While it is certainly true that all roads lead to Rome, there is something to be said for all those other roads leading out from Rome. In other words, before we set out on the road to Rome, shouldn’t there be something already in place, in Rome, the gravitational pull of which first radiates out to the world? Only then may it draw the distant and weary traveler back home to Rome. What is the point of a road if it doesn’t go both ways? Cervantes could not have been more mistaken, therefore, when he said: “The road is better than the Inn.” How can that be? Because it is only for the sake of the Inn that you set out upon the road in the first place. Where else does the careworn traveler hope to be if not in the Inn at the end of the journey?
Rome is the Inn at the world’s end. And we do not love her, as Chesterton wisely reminded us, because she is great. It is rather because she is loved that she is great. Ah, but in order to be loved she must first be lovely, and thus in her loveliness she goes out in search of other people to love. This is why her immediate impulse must always be to build bridges, not walls. First she goes out in search of the lost sheep, putting down bridges so as to reach them; only later does she throw up walls to surround and protect them from wolves.
Hasn’t that been the basic marketing strategy from the beginning? What were the essential marching orders issued by the founder of the Christian religion? To answer that one just take a look at the last two verses of the final chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20).
Could Jesus have put it any plainer than that? Why is it, then, that we Catholics seem so strangely, stubbornly resistant to the idea, the injunction actually, to go out and spread the Good News? Almost, it seems, to the point of neurosis. How can something so central to the teaching of the Gospel become an impediment among those who already believe in the Gospel? (“Christians who are afraid to build bridges,” Pope Francis tells us, “and prefer to build walls, are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ.”) Why then this fear? In hanging fire do we not betray a want of belief, of a faith no longer fired by love? A faith grown cold and anemic cannot survive, much less share its marvels with others. Hardly an appealing face, one would think, to present to a world thirsting for the redemption of Jesus Christ.
How very unlike the Apostle Paul, who could not even bring himself to boast about his own preaching since to do so was nothing more than an exigency inscribed in the gospels themselves. “Woe to me if I do not evangelize” (1 Cor 9:16). This, after all, is the job description of anyone who puts on Christ. Indeed, the evangelical imperative was a theme so recurrent at Vatican II that an inventory of its appearance reveals more than 200 showings. And, to be sure, no architect of the Council felt its convicting force more so than the future John Paul II, who returned again and again to the necessity of giving it expression. “No believer in Christ,” he resolutely told us in Redemptoris Missio, his 1990 encyclical announcing a new evangelization, “no institution of the Church, can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.”
Thus to evangelize is not just a task undertaken from time to time; or even most of the time. It is, to put it simply, the Church’s defining identity; it is what she exists for. Faith is only worth having when you give it away. Hasn’t this been the point made again and again by Pope Francis, especially when, as he seems to have done a lot of lately, reflecting on the life and mission of St. Paul? How tireless he has been in sounding this tocsin! For all the hardships and hassles faced by Paul, the Pope tells us, he just kept on going. His courage in addressing the Athenian crowd at the Areopagus, for instance, was that of someone determined to be a “builder of bridges” (a real pontifex). “Paul does not say to the Athenians: ‘This is the encyclopedia of truth. Study this and you have the truth, the truth.’ No! The truth does not enter into an encyclopedia. The truth is an encounter—it is a meeting with Supreme Truth: Jesus, the great truth.” Nobody owns this truth, we are told, but when we find ourselves, like Paul, possessed by it, galvanized by its force (“We receive the truth when we meet it.”), then we are surely obliged to share it with others. In the case of Paul, of course, it was the message he’d been destined from the beginning of time to deliver. However filled with persecution his life became, none of it could dent or diminish that fierce and undaunted spirit.
Yes, the man was a bit of a nuisance. And, yes, he certainly had plenty of attitude. But, Pope Francis adds, he only “irritated others because testifying to Jesus Christ makes everyone uncomfortable, it threatens the comfort zones.” And in order, “to move forward, forward, forward … not to take refuge in a quiet place or in cozy structures,” we need to exhibit “that most Christian of attitudes: Apostolic zeal.” Of this the Apostle Paul had an ample and admirable supply. “He was not a man of compromise. No! The truth: forward! The proclamation of Jesus Christ: forward.”
And even when it made people think the man was mad—dotty as a doyen of Loonyville—it could not have been an unhealthy thing. Call it an insanity altogether sane and salutary. Otherwise he’d have fallen into a kind of bourgeois Christianity, which makes no demands upon the soul, leaving it prey to an ultimate lethargy. Leaving others to the same fate as well, which equals a failure not only of heroism, but of love. “There are backseat Christians,” the Pope reminds us. “Those who are well mannered, who do everything well, but are unable to bring people to the Church through proclamation and Apostolic zeal.” Their fear of soiling the linen prevents them from going out in search of others, especially along the edges where the dust and the dirt, the muck and the mire are likely to accumulate. Among the poor and the needy, that is, for whom Jesus shed his blood. “We cannot become starched Christians,” the Pope warns. Not overly fastidious. Like Pilate, in other words, who repeatedly washes his hands lest the evidence of truth leave some ineffaceable stain. The only gentleman in all of Scripture, Nietzsche tells us.
Do not become, says the Pope, “too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those who are the flesh of Christ.”
Inasmuch as the flesh of Christ includes every human being on the planet, this will require the resources of the Holy Spirit. So let us ask him, the Pope ends by exhorting us, “to give us the grace to be annoying when things are too quiet in the Church, the grace to go out to the outskirts of life. The Church has so much need of this! … And if we annoy people, blessed be the Lord. Onwards, as the Lord says to Paul, ‘take courage.’”
But what if we make mistakes, falling flat on our newly apostolic faces? “Well, what of it,” the Pope snaps. “Get on with you: if you make a mistake, you get up and go forward: that is the way. Those who do not walk in order not to err, make the more serious mistake.”