I am a Christian. I am a Catholic Christian. I am an evangelical Catholic Christian. To many who read all three claims, they are either contradictory or can only stand together in certain limited configurations. Nevertheless, it is my contention and my experience that not only can I be all three, but each is necessary to define my relationship with Jesus Christ and with His Church as well as my role in the Church's ongoing mission to bring all men and women to salvation in Jesus Christ.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I am still reflecting on the historic events which occurred in Rome last week. Who could forget the moment when that simple man, bearing the name Francis, stepped out on the balcony overlooking St Peters square?
He was a surprise gift No-one expected his choice. Before he even uttered one word, just in his visage, countenance and bearing he called us to strip away all the clutter within us - and around us - and fall in love with Jesus Christ.
By taking the name of the little poor man (Il Poverello) of Assisi, he spoke volumes without uttering one word. In an age deluded by self idolatry it was, as the saying goes, a "come to Jesus moment". The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christians, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ - that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." (2 Cor. 8:9) Do we understand?
When Francis the Pope bowed before the world in humility, seeking the blessing of the faithful before he extended the first Apostolic blessing from Peter's position in the Church, he sent a signal. It was filled with hope. This will be a papacy of great promise for a Church in need of evangelical renewal and a world which needs to be born anew.
When Pope Francis left the balcony he continued to send the signal. Even a main stream media which has lost its integrity picked up the bread he left on the simple trail he walked since offering his "Fiat", his "yes' to the question of Jesus "Peter do you love me." (John 21:15-9) Like his namesake, Pope Francis speaks evangelical simplicity with both his words and actions.
He could have ridden in the Vatican motorcade. There was a custom Mercedes Benz awaiting him with a license plate from Vatican State - over which he now holds governing authority. It read "Stato Vaticano 1". After all, some would note, such a car and a motorcade are meant to assure his safety and guarantee his punctual arrival at the next appointment.
Those in the United States remembered that the President of the United States rode in a twenty car motorcade to a Washington DC restaurant just down the street the week before the Pope was selected. He dined with two Republican senators and reminded them, as he often does all of us, of his claimed concern for the poor.
Instead, Francis rode in a small bus back to his lodgings where he had stayed with his brother bishops during the conclave. The next morning he packed his own luggage - checked himself out - and paid his own bill. How shocked the world seemed. Simplicity is countercultural in these days of arrogance and grandiosity.
Then, on Thursday morning he visited St Mary Major and prayed for all of Rome. The media seemed surprised again. He told us he was going to do so on Wednesday night. He grabbed the microphone, veering from protocol, after those assisting him thought he was finished, and said :
"Brothers and sisters, I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and until we meet again. We will see each other soon. Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome. Good night and sleep well!"
That visit followed his morning personal prayer. Reports from friends tell us that Francis spends two hours every morning in prayer. He does not make much of it - just as he does not make much of most things that he does without calling attention to himself. That is because he knows it is not about him. It is about Jesus Christ whom he serves.
One can hear, in the sounds of his daily pattern of life, the words of the Apostle to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."(Gal. 2:20)
The people of Buenos Aires were not surprised; at least those with eyes to see the way of life of this simple follower of Jesus. He chose not to live in the residence designed for the bishop in Buenos Aires. Instead, he lived in a small apartment with an older retired priest. He took delight in cooking the daily meals. He also cooked for and fed the poor. He washed the feet of the sick and dying.
At St Mary Major he placed flowers on the altar and prayed in silence for a half an hour. He dedicated himself, the Church and the world, to Mary, the Mother of the Lord. Like holy men and women from the earliest days of Christianity, he sees in the Mother of the Lord the model for all disciples. She is the woman whose humble Yes brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven.
His first homily was extemporaneously delivered from the heart of this Evangelical Catholic Pope. The power was in its evangelical simplicity. He allowed the readings to be broken open through him so that the faithful could be fed by the Living Word, Jesus Christ.
Here is an excerpt: "We can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO (Non - Governmental Organization) but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens?
"What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ - I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy - "Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil." When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil."
"When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly. We are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord."
Get ready; this is an Evangelical Catholic Pope. When I was a younger man, almost twenty five years ago, with considerably less formal theological training than I have since had the privilege of receiving, I wrote my first full length book. It was entitled "Evangelical Catholics." The foreword was written by a hero of my mine, an evangelical protestant whom I was privileged to call my friend, Chuck Colson. Chuck has now gone to the Lord. The book is out of print.
The term Evangelical Catholic is now acceptable these days, even in Catholic intellectual circles. Another version of the term is now the title of a book recently released by the engaging and ever popular Catholic writer named George Weigel. I have not yet read the book, but look forward to doing so. I am sure, like his other contributions, it is well done, insightful and helpful.
Back when I wrote the first book to use phrase, Evangelical Catholic was a controversial term. Chuck and I became fodder for anti-catholic Protestants. Sadly, some of the virulent criticisms still circulate. To my dismay, when the book was published, it was dismissed, disregarded, or made light of by some in the then emerging Catholic intellectual class. Chapter I was entitled Evangelical Catholic: A Contradiction in Terms? I began with a simple claim:
"I am a Christian. I am a Catholic Christian. I am an evangelical Catholic Christian. To many who read all three claims, they are either contradictory or can only stand together in certain limited configurations. Nevertheless, it is my contention and my experience that not only can I be all three, but each is necessary to define my relationship with Jesus Christ and with His Church as well as my role in the Church's ongoing mission to bring all men and women to salvation in Jesus Christ."
All these years later, I still make the same claim. In fact, the depth of its meaning has only expanded through my lived experience and been deepened by my theological studies. I am eager to share the insights with readers. Fortunately, I am also joined by millions who make the same claim that they are Evangelical Catholics.
The selection of our Evangelical Catholic Pope Francis has inspired me to write "Evangelical Catholics II: Twenty Five Years Later." If there is a representative of a major publisher house reading this article, I would love to hear from you! The project is already underway.
Fortunately, the term Evangelical Catholic - and the claims it makes - are now normative.It has become acceptable. That does not mean it has been embraced. Fortunately we have an Evangelical Catholic Pope named Francis calling the world and the Church to living faith in Jesus Christ and showing us how to be Evangelical Catholics, in word and deed.