I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
If a man owns 100 sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the 90 and nine on the desert and go to look for the one that has wandered off and if he finds it I tell you the truth he is happier about the one sheep than about the 99 which did not wander off. In the same way your father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should be lost.
Pope Francis in an interview published in America said: “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.”
The little sheep who has wandered away may not know that he is lost. He may think that he’s escaped and found freedom. He may be happily seeking out new pastures, free from the shepherd’s staff and the shepherd’s dog. But when night falls and he is alone, when he cannot find fresh water, when he’s tangled in briars or falls into a pit, when he is threatened by predators, then he cries out for help, but even then the wayward sheep may not know that he needs the shepherd. He may look for salvation elsewhere. It is not the sheep that seeks the shepherd, but the shepherd that must seek out the lost sheep and to do so he must leave the 90 and 9 in the wilderness.
It is not surprising that, when the sheep who did not wander see the shepherd leaving them to seek out the lost sheep, they may be frightened and feel deserted and abandoned. They may not trust the shepherd to return. They may fear that without a shepherd they too will be lost.
When Pope Francis came to Rome, and had the mantle of the shepherd of souls put on his shoulders, he undoubtedly looked at the situation in Europe and saw his task was not to bring back a single lost sheep. He was faced with the reality that a substantial portion of the flock had wandered off. How do you bring back not one but scores, thousands, hundreds of thousands of lost sheep who don’t want to come back, who see the shepherd as their enemy? How do you bring back those who have fallen into sexual sin, women who’ve had abortions, men addicted to pornography, persons involved in same-sex relationships, the secularized, the relativists, the doubters, and those who cannot forget, let alone forgive the sins of the past?
Pope Francis has a plan:
The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. 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.
The Pope knows this is not about compromising the Truth, but proclaiming the Gospel:
The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And 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.
How do we as Church seek and bring back the lost sheep? First, we need to understand how they got lost. When I began to write, I focused on the pro-life issue. I decided to interview women who had had abortions. I discovered that almost everything I had thought about what drives a woman to abortion was wrong. These were wounded women. Yes, wounded by the abortion and the awful realization of what they had done, but long before they ever entered the door of the abortion clinic, many of them were carrying despair, darkness, depression, and in some cases death in their hearts. The wounds they carried were not recent. Often they originated in damaging childhood experiences. They didn’t know their own worth. They did not feel loved for themselves and allowed themselves to be misused by men, letting sex be a substitute for the love they craved. They didn’t know how much God loved them. They didn’t trust him to find a way out of their problems. And after the abortion they didn’t feel they had a right to come to him and receive forgiveness. And so they fell into even more destructive relationships. Many became pregnant again in even more problematic situations. Some used drugs or alcohol to kill the pain.
The way back to the flock does not begin with convincing these women abortion is wrong, but uncovering the early wounds, the ones that occurred long before they became sexually involved, long before they were pregnant. These are the wounds that need to be healed and the best way to address such wounds is by a thick application of the love of Jesus Christ, administered by someone who accepts the wounded woman in all her sinfulness, someone who can listen and, no matter what the woman says, can reply, “I love you, Jesus loves you, the Father loves you and there is nothing absolutely nothing that God cannot forgive, indeed is not waiting to forgive.” Such love must be absolutely sincere. The belief in the power of forgiveness absolutely rock solid. And this is only the first step to freedom. There is rarely a single wound and because each wound is unhealed and painful, the wounded person often adopts what the psychiatrists call defense mechanisms—self-destructive behaviors designed to protect her from future harm, but which instead trap her and prevents healing.
Pope Francis understands the dynamic of healing and conversion:
I see clearly that 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.
The same dynamic can be found in many of those experiencing same-sex attraction. In the course of my work, a woman sought me out and told me her story. For many years, she had been involved in a series of lesbian relationships. Each relationship started with an intense passion and then fell apart. She came to believe that there was something wrong with her. She and her current partner attended a Protestant prayer service at which a woman minister gave an altar call. The woman told the minister that she was lesbian. The minister said Jesus doesn’t mind. However, the moment she gave her life to Jesus she knew that he did mind and she could no longer engage in homosexual intimacy. Her partner left her. Alone she sought refuge in the Catholic church in which she had been raised. She would go each day and sit before the tabernacle and ask Jesus to help her. Gradually, her same-sex attraction diminished. When I first met her she still had a male haircut and was wearing a man’s shirt, pants, and shoes. We prayed together and she revealed how as a child she had been raped by a family member and forced to watch as he raped another girl. She had told no one, and tried to avoid the man, but her parents forced her to attend social gathering where he was present. While she loved her mother, she saw her as weak and unable to protect herself or her children. She felt that her father never affirmed her feminine identity. Given this history, it is not surprising that she fell into same-sex relationships. The love of God, inner healing, and forgiveness of those who had hurt or failed her healed her wounds. When I saw her a year later, I didn’t recognize her. She was a different person. Her hair had grown out. She was wearing a feminine jumper and blouse and her face was radiant.
It is all very good to say we want sinners to repent, but are we as a church ready for them? Are we ready to descend with them into the darkness of their woundedness without getting lost ourselves? Are we ready to listen to them, and, no matter the horrors they reveal, tell them “God loves you and I love you.” Jesus doesn’t ask the sinner to clean up his act first and then when he gets everything in order present himself at the door of the confessional. Rather, the road back begins with knowing one is loved no matter what he has done, no matter how far he has fallen.
While not everyone is called to walk into the darkness and bring the wounded into the light, all Christians are called to withhold judgment and pray. If we see a person acting out obscenely, we can consider the very real possibility that this person was sexually abused as a child. If we see someone seeking love in all the wrong places, we can think perhaps this is because they didn’t receive love from the right sources. This is not to condone sin, but to really love the wounded. This is the challenge Pope Francis puts before us.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Christ the Good Shepherd” was painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (c. 1660).