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Six months after he was elected to the Chair of Peter, Pope Francis made one of the most provocative statements of his five-year pontificate. Asked by the Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro what the church (small c) most needs at this point in her history, he replied that he sees the church as a field hospital after battle. The church he envisions would focus on God’s mercy and love; it would have the ability “to heal wounds and to warm hearts.” In an age that has lost all sense of sin, emissaries of this church might speak of salvation but not—at least not at first—about what it is that man needs to be saved from. “It is useless,” the pope exclaimed, “to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds.”

Practically speaking, this means that evangelizing strategies that in the past might have been countenanced on the margins of Christianity, in the mission fields of the Church, the pope recommends everywhere. Much of the world, he reminds us, has been reduced to a mission field: increasingly unchurched and hostile to organized religion and therefore incapable of responding to the faith in its fullness. In this anxious, defensive world, rife with both presumption and despair, Pope Francis’s ideal church would dispense with outdated requirements and doctrinal niceties. Grabbing a theological first aid kit, she would hasten to where the battle is hottest, to the killing fields of the culture, and there, before it is too late, stop the bleeding.

Eventually, the pope conceded in the interview, there may come a time for catechesis and even for drawing a moral, but that time is not now. After all, as he pointed out three months later in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “Once the seed has been sown in one place, Jesus does not stay behind to explain things,” but moves on, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom elsewhere.

Growing up, I was an Episcopalian, but the formation I received in that communion and in my family did not prepare me for the challenges of the 1960s and 1970s. When I left home, I stopped going to church. As a member of the first class of women at Yale, where a gynecologist and his wife were quickly hired to ensure that the coeds did not get pregnant (a couple who later coauthored a sexual advice column in Glamour magazine and hosted key parties in their home), I sinned grievously and suffered accordingly, reaping consequences serious enough that by the beginning of my sophomore year, reading George Herbert in the infirmary, I was open to the grace of an intellectual conversion, a rudimentary, consequential realization that the moral law intends our good.

Subsequently, I called myself a Christian, wore a cross, and abstained from premarital sex. A few peaceful, intellectually fertile years followed. But relying too much on my private convictions—trying, in effect, to be a Christian alone—soon enough, in graduate school in California, I succumbed again to serious sin, and this time there was no easy way back.

In the difficult years that followed, as I struggled with a baffling, debilitating illness in a marriage built on sand, I was very much the kind of person the pope has in mind in the Spadaro interview: unchurched and alienated from organized religion, wounded and proud. In a word, I was hagiophobic, frightened of churches and holy places, and especially frightened of rules I was seemingly incapable of obeying. Like many people today, I was both formally educated and woefully ignorant of spiritual realities. I had no experience at all, for example, of the Catholic Church, yet was convinced, on account of my Episcopalian upbringing, that I knew enough about her to dismiss her out of hand.

Five years later, in Connecticut, the concerned mother of a friend of my small son took me to a charismatic healing service led by a woman named Grace. The following weekend, at another of Grace’s services, on what I realized years later was the vigil of the Feast of Pentecost, I experienced what I thought at the time was a Pentecost all my own, a baptism of wind and fire that finally broke my free fall, as it opened my blind eyes to the person of Jesus Christ.

For years after that night, I followed Grace’s itinerant ministry to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, New York and Maine. Eventually I returned to church: Vineyard churches and charismatic Episcopal churches, house churches and churches disdainful of the name. I helped lead a Life in the Spirit Seminar at the Yale Divinity School. I joined a tiny evangelical church that met in an ecumenical chapel on the Yale campus. I went to Toronto for the outpouring of the Spirit called the Toronto Blessing. I prayed with strangers on park benches and trains, in parish halls and my own backyard. For years after my second conversion, I worked and worshipped in some of the most ad hoc, provisional communities in Christendom, sustained like the Israelites in the desert by the manna of miracles, until finally, ten years in, I reached the threshold of the Catholic Church, crossed over, and for the last twenty years have eaten of the fruit of the land.

The first point I am trying to make is that Christendom has field hospitals. There is a whole world of places like the place the pope describes in the interview: flexible and missionary, short on theology and long on healing. For people too ecclesially challenged even to set foot in a church building, there are ministries that set up shop in hotel ballrooms and private homes, sports venues and high school auditoriums. Many of these ministries trade in physical healing, but all of them treat wounds of rejection and marginalization, misconceptions about God (angry, punitive) and about his Son, Jesus Christ (nice but weak), the kinds of wounds that especially concern Pope Francis. As in the history of the Church, so in an individual life, healing often comes first, because it establishes a basis for trust, a foundation on which subsequent development can build.

