It is no secret that Pope Francis is getting pushback from certain corners of the church these days. The church in the United States has been infected by the same harshness and polarization that inflame our politics. Our faith is challenged by ongoing polemics between Catholics labeled progressive and conservative. The due reverence afforded the papacy as one of the greatest sources of unity and cohesion for a global church is being undermined by a small but vocal chorus of vigilantes led by a small number of cardinals and bishops.
What is the source of the tensions and conflicts we have in the church today? I believe the reason for the uneasiness is the pope’s emphasis on mission. There is a profound difference between a church that is a nest or a niche, in which one can find peace, tranquility and seeming stability, and a church that sees itself as missionary through and through—always going out, reaching out to the margins, as Pope Francis likes to say. Such a church necessarily does not wait for outsiders to come to it; rather, it seeks them out and goes to them. Such a church is not overly concerned with its identity nor with the past. Rather, such a church lives and breathes a “culture of encounter.”
In 2012 CARA researchers Mary Gautier, Paul Perl and Stephen Fichter reported that there was a telling difference between how the two types of priest viewed their vocations. The diocesan priests tended to view their calling as a niche, as a position of status, as a function in a well-established organization. The religious order priests tended to view their calling as a mission, as a going out to engage an often incredulous and unfamiliar world with the Gospel message of Jesus. Francis, our first Jesuit pope, embodies this missionary impulse.
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With thanks to Allan Figueroa Deck and America Magazine where this article was first published.