When openly gay tv-newsman Mo Rocca appeared at the ambo to proclaim the first reading of Pope Francis’ Mass at Madison Square Garden, there commenced an explosion on Catholic social media that is still reverberating. “Who was responsible?” asked the outraged. Who had invited “an unrepentant sodomite” who “supports same sex marriage” (and is therefore in public dissent from church teachings) to be part of any sort of papal event, much less a Mass?”
Well, the answer might be, “whoever was still holding the rolodex from when Pope Benedict XVI came to New York in 2008,” because Rocca, like crooner Harry Connick, Jr., was a repeat-participant. He had emcee’d Benedict’s youth rally at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, while Connick sang at Yankee Stadium.
Of course, in 2008, Rocca had not yet “come out” as gay. Still, a real possibility exists that his invitation to lector at Mass had nothing at all to do with his orientation. Catholics have a habit of leaning on the same people for every event, so “Who is available from last time?” is likely a question that was raised when the planning began.
Pope Francis has spent a great part of his pontificate urging us to create a “culture of encounter” and Rocca’s appearance at the ambo – whether by design or happenstance or the arcane workings of the Holy Spirit – gives us an opportunity to discuss what that means, exactly, for the church, and for a Catholic laity being being asked to do what the apostles did – to go out and spread the Good News, so that souls may be saved, and people made holy.
A “culture of encounter” demands that we see the whole person before us, not simply an ideology, or a category of social standing, or even as a unit of sin, but as a whole person, beloved of God, and in need of mercy and redemption, just like everyone else. To encounter the person, and come to know the person, is to grasp the mission, which is to — in God’s time, not ours — bring that person into an encounter with Christ Jesus, who may be trusted to take it from there.
The encounter must come first and it must begin, as Pope Francis said in Madison Square Garden, by going out and meeting others “where they really are, and not where we think they should be!”
This echoes the sentiments of Pope John Paul II, who told his priest to “deal with the world as it is.”
Scripture bears this out. In the Gospels, we see the sick being healed and sinners brought to repentance, but not before they have had an encounter – or sometimes a near encounter — with Jesus, himself. Nowhere do we read that the apostles ordered people to stay away from the Lord until their leprous scabs were healed; the healing came from the encounter. At no point did the apostles say, “when you stop sinning, that’s when you can draw near the Master.” The conversion, the turning of heart and soul, came from meeting Christ.
And that’s the interesting and true thing: without an authentic encounter with the Christ, nothing happens. That’s why effective missionaries go among the people they wish to convert, as the Incarnate World came among us: because nothing less than a real encounter with others can bring them, finally, to the Redeemer. Not pronouncing the name of Jesus enough time to satisfy the beancounters among us; not bellowing at the bishops that they’re letting the wrong people read at Mass; not rhetoric packed with key words and phrases that have been so overused, for so long, that people have stopped hearing them, altogether. None of that is effective evangelization; none of it begets the encounter.
Here is another true thing: all really are welcome to participate in Catholic worship; even those who are in dissent are welcome to come to Mass, and they’re able to serve the church, as well. I knew a man who dissented from a significant church teaching for over 30 years; he never missed a Mass; he worked at every festival and fair, and when the sanctuary furnishings needed repair, he was the first to show up with his tools. Because he was in dissent, he refrained from receiving Holy Communion, but in every other way he was a full-participant in the life of the parish, respected, and valued, and – as anyone in the parish would tell you — quite necessary.
On social media, I have read – but have not yet been able to confirm — that Rocca refrained from receiving Communion during the Mass. If that is true — and since no one ever knows the state of another’s soul — then there really isn’t much to say, except that one day last week a brother on a journey knew he was not fit to receive Communion. That’s more than many of us ever know.
Here is the last true thing: Nothing prevents a Catholic – any Catholic – from engaging in daily parish life, or from licitly participating in worship at Mass; we are bound only by the obligation to abstain from receiving Holy Communion, unless we are in a state of grace.
Obedience to that obligation is a kind of witness in and of itself: it proclaims that while one might currently be holding to one’s own conscience, one recognizes something greater than even that — the reverenced respect due to the Real Presence of Christ Jesus.
Such obedience is, in fact, a worthy and admirable demonstration of humility; one to shame any Pharisee.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia