As for the law I was a Pharisee; as for working for religion I was a persecutor of the Church; as far as the Law can make you perfect, I was faultless. But because of Christ, I have come to consider all these advantages that I had as disadvantages. Not only that, but I believe that nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Philippians 3: 5-8
“As for working for religion, I was a persecutor of the Church.” In the human condition there can be a very thin line between virtue and vice. Of course, we all want to be zealous in pursuit of our beliefs. Today’s reading from Philippians, however, should evoke fear and trembling in us as it challenges us to ask ourselves: “Whose agenda am I so zealously pursuing?”
Humankind’s “original sin” is lived out in our desire to “be as gods, knowing what is good and what is evil (Gen 3: 5). The sin is in our mistaken notion that we can know, as God knows, what is good and what is evil. We do this every time we identify evil in a person or object outside of ourselves and arrogantly ascribe the good to our own perspective and belief. There are those who believe that in the primacy that Pope Francis gives to the practice of mercy, he is “muddying” the doctrinal waters. In truth, however, those waters are always and already “muddy.” When Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?”, he is merely acknowledging the truth that, in the most foundational way, only God knows “what is good and what is evil.” While we can never be sure of “the truth,” we can be certain that in the practice of mercy and compassion, we are living in imitation of God. As we read in the gospel parables today, “. . . there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15: 7). The good news is that although we are all lost, God is always seeking us out.
In the highly autobiographical passage from Philippians from which today’s reading is drawn, St. Paul offers us a description of the radical change of heart that was his conversion experience. It was a realization that his presumption of privileged insight and status, a belief that he was “faultless” by dint of his inheritance, was, in the light of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, actually a “disadvantage.” Many years ago, a now highly discredited church leader began his new appointment as archbishop by proclaiming that “in order to know the light, we must name the darkness,”which he then proceeded to do. Ironically, later in his term, he proved incapable or unwilling to name the darkness within the very structure of the church itself. For Jesus the sign of walking in the light is not mistakenly to judge the darkness as external to ourselves, not to pass judgment from a position of superiority, but it is rather to wash the feet of the others. It is to be in constant searching together for the one who is lost, which always includes ourselves.
The manifestations of the zeal of personal ambition and the zeal of loving discipleship are extremely different. When we know what is best for others, there will always be a degree of violence in our relationship to them. We will attempt to set them right, as we see the right. As a disciple of the will and love of God, however, we will always, as Jesus with the Rich Young Man, look on the other “with love.” Our presence will not be a controlling one but rather a hospitable space in which the other can in their own way, to the degree they are willing and able, seek and perhaps in some small and new way find their true identity in God.
In Psalm 69: 9 we read, “For zeal for Your house has consumed me, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.” This is the line that comes to the Disciples’ mind as Jesus purges the sellers and money changers from the Temple as recounted in John 2. Jesus is enraged, not by something that has been done to him, but rather by the fact that the house of God had been turned “into a market” (John 2:16). Our wills and ambitions are to become conformed to God’s will, not the other way around. Our zeal for the right must always be informed by a humility that recognizes our imperfect ability to know the right. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, we are to act “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right . . . .”
The most violent and sinful acts I have ever committed toward others have sprung from my own deluded self absorption and self-righteousness, my presumption of knowing the right and my attempt to impose on another what I believed was right for them. The capacity for violence is not external to us; it exists as well in the core of our own hearts. The “culture of encounter” of which Pope Francis speaks is a willingness to engage with others with generosity of expression of our own insights but also with a humility that recognizes that we may well be wrong and that the others also are bearers of the truth. In true encounter, says Pope Francis, we are to realize, as the Good Samaritan, that we are neighbors to each other. It is in humble dialogue, not in violent self-assertion, that the Spirit moves and works among us, that we most sincerely live out our zeal for God’s house.
What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen. We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us. People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted. If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions. We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.
How, then, can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter? What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? In spite of our own limitations and sinfulness, how do we draw truly close to one another? These questions are summed up in what a scribe – a communicator – once asked Jesus: “And who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29). This question can help us to see communication in terms of “neighbourliness”. We might paraphrase the question in this way: How can we be “neighbourly” in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology? I find an answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is also a parable about communication. Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God. I like seeing this power of communication as “neighbourliness”.
Pope Francis, Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter, Message for the 48th World Communications Day