I am sitting at my desk on a late-summer Saturday morning in Belfast, north of the Irish border. Perhaps, as I type, the Papal entourage will have already rolled in for its weekend visit to the Republic. Given the highly charged atmosphere, left as residue from the troubles, it is hard to speak on such matters without sounding biased or bigoted. Be that as it may, when I ponder the Irish state being visited by the Pope, my head and heart can think of at least four very proper reasons to weep.
Victims of Abuse
On both sides of the Atlantic in the last fortnight there has been quite a media feeding-frenzy over abuse by roman clerics. If it is right to think meekly of ourselves as a grace-saved 'chief-of-sinners', humility should not gag us from lamenting public crimes. It was heartbreaking to see one old Irish man on the news, who looked about eighty or more, with no obvious ecclesial axe to grind: his lined, pained, expression, betrayed a mind clearly shattered by his experience - in mournful disbelief he simply issued a plea for decent proper redress from his church in which he put his trust. If these stories could be multiplied by the dozens, or thousands, that is surely one 'not-to-be-mentioned' reason to shed sad tears for Ireland.
Politicization of Faith
On another journalistic outlet I caught an interview with a leading English Roman Catholic. He was pressed by the interviewer for a response to the view that the influence of the Catholic Church had been damaged by the scandal and was globally waning. He acknowledged certain difficulties, of course, but beyond that conceded little ground. He likened this popular Pope Francis to the rockstar Elvis Presley to whom the crowds should flock to cheer. What was more interesting was his description of the Pope as a significant world political and religious leader. No doubt it can be difficult, even with separation of church and state, to keep politics out of religion, particularly when we know Christ's mediatorial reign extends over every inch of earth. In Ulster there are many tragic examples of wrong-heading confusion of religion with politics among our own Protestant constituency. Yet when political propaganda and civil unrest is used to advance a religious cause confusion, discrimination and persecution have been the inevitable result - Rome has not been innocent in all this. Even at this time those who speak against catholic doctrine are accused of stirring up political strife, because of this potent-cocktail of the Pontiff's political goals. Whether or not we have contributed to politicized mix-messages, and increased confusion as to what Christ's claims really are, these territorial aims are a reason to shed tears.
Misrepresentation of Christ
'God's representative on earth' is how another person interviewed described the bishop of Rome who sits in Peter's chair. I'm not an expert on the ins and outs of the Catholic magisterium, but the supreme roman pontiff seems to be claiming to act in the place of Christ as His vicar on earth. He is able to hear confession. He has power to grant absolution. He can issue a purchased indulgence. At least, in popular minds, roman priests are the romanist's path to God. The mass he will celebrate claims, contrary to appearance, to be a mysterious, representation of the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ. The seven sacraments of Rome, dispensed by parish priests, become the on-going means of grace to give their flock a share in Christ and a unassured hope of the final Beatific Vision. The Gospel of Francis goes by the name of faith, it uses the language of grace, but errs in supplementing the Apostle's Gospel with teaching that falls under the umbrella of 'anathema'. Notwithstanding the tons of theological fudge baked by well-intended folks or distributed by joint-statements on justification by Evangelicals and Catholics together - such external rites, when mis-labeled as justifying acts, or as meritorious works, or as ritual appendages to faith-union with Christ, become soul-damning rather than saving for their most-adoring adherents - this is tear-jerking confusion in the minds of the Irish populace of the anti-gospel of Roman Dogma with the truth in Christ of the Glorious Gospel of God. That surely should make us prayerfully weep until God is pleased to remove such doctrinal Irish confusion.
Perdition of Souls
The true Gospel, the bible teaches, is "the power of God for salvation for all those who believe" whether they start off Jews or Greeks, or are born Protestants or Catholics. The tragic fact is there are many liberal or formal Protestants whose ignorant, creedal, nominalism is outshone by zealous confused Catholics. There are numerous so-called Christians who lay claim to a faith-decision who have never truly repented or experienced saving grace: loud profession and, in their case, genuine legal fiction, no doubt gives many catholics an excuse to doubt the popular evangelical creed. Perhaps there are hundreds of thousands of romanists who have some knowledge of scripture: they are gifted, talented, in many ways, generally-speaking, more naturally gracious than the dour, rugged, northern protestant caricature - at least they still retain a reverence for the church, and treat with earnest seriousness discussions on religion; others are friendly, warm, and welcoming, in many ways good mothers, fathers and children; they love a sense of community, they love to include strangers, there's humor, warmth and learning, but who, if clinging to Rome, are still in a precarious spiritual position. And then there are Roman clerics, perhaps in a position like Luther, who are probing for truth in the Scripture and sense that Roman doctrine is misleading - they love their Church, they love their flock, they want to serve and yet, in the hearts, they know, as yet, they have still to taste the full sweetness of the Good Shepherd's redeeming grace for themselves. Do we not need open arms and above all moist eyes to make room in our hearts for those who search for truth?
I have no desire or heart to point a stern Ulster-Scots finger at the precious souls of lovely, kind, countrymen and neighbors: as a genetic hybrid, myself, of plantation stock from County Down and Anglican Irish from the far West in Belmullet, Connaught, I've always loved 'Irish eyes smiling' and considered myself Green - that makes my DNA about 25% a geographical southerner. Yet it does fill me with sadness at present Irish spiritual lostness to which, if Scripture means anything, the Pontiff very significantly contributes. I pray that this piece will cause us once again to search our own souls to see if we truly be found within God's fold - beyond that I trust it may move my concerned brethren to pray for the salvation of countrymen, of whatever flag or creed, from the abuse, politicization, misrepresentation and perdition that the Papacy represents. May God be pleased to grant us unworthy, hell-deserving, saved-by-grace-through faith-in-Christ-alone believers a true, deepening, experience of union with Christ that weeps for the lost that, as we once did, they may be granted true repentance unto life and saving faith which unites them forever to Christ. Let us weep and pray for a day when Ireland, north and south, will again be known as a land of godly, loving, authentic, saints and scholars - not because of superficial, sanctimonious, cover-up but on account of a free and full experience of the true life-changing Gospel.