Certainly there was talk of sin and repentance at Grace’s services, as there are miracles of healing in the contemporary Catholic Church. But overall, the pattern I am describing holds. As Leo the Great said about Jesus’s ministry on earth, “those who were to be instructed in the divine teaching had first to be aroused by bodily benefits and visible miracles so that, once they had experienced his gracious power, they would no longer doubt the wholesome effect of his doctrine” (emphasis mine).

These ministries, moreover, are part of the larger ministry of the Catholic Church. According to the Church’s own teaching, they are not enemy camps or competing constituencies but intermediate structures, uniquely equipped and adapted for the remedial, life-changing work that they do. In the language of the Second Vatican Council, they are joined with the Catholic Church in the Holy Spirit, and the council’s decree on ecumenism goes so far as to claim that Christian communities not yet fully united to the Church already “derive their efficacy from the fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” From the original Mother Church, in other words, graces flow to her scattered offspring, even as the grace of the Feast of Pentecost reached me on the wooden floor of an Elks’ Club in Danbury, Connecticut.

But if, according to this way of conceptualizing Christendom, the Catholic Church has field hospitals (including her own soup kitchens, homes for unwed mothers, and so on), she herself is not a field hospital. Insofar as the Church proper is a hospital at all, she is a hospital full-stop, and one like no other, because her chief business is not with physical illness or stopgap surgeries, palliative care or placebos, but with the root cause of man’s suffering on earth, which is sin. Furthermore, so far as means are concerned, not even in her smallest congregation or remotest missionary outpost is the Church ontologically stripped down or reduced, because in the struggle against sin—always a mortal struggle, given the law of sin and death—she needs every remedy that has been entrusted to her, every truth in the Catechism, every sacrament, and the patronage of all the saints.

Fortunately, like the Eucharist itself, truth and the prayers of the saints travel light. Carrying truth to the margins has never required large shipping containers or brute strength but physical and moral courage: the courage of a Matteo Ricci, for example, who, perennial controversy notwithstanding, did not compromise the teaching of the Catholic Church to win converts. In his mission to Ming China, Ricci countenanced Chinese customs he deemed not contrary to Catholic faith and morals, but from the deposit of faith itself, he subtracted nothing. Confronted, most significantly, with widespread concubinage and polygamy, he upheld the Church’s teaching on marriage firmly and clearly, declining even to baptize individuals unwilling to amend their lives.

No institution on earth has done more than the Catholic Church to care for the sick and the dying. But her apostolate of healing has never been allowed to supersede or compromise her main mission. The twentieth-century stigmatist and miracle-worker Padre Pio dreamed of building a modern hospital in his remote parish in Italy to care for the sick who came to him hoping for a miracle. Eventually the funds were raised and the hospital built, but it never became the centerpiece of his apostolate. The heart of his ministry remained the confessional in the small church nearby, where, “like a doctor bending over an organism in which pulsate the living fibers of a departing life,” he continued to confess and absolve sinners, sometimes for as much as eighteen hours a day.

Padre Pio, like many saints, straddled an apparent divide in Christendom, carrying out an apostolate of healing with hands marked by Christ’s open wounds. In his lifetime he facilitated countless medical miracles, but he also worked tirelessly to bring about in his followers the deeper, more definitive healing that is inseparable from growth in virtue. Even as he worked to alleviate suffering, he taught that suffering is a special sign of God’s love. Even as he built a state-of-the-art hospital, he called true religion a hospital for spiritually sick people who, if they wish to be healed, must submit themselves to suffering: “to bloodletting, to the lance, to the razor, to the probe, to the scalpel, to the fire, and to all the bitterness of medicine.” Even as Catholics around the world continue to look to St. Pio for miracles of healing, the Church’s collect on his feast day reads, “Grant that through his intercession we may be united constantly to the sufferings of Christ, and so brought happily to the glory of the resurrection.”

Christendom may be one, but navigating its divisions is nevertheless daunting. When I finally found the courage to knock on the doors of the Church—because in a premature reception of the Eucharist I recognized the Christ I first encountered through Grace—I was immediately confronted by a scowling priest who took no prisoners, whose class for would-be converts began by unpacking the moral law, and who told me in our very first conversation that my premature reception of the Eucharist had been a sacrilege.

