I teach at a Catholic all-girls high school, and ever since that fateful March day last year when the students first saw the white smoke wafting up from the Sistine chapel chimney, Pope Francis has been somewhat of a celebrity in our small community. Many mornings students stop me in the hallway with “Did you see what Pope Francis tweeted yesterday?” or “Look at this amazing picture of Pope Francis and this baby dressed like a Pope!” Posters of Pope Francis grace the hallways of the school—and not just outside of the religion classrooms, either. This generation has embraced this Pope as their own, Elise Italiano writes. I have been hearing more about Pope Francis (thankfully) this past year than I have about the Kardashians and Justin Bieber.
Polls suggest that Catholics are praying more and that one in four Catholics has increased their charitable giving in the last year. Yet with this influx of good news comes a formidable challenge—how best to channel the newfound enthusiasm for the Catholic faith into living the authentic Catholic life?
To think about living as authentically Catholic we have to ask, “What does it even mean to be Catholic?” The New York Times ran a piece a few weeks ago that purported to answer this question, but did so with a faulty premise: that “there is no universal agreement on what it means” to be Catholic. The author of the piece goes on to use the frustratingly inappropriate labels of “traditional” Catholics versus “liberal” or “conservative” Catholics, e.g. a “traditional” Catholic is one who follows the official teaching of the Church, or the Magisterium, while a “liberal” Catholic is one who follows some, not all of the teachings, or believes that some teachings are guidelines that do not necessarily need to be lived. The labels themselves perpetuate the lack of unity and belie one thing all Catholics do have in common—whether a “liberal,” “conservative,” a Pope Francis groupie or non, Catholics are all sinners. Pope Francis, when asked to describe himself, explained, “I am a sinner.” Catholics are not perfect, but they are still Catholic and are part of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—as all Catholics profess each Sunday at Mass during the Nicene Creed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The Church is one because of her source” (CCC 813), namely, the Trinity—one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Catholics are called to worship one God in three persons, and to model their lives on the life of Christ. The moral teachings of the Church are based on Scripture and Tradition—they are, simply put, the official guidelines for living a life based on and in Christ. Church teaching is based on centuries of experience and on the life of Christ himself. Just as Christ spent his time with the most downtrodden in society, so must Catholics. Just as Christ fed the hungry, visited the sick, comforted the afflicted, so must Catholics. Though unpopular and markedly countercultural, these teachings provide a clear compass for believers, which brings us to yet another challenge for the modern believer: obedience.
Pope Francis—contrary to popular belief—has not advised Catholics to back down from difficult moral teachings. Rather, he has continued to call Catholics to obedience. In a world that denies objective truth, Catholics are called to believe that objective truth is real and that the Catholic Church is a messenger of this truth. Challenging platform? You bet. But changing the message to make it easier to live isn’t the answer, either. Christ didn’t water down his message, even as it became apparent that his radical message would cost him his life. Pope Francis urges believers in Evangelii Gaudium,
“Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”
Catholics are human, after all, and sometimes they may struggle with the Church’s teachings. I have a front-row seat to this struggle every day in my classroom. I watch as some really holy, faith-filled young women try to navigate the exceedingly difficult issues of today’s world. I watch as they try, honestly and openly, to understand the why of much Church teaching, even if they themselves disagree. Their determination on this quest inspires me daily.
The Catechism speaks of the difficulties of remaining a united Church; one part of the call for unity is what the Catechism calls the “conversion of heart” that is lived “as the faithful try to live holier lives according to the Gospel”(CCC 821).
This is the struggle to which believers are called. The Gospel message doesn’t always meet us where we are, or even where we want to be—it calls us to be more like Christ. This is difficult—it's supposed to be difficult—but we can ask the Father to guide us and to give us the gift of understanding. If we can do this—if we can try to truly imitate Christ in our lives through the guidance of the Church, with our holy father Pope Francis as our guide—then we can harness the newfound joy and passion of Catholics and be an even stronger, more unified, more Christ-like Catholic Church.