It is more than something reassuring for Catholics to say that God takes care of the Church. It is true. If the present adult generation of Catholics has lived to see a miracle occur, it has been in the growth of Catholicism in Africa and in some parts of Asia.
For the most part, catholicity came to the lands of Africa south of the Sahara and to Asia when brought by French, Portuguese and Spanish missionaries. Even, inadvertently, the Protestant British and Dutch helped Catholic evangelization.
The Church was part of the vast European colonial system, for motives better than those which drove other interests. Certainly, the coming of the Church also meant the arrival of organized education and more effective health care.
Some of the missionaries, such as Spaniards St. Pedro Claver and Bishop Bartolomeo de las Casas won places in the history books because of their defense of the human dignity of the indigenous people.
A hearty, fervent breed, missionaries gave themselves totally — St. Isaac Jogues and San Junipero Serra, to mention two of them — to bring to peoples the sweetness of life in the Lord, Isaac Jocques dying an especially fearsome martyr’s death.
Yet, after all is said, and all the tributes have been sung, the missionaries were foreigners. They were part and parcel of an organized policy that had its flaws, and in time the colonized people repudiated the system in general.
Movements for independence came to Africa and Asia in earnest after World War II, just about the time Giovanni Batista Montini assumed the papacy as Pope Paul VI. One new independent nation after another was arising, as Belgians left the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, the British and French left a score of former colonies, and the Portuguese left — but not without a struggle — Angola and Mozambique.
This radical shift was not all glorious. Economies stumbled along and many faltered. Oppression reared its ugly head, at times humbling the worst of the days governed by Brussels, London, Paris, Lisbon or Madrid.
The miracle, in my mind, is that while so many aspects of the old, especially if inherited from the colonizing cultures, were discarded, and often discarded with an oath, the Church survived. And, in so many places, it not only survived, but it survived magnificently.
Almost everywhere, the Church endured and held the hearts of the people, but that was not necessarily automatic.
Former colonial subjects were seated in the Church’s highest governing circles. In his 19 years of papal ministry, Pope Paul VI appointed cardinals in the one-time Belgian Congo, in the former French Congo, in Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, Vietnam, Madagascar and Benin.
He appointed as bishops priests who were born and bred in the former colonies. He visited Africa, and on the very soil of Uganda he canonized native Ugandans who had died for the faith.
He summoned a synod of bishops to assess the role of Catholic evangelization in the world precisely as everything radically was changing, and in response to that synod, he issued Evangelii Nuntiandi, which remains a classic in Catholic missionizing and in Catholic theology itself.
In other words, significantly guided by Blessed Paul VI, the Church those several generations ago convinced so many people in the former European colonies that the Church was of them and with them, and that they were the Church, the People of God, Mystici Corporis.
Midway in April 2016, Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia, his response to the synods of bishops of last year and the year earlier. The document received extraordinary publicity, and it was widely discussed, certainly among priests.
Pope Paul VI dealt with estrangement from the Church occasioned by economic policy, politics, ethnicity, history and so on. Pope Francis deals with estrangement from the Church because of other circumstances, but estrangement is estrangement. The Church’s call to bring all into unity in Christ remains, regardless.
Even so, Amoris Laetitia raises real pastoral questions. Priests throughout this country, and in many other places as well, are contending with a variety of thorny issues. Divorce is rampant. Moreover, it may be argued, fewer and fewer couples, even Catholic couples with serious prenuptial instruction and counseling, and with staunch Catholic backgrounds, cannot miss altogether the prevailing notion in our society that divorce not only is an option but, if circumstances occur, it may be preferred.
Cohabitation, in which couples live together in intimacy outside marriage, is no longer the exception, but the norm.
Polls suggest, and every confessor knows that truth is in them, that Catholics readily accept contraception.
Same-gender unions, and now same-sex marriages, present Catholics and priests of this age with realities unimagined only a generation ago.
These are interesting social phenomena, but within and beneath the numbers are people, souls to be guided, souls to be saved.
This is my point: I hope that the current Holy Father’s obvious approach to the margins and the fringes will convince people whose thinking, or whose lifestyles, seemingly estranges them from the Church, that they are of and in the Church, and that the Church offers to them the same freshness of life in Christ that long ago Paul offered the Corinthians and the Ephesians.
Mountains will have to be climbed, it is true. The Church is both consistent and correct in proclaiming, with the Lord, that marriage is permanent, ending only with the death of a spouse, that it must involve one man and one woman, and that essential to it is openness to new life.
Still, mountains are climbed one step at a time.
Pope Francis is pointing us toward a modern ministry of pre-evangelization, of winning the trust of people as a first step in bringing them to the fullness of Christian life.
An apostolic exhortation is not the only way that the Pope is teaching, and lover of Church history that I am, I see nothing in him or in his public testimonies that do anything other than stand in the greatest moments of Catholic witness over the years.
Not long ago, to observe the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asked Catholics and Catholic organizations to create new facilities to assist the troubled and the downcast.
So, what is new? Look at the map of the United States. From Anchorage to Miami, from Honolulu to Boston, Catholic services, some long-standing, some quite old, reach with love and attention to those in need. It is our heritage.
In mid-April, the Pope made news by flying to the Greek island of Lesbos precisely to meet with refugees impounded there after their flights from the turbulent Middle East. Characteristically, he did much more than say nice things. He took three families, none of them Christian, back to Italy with him. Under his protection they entered Europe.
In Rome, he committed them to the care of a Catholic group that has given itself to helping immigrants, to get back to our heritage.
Maybe we Americans and Western Europeans have become too comfortable. We forget that very many do not have enough, that they lack even self-esteem, and we forget that behind much deprivation is not coincidence but systematic structures that exclude and hamper.
Pope Francis, again to mention our heritage, thanks be to God, is not the first modern pope to call us to look to others with eyes moist with compassion and darting with indignation.
If I may place both feet on the floor of the bully pulpit that this column gives me, I would urge my brother priests to find a copy of Evangelii Nuntiandi by Blessed Paul VI and, for good measure, a copy of his landmark encyclical Populorum Progressio. They are online.
Then, read Amoris Laetitia again.
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.