A sacrilege!

Coming from a world of half-truths, reassuring generalizations (“we’re all sinners”), and endlessly reiterated affirmations, I was entirely unprepared for the bitter medicine of a personal rebuke. Trembling, I telephoned the Catholic retreat center where I had received the Eucharist in the past, and reached a volunteer I didn’t know, a woman who had replaced the volunteer who had assured me previously that I could receive. In the conversation that followed, this soft-spoken newcomer mentioned that she herself had attended daily Mass for fifteen years without receiving the sacrament, probably due to an irregularity in her marriage.

“But how did you do that?” I said finally, in a faint voice, feeling myself in the presence of something new.

“Oh,” she said lightly, and laughed a little, “it wasn’t so hard.”

It wasn’t so hard. . . .

If I had been Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, this anonymous woman would have been Humility, or Docility, pious archaisms that weren’t even in my vocabulary. Totally disoriented by this point, frightened, but also impressed in spite of myself, I eventually found myself circling back to the scowling priest, to his class on sin and virtue, to the Church so large that everyone in it is small. And I began attending daily Mass—Docility’s mild testimony staying with me—which turned out to be the single best decision I ever made in my life. If I couldn’t receive the Eucharist, I finally decided, I at least could place myself in its presence. And immediately, as I prevailed in this opening skirmish with my wounded pride, the Church began to disclose her abundance to me.

Is it simply a curious coincidence (I am thinking of the narrow gate in Matthew 7:13) that the pope, in the Spadaro interview, says he rejected the papal apartment not on account of its luxury (he admits it is not luxurious) but because, though its rooms are large and spacious, the entrance to the apartment is “really tight” and people can come in “only in dribs and drabs”?

In my own case, when I was coming into the Church, I certainly felt the narrowness of the entrance and its stricture, as if I had been a baby squeezing through a birth canal, a passage designed to force water out of the child’s lungs, so that, in the world he is about to enter, he can breathe. And I felt alone, existentially alone, aware that no one else on earth could make this transit with me.

But inside, with others who had come in through the same gate, I did indeed find life, so much life that my distress over being excluded from the Eucharist melted away. Every day that fall, I came to the Church and she fed me: a great variety of remedies, drawn from seemingly inexhaustible stores. The new Catechism alone turned out to be nourishment for a lifetime (where did they get all this?), as did the sacramentals and the occasional homily, the Mass itself (unsearchable), and the graces of the feasts. Coming from the transient tents of the charismatic world, the stable omnipresence of the Church dazed me, as did her faithfulness over time. Every day on her altars around the world—strange that I grasped the significance of this so belatedly—she had been offering for centuries the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in a show of faithfulness and perseverance I knew from my experience of short-lived enthusiasms in charismatic Protestantism was simply unthinkable for man alone.

Every day the Eucharist was there: in the tabernacle perpetually and on the altar during Mass, silent and self-effacing but also steadily coming into focus, the longer I went without receiving. In hindsight, I would say that it was during this time of abstention that I began to see Jesus as he really was: not simply as my subjective experience of him but as someone substantially apart from myself, in all the terrifying objectivity of his holiness. God on the altar! And not man, who disappoints and makes desolate.

It wasn’t the priest, in other words, or the rules, but Christ himself in the sacrament who convinced me I was still not ready to receive him, as the time of watching and waiting in the Church turned out to be a time of truth so confounding that by the end I was almost afraid to receive (“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”). And then it was the saints who carried me with their strong hands to the end, through the great watershed of confession, to Easter and paschal days.

How many times have we heard versions of the saying “The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners”? (Henry Ward Beecher’s nineteenth-century variation on the theme was “The church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians, but a school for the education of imperfect ones.”) The implication of the formula is that eminent Christians are dead and ossified (life-denying Pharisees!), unlike sinners who may be suffering but are at least alive.

But in the hospital that is the Church, the saints alone are fully alive, because free from sin. It is the saints who are the doctors, the teachers, and the mentors. However the formula is worded, it amounts to a divisive falsehood, one that undermines and obscures the great modus operandi of the Church that brings together in one place the more and the less advanced, the sinner and the saint, not in order to deny our differences but to make difference work for us.

