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Division by Pontification

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus says, "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This message is evident in the words and actions of recent popes, men who were and are not afraid to take stands that defy simple political categories.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 40:2-4, 18

Second Reading: The Letter to the Hebrews 12:1-4

Gospel: According to St. Luke 12:49-53

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

This certainly does not fit in with the popular notion of a let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya-around-the-campfire Jesus who believes that to be a disciple means playing well with others.  Sadly for our status in the eyes of the world, if we want to follow the Lord and Savior of the Universe then sometimes we are going to make people upset, or at least a bit unsettled.

With that in mind, I believe that we are fortunate to live in the times that we do.  As strange as that statement may sound, I stand by it.  I have been blessed to live in the pontificates of six popes, three of whom are canonized saints (Sts. John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II). In the other three – John Paul I, Benedict XVI and Francis – we have men who were and are not afraid to take stands that defy the simple categories of left and right, liberal and conservative; stands that are Catholic and true to the Gospel.

John XXIII and each of his successors have confronted a world that has changed in ways so drastic and with speed so rapid that they are unique among all of the 266 men who have held the office of Bishop of Rome.  And as each has confronted the modern, and now post-modern, world their teachings have not always brought positive reactions.

When John XXIII published his magnificent social encyclical Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”) one American political magazine ran the headline “Mater, Si; Magistra, No” – a not so subtle attempt to put the Holy Father in his place because he dared to proclaim the Catholic teaching on issues of social and economic justice.  This encyclical brought division, but division isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it can be a sign that the Holy Father is following in the footsteps of the one true Teacher.

While in Poland in 2016 for the World Youth Day, Pope Francis met with the bishops of that country.  In that meeting he hammered on one of his usual nails: colonialism.  Reactions to this sort of talk can be predicted way before any commentator has time speak or write: the chattering class on the Left see him as a prophet, while the talking heads on the Right see him as someone who should leave this sort of thing to the experts.

The problem is that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and not a mouthpiece for any secular political agenda, and he proved it once again in Poland.  When he connected colonialism to the culture war and not to the economy he caught almost everyone off guard.  Those of us who were unfazed by his remarks understand that the role of the pope is, as they say, “to speak truth to power.”

In his comments to the Polish bishops he mentioned what he called “ideological colonization,” the blackmailing whereby poorer countries have cultural visions imposed upon them by richer countries in exchange for economic assistance.  This sort of talk was an unexpected turn, especially when he gave this blackmail a name and in doing so he went off the expected script:

“I will call it clearly by its name – is [the ideology of] “gender”. Today children – children! – are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this terrible!”

Francis goes on to say that he has discussed this with Benedict – another off-script moment: how could the “ultra liberal” Francis even stand being in the same room as the “ultra conservative” Benedict?  And in a statement that should surprise no thinking Catholic, they agreed that our time is “the age of sin against God the Creator,” and that “God created man and woman; God created the world in a certain way… and we are doing the exact opposite.”

With statements like this Francis brings division, the kind of division that Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel.  This sort of talk causes him to lose quite a few friends, and probably hasn’t been gaining him many new ones.  There may even be those who would want to do to him what was done to Jeremiah in this week’s first reading: throw him in the bottom of a cistern.  But Jeremiah was eventually pulled out by an Ethiopian (“Cushite”) slave, one of the colonized peoples whose descendants would assuredly do the same for Francis.

A.M.D.G.