By Sister Mary Ann Walsh
Pope Francis has become source materials for late night comics. This may mean evangelization through Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien. The comics find the pope intriguing. Perhaps it’s because they can understand him. The most recent catch by the comics were the pope’s words about atheists and salvation. Colbert said his “scapular was in a twist” over atheists being able to go to heaven. O’Brien said the atheists, to return the favor, agree that the pope “is able to go into a void of emptiness.” Let the conversation on the afterlife begin.
Pope Francis reiterates ordinary Catholic thought in a way people can understand. This may be the new playbook on how Catholics can evangelize, that is, spread the Gospel in today’s culture. How does Pope Francis do it?
With reverence. The pope suggests that when we witness to our faith and what we believe we can’t demonize those we deem opponents. He indicates that all others are our brothers and sisters and that we have to move toward understanding each other. That starts with listening and accepting that others – including those who do not share our faith have valid points of view. People with whom we disagree are not on retainer to Satan.
With a caring honesty. The pope speaks lovingly and conveys the attitude we must convey if we are to spread Church teaching. A dialog is not a debate, with a winner and loser. It presupposes a willingness to change and that everyone has an insight into truth. It’s a move toward “ah,” not “gotcha.”
With religious intelligence. One of the pope’s first meetings as pontiff was with people of various faiths, where he reminded them that different religions must work together for the good of the world. In the spirit of Francis, every school should require a course in world religions. One cannot understand the Middle East, a key trouble spot now, without understanding the importance of religious communities there. There is more opportunity to co-exist peacefully when we understand one another’s history and beliefs. And as society changes every day, the different religions of the world become the different religions of the neighborhood and cul-de-sac.
With updated knowledge of one’s own faith. Catholicism admittedly has plenty of rules, but it is essentially a compassionate faith with forgiveness considered a paramount virtue. It offers ancient principles, like the Ten Commandments, but calls on followers to apply them to today’s world. “Thou shalt not steal,” for example, covers matters more complicated than not swiping candy. A nation’s hoarding the vast majority of the world’s riches while others starve or are desperate for clean water is theft, too. Since modern Catholics must apply longstanding church teachings to contemporary issues, they need to pursue lifelong religious education, studying the faith even after receiving Confirmation.
In the language of the day. Brevity marks the world of social media but to travel that world effectively, users have to know not only content but style. The “less is more” rule applies. Despite sounding more formal, Latinate words are not better than Anglo-Saxon words; they’re only longer, which is not a value for many modern people. It is hard to evangelize, that is, spread the faith, if you lose people mid-sentence. When people have to pause to look up the words you’re using, they won’t stay with you for long. The church has a long history of lengthy, often convoluted writing. Pope Francis with his homespun morning homilies is heralding another way of speech.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is the media relations director for the USCCB.