Recently, a Gallup Poll stated that a quarter of the world’s population suffers from loneliness. The survey was done in 142 countries, and what is rather startling is that the highest rates of loneliness are found among those between the ages of 19-29, while older people suffer less from loneliness, with the majority of those 65 and older saying that they don’t feel at all lonely. With the many means of communication available to and in use among the young, we might be surprised to learn of this apparently widespread feeling of loneliness.
In our western culture, there have been warnings about the rising tide of loneliness. In 2004, St. Teresa of Kolkata said, “In the West there is a loneliness, which I call the leprosy of the West. In many ways, it is worse than our poor in Calcutta.” The Gallup Poll was published last month, but earlier this year, I published an article, One Hand Clapping, on the isolation in our culture. Isolation is a form of unphysical solitary confinement, and solitary confinement that lasts more than 14 days is listed as a form of torture.
Pope Francis has repeated the assurance that the Church is a family where all are welcome. The Church, the ekklesia, is the community of those who have been called, and Pope Francis repeats tirelessly that “Each of us is called by name. You, you and you, all of us here, myself included: all of us have been called by name.” We have each been called and we are all welcomed: “Jesus never closes the door, never, but invites you to enter: come and see. Jesus receives, Jesus welcomes.”
This assurance that all are welcome was a cause for special rejoicing for one participant at World You Day. Pia Held from Germany brought a rainbow flag with her to World Youth Day and said that “the Pope's ‘todos’ message really resonated with her. She ‘felt like that spoke directly to me. I felt so alone, and then when he said the church is for everyone, I felt like yes, I was right. What I did, and what I keep doing is exactly what we are supposed to do as Christians,’ she said”. Yet, while insisting that all are welcome and all are to be welcomed, in the interview during his return to Rome, Francis made it clear that being welcomed in the Church does not contradict the reality that each one is guided along their own path to God. “Everyone meets God on their own way inside the Church, and the Church is mother and guides everyone on their own path.” For Francis, a welcome is never collective; it is always personal and unique.
This seems to say that the Church’s welcome is not an unquestioning embrace of everyone and everything. This interpretation was confirmed by the President of the USCCB, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who, in discussing the idea of the Church’s way of welcome, said that, “welcoming people into the church and helping them enter a relationship with Jesus always involves a call to conversion.” The Archbishop said that the invitation is important, but that “’in almost every circumstance in the sacred Scriptures, when Christ meets someone, in whatever situation he or she finds himself, the invitation is always to conversion, it's always to change.’"
How should we understand all this? That Jesus and his Church welcomes “all” and yet that one has “to change” in order to accept the invitation?
The key to the riddle is found in Francis’s episcopal and papal motto: Miserando atque eligendo,”which means: “because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him.” This passage from Homily 21 on the call of Matthew by Bede the Venerable expresses what Francis understands as “welcome” in the Church. For us, a welcome is a response to the arrival of someone. I meet up with somebody, and they either welcome me or they don’t. In our understanding, welcoming is not the first step. It is not the one who welcomes who takes the initiative. The initiative is taken with the arrival of someone.
Bede shows that, with Jesus, it works the other way around. In his homily, Bede reminds us that it is always Jesus who takes the initiative in welcoming, and the welcome is preceded by two other actions: Jesus sees, He shows mercy, and He calls. So, with Jesus, an encounter is always welcoming but it is always more than a welcome.
First, it is a vision. As Bede writes, “Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men.” Jesus sees each of us as we are. I don’t need to wear a mask or put on a front. I don’t need to hide or pretend. I can be real, and I can really be myself, because I am seen with mercy.
“Mercy”, like “pity” and “charity,” has unfortunately acquired a condescending overtone. Too often the mercy shown is demeaning. What does it mean to be seen with the mercy with which Jesus sees us?
There is a beautiful illustration of seeing with mercy in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In chapter 7 of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, we read of the Fellowship’s welcome in Lothlorien. When Aragorn describes their trip through the Mines of Moria and the horror that dwells there, the age-old suspicion of the Elves for the Dwarves is stirred up, and their distrust of Gimli the Dwarf is aroused. Then Galadriel speaks up: “’Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dum in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.’ She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.”
“He looked into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and compassion.”
That is the essence of our encounter with Jesus. That is what it means to experience mercy. Bede’s use of the Latin verb, miserando, is very awkward to translate into English, for unlike our English phrases, it is a very active verb. As an active verb, it has an effect on its object. I am not just seen with compassion, I am “miseried”. I experience the power of “misericordia”, the love of a merciful heart.
This is where “conversion” takes place. To be seen in mercy changes me. I cannot be seen in truth and love without being changed. I can turn away from the glance, like the rich young man. For “Jesus, looking at him, loved him”, yet the young man “turned and went away grieving”. Yet if I accept to be seen in mercy, I am chosen, and that will change me, for to those whom Jesus choses He says, “Follow me”, and, as Bede explains, “This following meant imitating the pattern of his life – not just walking after him. St. John tells us: ‘Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.’” And as Archbishop Broglio reminds us, this walking in Jesus’s way, this conversion “is a lifelong process", for John also says, “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Only those who have received mercy can give mercy. Only those who have been converted can effectively call to conversion, for their voice carries the reassurance of peace. Their call resonates with the joy of being known and loved, of being mercied.
Romans 15, 5-7: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Proslambanomai.
Sr Gabriela of the Incarnation OCD is a Discalced Carmelite of the Carmel of Mary Immaculate and St. Mary Magdalen in Flemington, New Jersey, USA. She is a regular contributor to Where Peter Is and has a regular column, A Place of Springs, on the local diocesan paper, The Spirit.