Pope Francis

What Is He Up To?

For the past few weeks I have been working on a series of articles on Pope Francis. These articles are being published in the parish bulletin each week. Thus far, about half of them have been published. However, I have completed the entire series and edited them into a single document.
Click here if you would like to read it.

Happy Feast Day

Feast of St. Francis

Today we wish Pope Francis and the Universal Church a very Happy Feast Day. As the first pope to take the name of the great saint from Assisi, may God give him the spirit of this saint as he leads the Church in the way of a true poverty of spirit… For Blessed are the Poor in Spirit!

Language Barrier

In Order to Communicate Better, We Need a Point of Reference

I think many are asking today, "What is Pope Francis up to?" Take a look at this picture and try to figure out what it says. For some this will take a second and for others they may never figure it out. Ask yourself, if this sign hung over the door, would this be a place you would enter?


Like never before, the Church needs to be in dialogue with the world. It is in this particular area that Pope Francis has already offered some great insights. As with every form of communication and dialogue, all of the participants need a common point of reference to understand what is being said. Otherwise, it is impossible to have a productive dialogue. Like Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis realizes the language used in a dialogue is extremely important. There is no doubt that he is making every effort to open the dialogue using language that others can appreciate. In this regard, it appears he realizes there are still many barriers that need to be crossed.

Throughout much of his academic career and pontificate, Pope Benedict sought open dialogue with secularists and atheists, and he is still doing so in retirement. In the many dialogues he had, he was a master at expounding on the depth and riches of the theological language that expresses our Faith. The struggle in many of these dialogues has been the linguistic barriers that form around uncommon points of reference. For
Pope Benedict, much of the dialogue required bringing the non-believer to the point of reference from which he was speaking.

Generally speaking, when someone in the Church speaks to someone who is not, the outsider typically reacts as if the Church were speaking a foreign language because, for them, it is. For many decades, especially through public educational systems, there has been a program of verbal engineering that was intended to promote a specifically secular verbiage. This process openly sought to detach the point of reference of traditional moral and ontological referents from their Divine Referent and attach them to secular alternatives. So in this regard, modern language has changed dramatically, and linguistic barriers have formed.

Think of it this way: Imagine if the UN General Assembly did not have simultaneous translators when the world's leaders gathered to discuss an important issue. For the most part, there would be frustration and problems with regard to the proper understanding of what another world leader was saying. Not only would the dialogue become voluminous and unsustainable, any real or effective communication would be impossible. In fact, a lack of understanding among the participants could be disastrous. In this regard, for there to be effective communication, an accurate translation is needed. However, just translating a word is insufficient as a common point of reference is also needed. Words are powerful but without a common point of reference, they are powerless.

By way of example, a word could be translated accurately, but, if the recipient does not have the same point of reference, the meaning could still be lost. If an Italian used the word "mucca," the recipient would hear the English translator use the word "cow." If both have the same point of reference, there would be no problem. But if the listener had no point of reference or knowledge of a cow, this could result in a breakdown in communication. Or if the recipient, through a process of verbal engineering, had always been shown a bull as the point of reference for the word cow, it would change his or her reaction when the word is used. It is important to remember that it is not the word that makes a cow what it is; rather, it only designates what already is. If there is no common point of reference, further explanation would be required so that all parties understand the reality before them.

The same is true when we attempt to speak of eternal realities, especially from an ecclesial point of reference. In any dialogue with the world we need a common point of reference, which is often lacking today. The problem is that many of the expressions the Church uses have been altered by verbal engineers because they wanted to remove the traditional stigma and judgmental tone. For instance, when the Church speaks of virtue, it is an aspect of reality derived from the nature of Man. But a person steeped in a secular worldview may think of a list of desired qualities that have to be cultivated in a person. In such conversations, the Church speaks of the Natural Law. However, a person steeped in a secular worldview may hear it as the law of nature. In this context, the two are not synonymous and point to two very different realities. This has created a problem today because, especially with regard to morality and Sin, the common point of reference is missing.

In following what Pope Francis has been saying, it appears he is trying to bridge the linguistic gap between Church teaching and worldly interpretations. Make no mistake, I am sure he understands both sides very well and is choosing his references very carefully. I am convinced that he is asking pastors around the world to do the same. Yet he is extending the challenge even further because at this point in the verbal chasm he realizes that we are not going to have success if we continue with the status quo or allow ourselves to be cornered into specific dialogues.

Thus, in saying that we "cannot insist only on abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods," it seems Pope Francis is saying that these issues have lost their point of reference in the dialogue, which has made it "impossible" for us to have an effective dialogue today. In the secular world, if you are Catholic and say you are pro-life, they hear that you are anti-abortion. If you say you are pro-marriage and wish to preserve Marriage as ordained by God, they perceive you as homophobic, anti-gay, or out of touch. If you say you are convinced that Natural Family Planning is the only way for virtuous family planning, they accuse you of being anti-women, unscientific, and sexually repressive. It is not that any of these perceptions are true, but that they are the effect of the verbal engineering that has taken place for many years. In this regard, the process of verbal engineering has cultivated a different point of reference that is now quite widespread.

Therefore, what Pope Francis has been doing is opening the door to a new dialogue and allowing the Church to reclaim what has always been Her position… every Catholic must love the sinner and hate the sin. He has not changed any teaching but is changing the current point of reference. The dialogue must begin on this revamped premise. In loving sinners, we embrace them first and let them know there is hope and healing. It is possible for the wounds of Sin to be healed, but it will not happen if the sinner does not find Christ. Too often the popular caricature is that the Church only wishes to condemn sinners, an image that church members have fed at times. However, as the Pope reminded us, every member of the Church is a sinner first and foremost and in need of Grace. It is only through Grace and the pursuit of virtue that the sinner has hope.

If I truly love someone, I want them to receive Christ's Grace. The Pontiff is correct that many need to come to this healing font now more than ever. The ministers of the Church are the guides to that font.

But to be clear, Pope Francis did not say we should leave the sinner in sin or that sin is not important, even though that is what the secular media seem to have heard. By saying, "Who am I to judge," he is saying that our first recourse in the dialogue is to remind everyone that there is Hope, there is Grace. So let's not talk about the sin first; let's talk about the hope given us in Christ, Whose Grace is the source of healing. I believe this is why the Pontiff said, "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all… In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds." It is during the process of accompanying that the ongoing conversion and true healing take place.

If I am correct, the Pope has been trying to get those on the ecclesial side of the dialogue to follow the RCIA model with the goal of walking with the converted sinner in Mystagogy. To adapt a popular expression, we must not just talk the talk… we must walk the walk -- with them!

For the record, the word in the picture above is a phonetic spelling of McDonald's in Cyrillic letters. If you substitute each of the Cyrillic letters with their latin equivalent, it spells Macdonalds.