Pope Francis' Witness at Lesbos should affect us at Mass too

I am sure that we all were edified and grateful, and perhaps a bit awed, by Pope Francis’ visit today to the refugee campus on the island of Lesbos. He went there to be be with people in a desperate plight, to assure them that they are not forgotten.

That he met there the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronymos, makes the day all the more memorable. During the visit with the refugees, the three leaders prayed together with the people—most of them Muslim, one presumes—and for them. Francis puts it this way:

I have wanted to be with you today. I want to tell you that you are not alone. In these weeks and months, you have endured much suffering in your search for a better life. Many of you felt forced to flee situations of conflict and persecution for the sake, above all, of your children, your little ones. You have made great sacrifices for your families. You know the pain of having left behind everything that is dear to you and—what is perhaps most difficult – not knowing what the future will bring. Many others like you are also in camps or towns, waiting, hoping to build a new life on this continent.

And then, as you know, he also brought back with him to Rome some Muslim refugees, several families, to be cared for under Vatican protection. All of this, such a magnificent witness to God’s love, is also an ecumenical and interreligious witness from the ground up: Orthodox and Catholic together, Christian and Muslim together.

Something new (even if not 100 percent unprecedented) is happening. Certainly, I am one of those who was used to the more cerebral approach of Pope Benedict XVI, who tended to the view that the theology and doctrine needed to be worked out before the dialogue could proceed. In the papacy of Francis, it is theology that is having to catch up with the practice on the ground, human need and solidarity and charity taking precedence. While I am suppose that Benedict admires what Francis is doing, his emphasis and tone were always different.

So much is changing—but much more needs to be done. This became clear to me at Mass this Saturday night (for this Fourth Sunday of Easter), where the first reading is from Acts of the Apostles 13. It is basically a story of good news, as Paul and Barnabas come to the realization that the Gospel is for Gentiles too.

But the sub-theme of the truncated reading—just 13.14 and 43-52—is that the Jews missed their chance:

But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (13.45-52)

“The Jews” look very bad here, and it would be a shame is such a reading passed without comment on Sunday morning.

What is missing from this partial reading of Acts 13 are several points: The Jews of Antioch had welcomed Paul and invited him to speak: “After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” (13.15) Then, Paul’s long sermon—his first in Acts—ends with a great harshness of tone aimed at the same people who welcomed him, by a quote from the prophet Habakkuk: “Look, you scoffers! Be amazed and perish, for in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.” Yet even then, the synagogue still invites Paul and Barnabas to return on the next sabbath (13.42). On the return visit, a fierce debate breaks out, which leads to the rupture between the Jewish leaders, who shout at Paul, who in turn charges, “Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (13.46) They then use their influence to have Paul and Barnabas ousted from Antioch.

A messy affair indeed, even if providentially a good result is that the good news will now be preached to all, everywhere. But the cost is high, and unless the homilist on this Sunday looks into the whole of the reading, only the animosity of “the Jews” will be left in the minds of the congregation—with no mention of the welcome to the synagogue, or of the return invitation, and without due admission of the harshness of Paul’s own hot words.

OK, you might say, but what does all this have to do with the uplifting story of the pope’s visit to Lesbos? Two half-blogs stuck together?

My point, that came to me during Saturday evening Mass, is this: If we first engage, as Francis models for us, in acts of solidarity and compassion that open up new vistas ecumenically and interreligiously, we will still need to do the work of purifying and reshaping our theology; and that is a work that appropriately occurs also right there at Sunday Mass, as we look newly and more deeply into the Word of God itself. It is not enough to engage in ecumenical collaboration today with the Orthodox, and in compassionate outreach today to Muslims, if we do not bring a new attentiveness to what we hear in church. We need to be able to problematize this reading’s talk of “the Jews,” who seem entirely unwelcoming, and who are announced “unworthy of eternal life” by Paul, in the heat of the moment.

Theology can follow on another day, as we reflect on what it means to be Catholic, in light of new relations with the Greek Orthodox, the Muslim, and Jew—and all the rest of God’s children. As Francis puts it,

God created mankind to be one family; when any of our brothers and sisters suffer, we are all affected. We all know from experience how easy it is for some to ignore other people’s suffering and even to exploit their vulnerability.

The suffering of the refugee and the suffering and vulnerability of those of whom we speak ill cannot be separated; the Good News is not well preached to one group, if it is at the expense of another.