That some will find this image to be offensive is a given. A cartoon of the pope stuck to the tighty-not-whitey of a self-promoting New York City tourist attraction will draw laughs from some, shrugs from others, and will mildly elevate the blood pressure of those who will call it gratuitously irreverent and useful only as click bait.
Some, for whom offense-taking has become an addiction requiring daily hits of the opium of outrage (imbibed among the like-minded in internet ghettos and echo-chambers) will feel provoked by the image. They will first pronounce themselves offended and then denounce Aleteia (or at least this editor) for giving scandal to the church, insult to Peter, fodder to , modern-day know-nothings, and insult to Christ Jesus.
They will be wrong to take offense, mostly because the things we take offense at are usually all about serving ourselves and our comfort zones.
This image is not about giving scandal. It is about embracing a mindset of mission, and as we prepare to watch His Holiness, Pope Francis arrive in Cuba, thence to the United States, no image can better help explain the new editorial direction being undertaken by Aleteia in America, at precisely this time.
Having earlier this month successfully launched our new design, we are about to become missionaries.
Taking our cue from the Incarnate Word — who chose not simply to preach to us about right and wrong, but to live among us, and know us in the fullness of our humanity before he saved us — ours will be a mission of incarnation, too, and but it will be lived here — in the vast, untamed and often faithless jungle where “live streams” leave no room for casting out into the deep, and bear no relation to living waters.
For too many, the web and social media, and their delivery systems, have become where we truly “live and move and have our being,” to the detriment of how we understand the world, each other, or the constant Reality of Christ. A life in Christ, after all, cannot live, or move, or have “being” while ensconced within polarized dens of fast validation, among agreeable, unmet “friends” whose reliable society prevents us from ever having to encounter an inconvenient “other” — in person or perspective — and see them not as a unit of sin, not as a model of oddity, but as a simple/complex human being, beloved of God.
And so, Aleteia is going to eschew what polarizes; we are going to spend less time arguing about what constitutes perfection, in order to celebrate the good, even as we seek the ideals. We are going to tell human stories about human people who are at varying stages of a journey; who are discovering the depth of joy, and the breadth of authentic freedom, that comes when faith is invited into and fully integrated with our lives: in how we receive good or bad news; in how we deal with our families, friends and strangers; in how we continue to grow as we enter, every day, into the great mystery of our own redemption.
How does publishing a pope-emoji on a butt of a “Naked Cowboy” help us toward that end, and where does it engage the mind of mission?
Well, the world has divided into tribes — the internet has become primarily tribal. Early missionaries approached tribes in the same way that Jesus encountered humanity, not living “near,” but “with” — teaching, laughing, eating, mourning, sharing stories with the people they served for Christ’s sake. Among people who had no real acquaintance with Christ or his Church, the first faith-engagements must have presented such missionaries with odd, bizarre, even unsettling moments of seeming irreverence. But amid people without understanding, there is no irreverence, only the action of a moment, born of taking notice of something, in wonder.
“Wonder,” wrote Saint Gregory of Nyssa, “leads to knowing.”
Such action, such small wonder, is the first step in missional engagement. It demonstrates that attention has been paid, and that is a good thing, because — as our dear Pope Benedict XVI seemed to understand — you cannot bring Christ to people who are not even paying attention.
They’re certainly paying attention, now. Hence the moment is ripe for evangelization, and mission.
The Naked Cowboy is a strange, crowd-savvy guy; he may have been promoting himself with a cartoon sticker, but he did so because the emoji effort caught his attention, and he knew it would catch the attention of others. His small action of a moment perfectly encapsulates the notion of unthinking first-engagement, and it reminds us of Pope Francis’ call for the church to come outside of itself and encounter those wounded who need the medicine of Jesus Christ but are so sickly frail that they can accept only the small dose, until they get stronger; to mission to the tribes who are bitter and scarred from decades of paying obeisance to idols of intellect or ego, or ideology, and may be ready, finally, to “fall into the hands of a living god”.
Aleteia means “truth,” and the truth of the life in Christ is that incarnation is a process, and too often offense-taking is a self-indulgent luxury that gets in the way of it.
After all, good missionaries do not demand holiness of people before they are allowed to meet Jesus; rather, they allow people to meet Christ Jesus, and he fosters within them a desire to become holy.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia