I recently discovered the writings of the “Forgotten Pope,” Pope John Paul I, who reigned for just over a month in 1978 before dying. While his body of work was very small, I find he had some insightful things to say. For example, in an audience on September 20th, 1978, he told this story of a personal experience:
Some one will say: what if I am a poor sinner? I reply to him as I replied to an unknown lady, who had confessed to me many years ago. She was discouraged because, she said, she had a stormy life morally. “May I ask you”, I said. “how old you are?”
—“Thirty-five! But you can live for another forty or fifty and do a great deal of good. So, repentant as you are, instead of thinking of the past, project yourself into the future and renew your life. with God’s help.”
John Paul I, Audiences of Pope John Paul I (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).
I read this and I think of the rage that is raised among Catholics over his successor, Pope Francis. People are outraged that he does not denounce the sinners from whatever platform he is given. But when I consider the words of John Paul I, I think of what he hopes to accomplish in this year of mercy. I don’t think Pope Francis plans to let anybody go on sinning. I think he is calling people to cease sinning and renew their lives with God’s help.
Then I think about the modern American political climate which Catholics are a part of. How many of us think of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as evil incarnate, laughing at their misfortunes and consigning them to hell, either publicly or mentally. Why don’t we pray about their conversion to what God wants them to be (which may not be what we want them to be) and what they could do for the Kingdom of God?
Some might say this is impossible. We cannot say that it is impossible however. We do not know if our reviled candidates are refusing God’s grace or if God has not yet given them that grace. What might have happened if Christians had written off St. Augustine when he was a Manichee living a life of immorality? What might have happened if Christians had written off Saul of Tarsus when he was persecuting Christians. At those times, people would have thought the salvation of these men was impossible. The point is, we do not know what God wills for any individual and we cannot refuse to be a vessel of grace if God calls us to be one.
This also applies to the supporters of these politicians. 2016 is shaping up to be a very vicious election where even people who profess support of one party are fighting each other in a way that lacks the charity we are called to display. Yes, our choices this year are bleak and yes people feel strongly about who they think is the worse evil. Yes, I am even seeing Catholics who, hitherto, have been staunch supporters of Catholic teaching, say things to justify their political choices which I find morally appalling. But we cannot give up on these people.
That doesn’t mean we be a doormat and go along with their ideas when we think them in opposition to the Church or just accept abusive insults by such people. But it does mean that how we respond must be in keeping with what our Lord commands. Sure, we might even have to go so far as to block a person in order to prevent a torrent of abuse swarming our social media. But even in those dire cases, we cannot give up on them and hate them. At the least we must pray for them—and not in the sense of “Lord, please make this person stop being a damn idiot” either. I mean in the sense of “Lord, please make this person what You want him to be, even if it is not what I want him to be."
Yes, that is hard. It’s easy for me to go on Facebook, roll my eyes and mutter about what idiots I think people are. It’s easy to get so caught up in the exchange of the debating that I forget that the person on the other end is a human being loved by God. But that is what God calls us to remember—that the politician we despise or the supporter we exchange words with is someone who God desires to be saved just as much as He desires our own salvation.