Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil served during a period of repression under a military dictatorship. Like Pope Francis, Archbishop Câmara was well known for his service to the poor. When challenged on his speaking out about the needs of the poor and the injustices they suffered, he said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis severely criticized economic systems and structures that have failed the poor. Some have called the pope a Marxist for his statements about the purpose of wealth. What they do not understand is that the pope was not speaking as an expert on economic systems. Further, Pope Francis said nothing new. The Church’s social teachings on economic systems, the market, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, and the like goes back over a hundred years. What Pope Francis did do was to speak plainly enough that his call to examine how our economic systems might be unjust or immoral made many people uncomfortable.
Moses would have identified with Archbishop Câmara and Pope Francis. Once hailed as a liberator, Moses is criticized in our reading today: “The people grumbled against Moses,” and instead of recognizing their freedom, they accused him of bringing them into the desert to let them die of thirst.
Today is the First Scrutiny for those preparing to be baptized at Easter. It is not we who scrutinize them, it is they who are asked to scrutinize themselves. They ask themselves, “Am I ready?” Our response is to support them through prayer.
What Pope Francis has done is to ask all of us, institutions, and even governments, to do the same thing. He has asked us to scrutinize ourselves with the message of the Gospel teaching to care for the poor.
Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well created the occasion for her to scrutinize herself when He confronted her about her five husbands and the man with whom she was living outside of marriage. Jesus made her face her life and her choices.
The Hebrews accompanying Moses were forced to examine their behavior. They so mistrusted God’s promise to watch over them that they were willing to go back into slavery rather than complete their journey to the Promised Land.
Lent is a time of self-appraisal; so how do we scrutinize ourselves? The Church provides us with a perfect way: the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The word “reconciliation” translated loosely means “eyelash-to-eyelash.” In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we sit at the well with Jesus and look Him directly in the eye, “eyelash-to-eyelash.” We cannot fully see ourselves as we really are until we see God. So what do we see when we look into the mirror of Jesus’ eyes?
Jesus helped people see themselves. He spoke of the need to care for widows and orphans. He reached out to social outcasts. He touched lepers and ate with sinful tax collectors and members of the smug religious elite. How do we compare? Pope Francis never called for a redistribution of wealth or for the establishment of a particular economic structure. Pope Francis has called us to do what Jesus did: scrutinize ourselves by comparing ourselves to the mission Christ gave us.
Can I ask myself, “Are the poor any better off because I have lived?” Can I honestly tell myself that I have used my time wisely? Can I honestly say that I have been a good steward of the gifts God has given me? Can I honestly say that I am completely selfless in how I relate to others?
Paul tells us that “Christ died for us godless men.” Of course he means the whole community, but what kind of gratitude have we shown, or are we still “godless”? Have we trusted God any more than the Hebrews who accompanied Moses? Paul promised that faith brings hope. How many times have we given up on God or our Church?
Many people are sincerely afraid to look into a mirror if that mirror is the eyes of God. This fear can keep them away from confession, but happily the Pope reminded us that “the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.” He tells us, “A small step can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.”
Fortunately Lent is not about discovering how sinful we are. It is about discovering how good we can be. Perhaps we can strive to be called “Christian.”
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.