In the early Church, converts were baptized with a minimum of instruction: the crowds at Pentecost, the Ethiopian eunuch.
However, it soon became apparent that this was not a good idea. The heresies and immorality that Paul combated flourished, and recent converts fell away rapidly when persecutions began.
The Church then began insisting on a lengthy catechumenate before baptism. This provided a time for instruction, repentance, and the breaking of sinful habits. Only then were converts baptized. The Church maintained the disciplina arcana; the Eucharist was reserved for the fully converted.
But as Christianity spread and infant baptism became the norm, and whole tribes were baptized because their kings commanded them to convert, the level of Christian knowledge and practice declined. Christianity became the religion of whole societies.
In the modern Church infant baptism is the norm, and instruction and conversion are chancy.
Some are appalled by the low level of knowledge, practice, commitment, and spirituality in the Catholic Church. Most parishes are sacrament factories. Spiritual seekers often leave for evangelical churches. Church discipline is non-existent. This situation has led to widespread support among Catholics for abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as almost complete ignorance of Christian doctrine and a lack of discipleship. The book Forming Intentional Disciples discusses this unhappy situation.
Some want to tighten up discipline and cultivate more intense practice and spirituality, even if that leads to a smaller church, which however would a better witness to the world.
Others denounce such an approach as sectarianism, and want the Church to be pastoral, that is, lax, even more so than at present, so as to include as many people as possible, with little regard for what they might believe or their level of moral practice or spirituality. The proponents of this approach want a least a vague Christianity among many, rather than an intense Christianity among few.
To some extent Francis agrees with this second group:
This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.
But he continues
We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.
Neither sectarianism or lax mediocrity.
Francis wants both approaches: he wants the Church to both universal and intense: open to sinners, perhaps by not emphasizing the hard moral doctrines, but preaching the heart of the Gospel, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, which will lead to conversion.
the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
To be with sinners, to heal them:
the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
To be both zealous and merciful is the ideal:
The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.
“without getting lost” – Is this possible? Many priests, many Jesuits, have gotten lost, even about the central truth of the unique mediatorship of Jesus Christ.
Francis desires priests (and this interview seems to be directed mainly to priests) to focus on the central message of the Gospel:
Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.
It is true that proclaiming the Law without the Gospel leads to despair. Laws, however good and holy and wise, cannot give sinful man the power to obey them. The Law by itself leads only to despair or to the modern rebellion that seeks to change the Law itself.
A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.
This indeed sometimes happens. I agree with the sermons that condemn abortion and same-sex marriage and sexual trafficking and torture, but I fear that sometimes the focus on these obscures the central message of the Death and Resurrection. As Francis said
The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”
Obviously one matter is more central than the other, but they are not really separate. The proclamation of the Gospel always includes an immediate call to repentance.
Repentance is always joined to faith, not a remote and much later corollary of faith. As now, during the initial proclamation of the Gospel hard-heatedness, cruelty, lust and avarice were major obstacles to hearing the Gospel, and had to be set aside simultaneously with accepting the Gospel, not much later, if ever.
But times change, and perhaps Francis’ approach would work. I agree that the Church has not done a very good job of proclaiming the central Christian message, and that the departure of Catholics for evangelical churches demonstrates this – and Bergoglio saw that happening in Argentina.
However, I do not see any evangelical ardor in the Jesuits or what is usually called the progressive movement in the Church (It is also lacking in the traditionalist movement, which Francis rightly criticizes). I suspect that Bergoglio’s approach will be used to cultivate in the Catholic Church a situation such as the Episcopal Church suffers from: a vague acceptance of historic Christian doctrine and a total acceptance of modern moral vagaries. This approach has not contributed to the health of the Episcopal Church, and I do not see why the Catholic Church should be any different.
But God has many surprises, and perhaps He will raise up, perhaps He is already raising up, saints large and small through whom His healing light will shine in the world. In the meantime, I thought the best part of Francis’ interview was this:
“I see the holiness,” the pope continues, “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.“
Fulfilling our duties, caring for people, praying for the living and the dead – and thereby making present the Kingdom in the midst of the world.