Father Roger Landry’s session was not so much a talk or a presentation as an instance of preaching. Watching the video (see below), his intellectual points certainly come through, but the experience of watching him the first time was more personal. The first person to obtain a microphone during the question and answer period captured some of the sense, with his effusive praise.
In that regard, Fr. Landry married the message with the presentation. His message was that we must always be in a missionary mode — seeking to bring others to our faith (even, sometimes, those who profess to share it) — and that we do so, in large part, by exemplifying the joy that ought to derive from a faith and a savior with which and whom “it is easier to find meaning in everything.”
Passing on our faith, he said, shouldn’t be handing out straightjackets, but “passing on keys to the door to a new life.” For a visual, Fr. Landry describes Robert Powell’s depiction of Jesus (here’s his rendition of the Sermon on the Mount). He did not seem happy, more like somebody perpetually leaving a funeral. Contrast this, Landry suggests, with the Sermon on the Mount as presented by Bruce Marchiano.
Which version would be more likely to win converts?
That question may help to explain some of the tension with conservatives (of various stripes) and the pope’s falling favorability in polls. Father Landry picked up a running theme of the conference in noting that the Church should be outward focused. If the goal is to be missionaries, then it is “theological narcissism” to focus on the organizational church’s own affairs as the focus of life.
However, an outward focus can’t mean that the Church is prescribing policies as a criticism of others in non-religious spheres of society. The risks are tremendous that the prudential judgments of the Church, the pope, or any other representative of the faith might be wrong, even insultingly so.
The practical illustrations from Pope Francis’s few years at the lead of the Roman Catholic Church are poignant, here. When he was saying things that didn’t seem as careful as they might have been, people who pay close attention to popes were nervous, but he was extremely popular. People understand that the pope’s statements are likely to be twisted when reported, and that understanding can join with an appreciation of candor.
There’s something attractive not only about joy, but about confidence, and there’s a confidence in speaking one’s mind, despite its likelihood to be misinterpreted. Furthermore, Francis displayed that confidence in a way that proved his desire to make a connection with his listeners.
The pope’s turn to anti-capitalism, by contrast, seems studied, not extemporaneous. It seems to be what one would expect from a minted member of the “international community.” We’ve heard it before, from politicians and elites whose motivation is suspect and who seem to lose the notion of shared humanity in their analysis — whether the humanity of the comfortable people whom they criticize or the humanity of those whom they insist we treat like children with our patronage.
Fr. Landry Gospel refers to Francis’s “paradigm of the new evangelization,” meaning Jesus’ approach of the two disciples who were leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus after the crucifixion. We must meet people where they are. “The reasons they are walking away contain the seeds of what will bring them back.”
I wonder, then, at the apparent belief among some in the church hierarchy — perhaps including Pope Francis — that the way to bring back the materialistic West is to insist that we must sacrifice for those who are materially poor. The basic necessity of charity is clear in the Gospels and the teachings of the Church, but it must be delivered to people where they are.
The disciples heading out of Jerusalem had seen their messiah mocked, manhandled, and killed, and they needed explanation that acknowledged what they had seen and suffused it with context and meaning.
During Fr. Landry’s question and answer period, somebody in the audience referred to Pope Francis’s words in Evangelii Gaudium:
This is the joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God our Father: “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means… Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment” (Sir 14:11, 14). What tender paternal love echoes in these words!
The internal reference is to the poetic Old Testament Book of Sirach, which is somewhat unique to Catholic Bibles, because neither Jewish nor Protestant scriptures include it. Just prior to the suggestion that we should not deprive ourselves of daily enjoyment, the author asks, “To whom will he be generous who is stingy with himself and does not enjoy what is his own?” Whenever such a man “is generous, it is by mistake; and in the end he displays his greed.”
These lines bring to mind Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s warning against false conversions that are coerced or achieved on false pretenses. A wealthy society that shares its riches as its dues for salvation may wind up sharing, instead, its woes if it does not find the right kind of enjoyment in material reality.
When the Church looks at the Western world, with all its wealth (which wealth it has for historical and economic reasons, mind you), its message is too often that money cannot bring happiness, which does not acknowledge much of what we’ve seen, and that the act of giving it away will bring us meaning of itself. That may be true, but it seems more likely to be true mainly to the extent that the wealth was the thing holding us back. Practical experience finds it more often the case that curing our meaningless gives us reason to give our wealth away.
Shortly before leaving the podium, Father Landry stated that our religion should be “a treasure we want to share, rather than a burden to weigh people down.” Just so, if we start with the objective of teaching people to find joy and meaning in what they have — in everything — they will be more inclined to share both the teaching and their treasure.