Catholic writer George Weigel sets out a Gospel-inspired guide for the next pontiff in his new book The Next Pope.

Charles Lewis: Some sound advice for our next pope

  • August 12, 2020

We need to stop from time to time to contemplate what it means to be Catholic in this aggressively secular society of ours. It is easy for our beliefs to be swamped by the detritus of a powerful popular culture that looks upon us with bare tolerance at best and derision at worst.

That judgment puts us in danger of adjusting our beliefs to placate our friends, family and colleagues who find Catholicism off-putting. It is easier to get along than be at odds but it can also be soul destroying.

That kind of compromise with the culture has pushed some Protestant denominations to the brink of irrelevance by vying for cheap acceptance rather than preach the undiluted truth of Jesus Christ.

And we Catholics should not be smug. Many Catholics support evils that go against the Church teachings — abortion and euthanasia just to name two — in making our peace with secularism.

Our beliefs, our sacraments, should stand as giants in a world of waffling trends and fads. That takes work and courage, whether we are a lowly man or woman in the pews or a bishop … or even a pope. To do this we need clarity and a map to plot our future.

George Weigel, the esteemed Catholic writer, offers such a guide.

His new book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, is meant as a guide to what the next Vicars of Christ will have to bear in mind to keep the faith vital and whole. And though it is aimed at future popes, it also has lessons for the rest of us.

Weigel offers a thoughtful analysis of where the faith is in the 21st century and what the next pope will need to be aware of to make sure the Church does not stray from the truth.

First, he places us in history. Weigel rightly understands there is no way to move forward until we understand where we are now.

He explains that when the Church was young it was apostolic — spreading the Gospel far and wide — through a hostile world. Eventually it morphed into Christendom, in which there was no division between faith and society; that “ambient public culture helped transmit the faith” with relative ease. We were the culture.

Now we are again in apostolic times. The ambient Christian culture, especially in the West, and especially in Canada, is gone. We are no longer in friendly territory.

Weigel sets out what the next pope, and those thereafter, must keep in to keep the Church vital. For example:

• The next pope must be fully committed to the New Evangelization as the Church’s grand strategy in the 21st century.

• The next pope must understand that doctrine is liberating and that Catholicism can and must be both a Church of doctrinal clarity and a Church manifesting divine mercy.

This last point is especially important. Too many outside and inside the Church seem to think that doctrine is a hindrance to belief, that somehow it is the opposite of mercy as opposed to its conveyor.

But his counsel to the next Vicar of Christ is also aimed at us. The pope, of course, projects the faith to the world, but we project the faith to those around us. So we should heed what Weigel says.

“The Church that has lost confidence in the Gospel, the Church that no longer proclaims the Gospel as saving truth and divine mercy for everyone, the Church that seems to think of itself as a non-governmental organization doing socially-approved good works — that Catholicism is dying and even where it is financially strong and appears institutionally robust. And that Catholicism is quite marginal to society, culture and public life.”

Good works, he writes, need to be Gospel-based. They should never be an exercise in public relations. It should flow from Christ’s offer of redemption on the cross. And that the Church’s goal is not to build an earthly utopia but to save souls.

“The Church does good works, not because this wins the Church the world’s approval, but because Christ the Lord commanded His friends to do these things — and because doing them often helps unbelievers feel the warming flame of divine love for the first time.”

Weigel is greatly concerned with the Church’s transmission of the faith. He notes several times that the Church is not on a mission but is mission by its very nature.

This outlook, Weigel said, was what inspired St. Pope John XXIII to call the great Church council we know as Vatican II. Despite how it might have been misinterpreted or skewed, the intent was to announce a “new era of Christocentricity — a Church refocused on the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life….”

The Next Pope is essentially reading for those who care about what it means to be Catholic. Read it and share with others. Read as if the life of our Church depends on it.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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