A year before he died, Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote a piece for this journal (“Saving Ecumenism from Itself,” December 2007) in which he argued that the model of ecumenism everywhere practiced to that point had more or less exhausted its potential. Based as it was on what Dulles called a method of convergence, the model had come up against “hard differences that resisted elimination.” So the cardinal proposed a new way of proceeding, which he called “an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of testimony.” Following this model, individual churches would testify to the value of their distinctive doctrines and practices, instead of suppressing them in an attempt to find common ground. In Dulles’s words:

Catholics would want to hear from the churches of the Reformation the reasons they have for speaking as they do of Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. . . . We would want to hear from evangelicals about their experience of conversion and from Pentecostals about perceiving the free action of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The Orthodox would have much to tell about liturgical piety, holy tradition, sacred images, and synodical styles of polity.

In the same spirit, Catholics would bring to the table the full range of their beliefs, unashamed of their reliance on tradition, the liturgy, the sense of the faithful, and the judgments of the magisterium.

Not only in the Church proper, in other words, but also in Christendom generally, difference might be made to work for us. Rather than deny or paper over our differences, we might try to discern how they fit together in an overarching, providential plan. For my part, if I were participating in Dulles’s project, I would testify to the irreplaceable, personal relationship with Christ that was charismatic Protestantism’s gift to me, as well as to the ways the Catholic Church solidified and deepened the relationship. Would I have recognized Christ in the sacraments if I had not first encountered him in the field hospitals of Protestantism? I do not know. What I know is that schism did not come as a surprise to God. He permitted it, which means that he draws good from it. Cardinal Dulles’s proposal might foster “growth through mutual attestation”; frank talk uncensored by current definitions of civility; a more comprehensive appropriation of the full riches of Christ.

Instead, in a reversion to a model that works by reduction and elimination, Pope Francis has compared the Catholic Church to a field hospital. The image conjures up a bare-bones, fast-moving operation, untrammeled by institutional requirements and red tape. An organization without waiting periods or in-depth instruction, moral formation or mandatory ascesis. A church in which the mystery of the priest is eclipsed by the romance of the itinerant evangelist, a charismatic outlier who ministers on the margins.

I think of Grace, pulling me out of deep water but quickly moving on to help others, leaving many of my questions unanswered. I think of what Pope Francis said about Jesus himself—“Once the seed has been sown in one place, Jesus does not stay behind to explain things”—a description of Christian ministry that brackets off explaining from evangelizing, and eliminates the institutional Church from the Christian project.

Yet Jesus was perfectly clear about the continuity of his mission. Near the end of its first phase, the phase of earthly preaching and miracle-working, when he was about to be put to death for bringing truth to the margins, he said to the disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So he promised to send them a Counselor, even “the Spirit of truth,” who would guide them into “all the truth.” The truths the disciples were unable to bear to that point Jesus entrusted to the future Church, through the ministry of the Spirit he promised to send for that purpose.

It follows that a model of ecumenism that privileges Jesus’s earthly ministry over everything that came after can never be acceptable to Catholics. Throughout history, the Catholic Church proceeds by a method of expansion and clarification. After Jesus ascends to the Father, the Church “stays behind to explain things”; unpacks the great mystery of suffering; labors to convince the world about sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).

Between an initial conversion to Christianity and a readiness to take up hard truths, years can pass. When I was nineteen years old, in the infirmary at Yale, the doctor in charge of my care was a clean-cut young man from the Midwest. Over the course of my stay, he came to understand what I had been doing, and why I was sick. He said nothing. The new rules were in place by then; privacy was sacred; no one was telling students how to behave. But on my last day in the infirmary, as he was taking his leave of me, he suddenly blurted, “Don’t you realize that what you’ve been doing isn’t good for you?”

It was a passionate outburst, one that surprised him as much as it did me. Embarrassed and upset, he punched the swinging door hard and exited the room, leaving me speechless, bristling with resentment, and deeply moved.

Twenty-five years later, I entered the Church that asked me the same question, the Church that told me the whole truth about life and death. In a late poem, called “What the Doctor Said,” Raymond Carver described the moment his doctor told him that his cancer would kill him:

I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just
given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me

Pope Francis is convinced that the world needs a soft evangelization, a ministry to people frightened of criticism and the word sin. Perhaps he is right. But while he is traveling and evangelizing, applying tourniquets and offering reassuring words, he might refrain from undermining the Church to which Christ entrusted all the truth, against a time when men are ready to receive it. 

Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.