel good about your Catholic Identity.
So how do we bring these dissenters along with us? I think we can learn something from the Japanese here and how they discharged soldiers. After the defeat in the Second World War, many returning soldiers were not fit to return to their communities. Their only identity for their formative years had to be a loyal soldier for their country and now they needed a broader identity. So some very wise communities created a public ceremony where they were welcomed back and praised effusively for what they had done. The community realised that they needed to move on so they created this ritual for closure and transition for ex-soldiers to return to civilization. After the praise and thanksgiving, an elder would stand and declare ‘The war is now over – The community needs you to let go to what has served you until now, the community needs you to return as a man, a citizen and something more than a soldier.’ Maybe the Pope needs to do the same with some of our culture-warriors that are finding it difficult to move with him.