It’s the proverbial elephant in the room that pervades nearly every community – often seen in those small island spots around the world where “everyone knows everyone else” – the concept of “the other”.
We can say that it is human nature to associate with those with whom we have the most in common and to be wary of those who are different, to expect uniformity in an attempt to hold families together, churches, schools and workplaces. After all, isn’t similarity what keeps people together?
It may be human nature to exclude those who are different from us; but it is decidedly not of a Christian nature or appeal.
Pope Francis has been heavily criticized for his efforts at inclusion, but it is precisely this need for inclusion and acceptance that has gone unmet for so long, serving to increase division in our Church. Somewhere along the way, evangelism became synonymous with forced conformity rather than fostering a sense of fellowship in Christ. This exclusionary and closed mindset only further alienates those who are hurt and broken among us, rather than creating common ground that fosters a starting point for conversion.
“We”, not “them”
In his December 2020 message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, that all Catholics with disabilities have the right to receive the sacraments and that Catholic parishes should make tangible efforts to welcome and train people with disabilities to serve as catechists. Pope Francis has said that the goal of the Church should be “no longer to speak of ‘them’, but rather of ‘us’.
This change of mentality between “us” and “the others” is difficult to achieve, but so necessary if we want to become a truly Christian society. An intriguing phenomenon is the tendency of those who usually fall into the ‘we’ category to be the most vocal opponents of inclusion.
Vivan Gussin Paley’s 1993 book, You can’t say you can’t play, aimed at instituting a new rule in the elementary school classroom: that no child should ever be excluded from school play or activities. In it, his descriptions of student focus groups were fascinating, as were the remarks offered by both rejecters and rejecters. One child objected to the new rule saying, “It will be fairer, but how are we going to have fun? »
How does the concept of rejection of others occur so early in life and why is it so prevalent in all cultures? As Christians, we are called to welcome, include, “see” everyone and stop the concept of “the other” in its tracks.
Anything that people are uncomfortable discussing – disabilities, difficult family situations, cultural or religious backgrounds, chronic illnesses – can be used as grounds for exclusion. There is nothing more psychologically or spiritually damaging to a child than island and cliquaire communities where newcomers are routinely kept on the social periphery – pushed out, excluded and deprived of a true sense of belonging.
In this December 2020 speech, Pope Francis lamented the threat of the “throwaway culture” and stressed the need to promote the “rock of inclusion”:
“Inclusion should be the ‘rock’ on which to build programs and initiatives of civil institutions intended to ensure that no one, especially those most in need, are left behind… Church institutions, I reiterate the need to make available adapted and accessible means of transmitting the faith.
It will be different for every school, parish, and community of faith, but it starts with a recognition that every person Christ brings to us is valued and sought after.
Change is impossible without intentionality, and that can be the hardest goal to achieve when entrenched attitudes of “this is the way things have always been” are so pervasive and deeply ingrained that it’s hard even to know where to start.
Communion, not conformity
On September 16, 2022, Pope Francis met with members of the General Chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (also called Trappists). The The Holy Father recalled the four “dreams” shared by all Trappists for the evangelization of the world: the “dream of communion, the dream of participation, the dream of mission and the dream of formation”.
During this address, Pope Francis explained that the concept of communion does not consist of “our uniformity, homogeneity, compatibility, more or less spontaneous or forced; no, it consists in our common relationship with Christ, and in Him with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus was not afraid of the diversity that existed among the Twelve, and so neither should we fear diversity, for the Holy Spirit loves to stir up differences and bring them into harmony. On the contrary, our particularisms, our exclusivisms, these yeses, we must fear them, because they cause divisions (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 131). Therefore, Jesus’ dream of communion frees us from uniformity and division, both of which are ugly things.
What a very important but subtle distinction! We say we celebrate diversity in our American landscape, but the lack of charity that manifests daily in our communities suggests otherwise.
Somewhere in America’s tumultuous modern political culture, Catholicism has found itself embroiled in what can best be described as a fusion of the “us versus them” model of American politics into the very fabric of our Church. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” no longer apply only to a person’s political leanings, but are also used to simply describe how catholic a person is. As if it were a competition.
Have sympathy for civilly remarried Catholics who want to be in full communion with the Church? You must be liberal.
Do you believe in tradition and enjoy attending the local Latin mass? You must be conservative! How we love labels.
A dynamic, beloved and often criticized priest in our diocese recently lamented in a daily Mass homily our tendency to engage in either/or thinking, and suggested that instead we should adopt a type of “both/and” way of thinking.
It’s a good starting point.
Changes must begin in our own hearts, and then and only then can we reach out to draw others in and share with them our beloved Catholic faith.
Those who have a true Christian heart filled with charity and love accept, affirm and embrace others who are different from them, welcoming them to know Jesus as he really is: a brother for all of us, free from prejudice and of favoritism and filled with a love so great that it can overcome all petty jealousies and the compulsions of exclusion and rejection.
So evangelism must begin with inclusion, or it is simply nothing more than imposing our will on the other. Nothing could be further from the heart of Christ than that.
Image: Vatican Media
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, catechist, former teacher, and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and adopted herself, Kristi is a strong supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as a Eucharistic minister and in various children’s ministries.