Do Not Transform Religion into Ideology

Author: Pope Francis

The Pope invites Christians to "encounter" others rather than "counter" them

At the General Audience in Saint Peter's Square on Wednesday, 9 October [2019], Pope Francis drew a lesson from the narrative of the conversion of Saul which, the Pontiff said, should inspire Christians to reflect on the questions: "How do I live my life of faith? Do I seek to 'encounter' others or am I 'counter to' others?". The following is a translation of the Holy Father's catechesis, which he delivered in Italian.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Good morning!

Beginning with the narrative of the stoning of Stephen, a figure emerges which, along with that of Peter, is the most present and significant in the Acts of the Apostles: that of “a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). At first, he is described as one who approves of Stephen’s death and wants to “lay waste the Church” (cf. Acts 8:3); but he will later become God’s chosen instrument to proclaim the Gospel to the peoples (cf. Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17).

With the high priest’s endorsement, Saul hunts down Christians and captures them. Those of you who come from populations who arc persecuted by dictatorships, you well understand what it means to hunt people down and capture them. That is what Saul did. And he does this believing he is serving the Law of the Lord. Luke says that Saul ‘was breathing’ “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1): there is a breath in him which reeks of death, not life.

The young Saul is portrayed as uncompromising; that is, one who manifests intolerance towards those who think differently from himself. He makes his own political and religious identity absolute and he reduces the other to a potential enemy to be fought. An ideologue. In Saul, religion had been transformed into ideology: religious ideology, social ideology, political ideology. Only after being transformed by Christ will he teach that the true battle is not “against flesh and blood, but against ... the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Eph 6:12). He will teach that one must not fight against people but rather the evil that inspires their actions.

Saul’s state of anger — because Saul is angry — and hostility invites each of us to question ourselves: How do I live my life of faith? Do I seek to encounter others or am 1 counter to others? Do I belong to the universal Church (the good, the bad, everyone) or do I have a selective ideology? Do I adore God or do I adore dogmatic formulations? How is my religious life? Does the faith in God that I profess make me friendly or hostile towards those who are different from me?

Luke recounts that, while Saul is wholly intent on eradicating the Christian community, the Lord is on his trail in order to touch his heart and convert him to Himself. It is the Lord’s way: he touches hearts. The Risen One takes the initiative and manifests himself to Saul on the way to Damascus, an event that is narrated three times in the Book of Acts (cf. Acts 9:3-19; 22:3-21; 26:4-23). Through the pairing of “light” and “voice”, typical of theophanies, the Risen One appears to Saul and asks him to account for his fratricidal wrath: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (cf. Acts 9:4). Here the Risen One manifests that he is one with those who believe in him: To strike a member of the Church is to strike Christ himself! Even those who are ideologues because they want the “purity” — in quotation marks — of the Church, strike Christ.

Jesus’ voice says to Saul: “rise and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6). Once on his feet, however, Saul can no longer see anything. He has become blind, and from a strong, authoritative and independent man, he becomes weak, needy and dependent upon others because he cannot see. Christ’s light has dazzled him and rendered him blind: “thus what was his inner reality is also outwardly apparent, his blindness to the truth, to the light that is Christ” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, 3 September 2008).

L'Osservatore Romano
11 October 2019
Page 16