S*#T Under the Fingernails

An old Irish woman once quipped to me, "I don't trust clergy who have never had s*#t under their fingernails." Her point: religious credibility doesn't come from beautiful words but from enacting the love one preaches.

Hardly a day goes by of late without some new story about Pope Francis. This weekend, Chris Lowney wrote a piece for CNN's Belief Blog about how then-Jorge Bergoglio used to take a turn at laundry duty. Depending on the type of community, I reckon, he might have had far more than lint under his nails when his task was completed!

Now, it comes as no surprise to anyone to hear of moms or dads doing laundry, or preparing the daily meals, or changing diapers. It's part of the day-to-day duties of being a family. So, too, within Jesuit communities, the benchmark of a good community member can be measured by whether he'll take the time to unload the dishwasher, do his house job, prepare a thoughtful dinner, or lend a hand bringing in groceries. Fortunately, I don't change diapers any more: first, because none of the guys I live with wear them (yet) and, second, whenever my brother asked me to change my niece or nephew, I'd remind him of the clergy sex abuse scandal and told him that, in good conscience, I had to refuse.

Karl Rahner, discussing the meaning the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, saw their meaning as confessing "that the Church is not of this world and leads a life which, measured by all the perspectives of this world, is scandal and folly." Indeed, in the years following Vatican II, he feared the Religious Orders had adopted a bourgeois 'cotton-wool' [comfortable] lifestyle, one that downplayed rather than witnessed to the Church's identity.

If the Pope occupies now a fascinating spot on the world's stage, I think it's precisely because he's got s*#t under his fingernails. Both through personal interactions and from reading, it seems average Catholics and Christians resonate well with the Pope's "style" and "substance." They like that this is a guy who has gotten his hands dirty and, because of the state of his fingernails, they at least give him a hearing.

The same cannot be said, however, for the polar ends of the Catholic Church. If the middle tends to be fascinated by the Holy Father, they find him to be something of a scandal, a stumbling block. More conservative Catholics rush to emphasize the "substance" of Francis, emphasize his continuity with his predecessors and their teaching. This wing of the Church prefers to put gloves over the Pope's hands and listen, selectively, to find themes they are comfortable with.

Liberal commentators merely ape the actions of conservatives. They tend to stress the Pope's "style" and relish the chance to critique the local church or bishop over any whiff of ostentation. It is easy for them to gloss over those areas of continuity with Church tradition. They prefer to hold up the hands of the Holy Father for inspection but muffle his mouth whenever it does not fit in with their vision of the Church.

If the Gospel burns within the human heart, it will act as the engine driving us out into the world to spread the Good News. The Pope's vision for Catholicism is all-contact, full-body engagement. Just as I wouldn't trust a football player who emerges from practice, or the game, without any sweat, I simply cannot trust the authority of a leader who hasn't gotten some dirt under the fingernails.

To the wings of the Church, I'd say simply: roll up the French cuffs and get off your soapboxes. We don't change diapers, or prepare meals, or do laundry because (1) it's part of the Tradition or (2) because it advances a social agenda. We do it because we are in love with the Gospel and this love drives us out into the world, inspires us to give and not to count the cost, to risk s*#t under the nails as we offer our whole selves to the upbuilding of God's Kingdom.  
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