In July 1979, at the age of 18, I spent several weeks at a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) summer camp in Cimarron, Colorado. Nestled on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, the camp trained a cross-section of young Evangelicals who wanted to become more adept at living and sharing their faith.
Among the other students with whom I spent the most time were two brothers and a sister who hailed from rural Pennsylvania. Although they were Americans, there was just something about them that seemed foreign and unfamiliar. They dressed funny and were inordinately polite, with a wickedly smart comprehension of Holy Scripture that far surpassed their peers. Yet they were also, as it seemed to my arrogant 18-year-old self, embarrassingly out of touch with contemporary culture, especially film and pop music.
As we were hiking one afternoon, I asked one of the brothers, “Who is your favorite Beatle?” To my horror, he replied, “We don’t know any of their names.” I then asked, “Have you ever listened to the Beatles?” The other two, overhearing the conversation, answered in near unison with their brother, “No.”
“Why not?,” I retorted, as if I were placed on this earth to defend the dignity of the Fab Four. What followed was an earful: they gave me a long and detailed account of their family life and the nature of their religious community. They were Mennonite Christians who lived in strict adherence to norms and practices that they were taught are essential to the process of sanctification.
Not really listening with much charity, I quickly judged them and their family as poor oppressed souls who needed to be liberated from the shackles of their narrow-minded faith. Of course, I had the good sense not to tell them directly what I thought. But they probably figured it out by my facial expressions and the incredulous tone of my interrogation.
Over the days that followed, much to my surprise, I found myself not only drawn to these Mennonites but becoming envious of their inner strength and personal holiness. What seemed to me only days earlier as an unattractive stifling of individual self-expression I began to see as an authentic freedom that my feeble reflexes, under the spell of the popular culture, did not have the vocabulary to properly categorize.
I saw in these three young students a degree of liberality, self-mastery, kindness, and love that, unencumbered by the vicissitudes of the present age, put me and my Evangelical peers to shame. It turned out that we were the ones with the shackles and they were the ones who were truly free.
I had not thought about that summer of 1979 for quite some time, until about two weeks ago, when I read Pope Francis’ comments about the growing numbers of young Catholics who are drawn to the Latin Mass. Clearly perplexed as to why anyone would be attracted to this ancient liturgy if they had not been brought up with it, the Holy Father opined: “Sometimes I found myself confronted with a very strict person, with an attitude of rigidity. And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”
The Holy Father, of course, is correct that “true love is not rigid.” But as with the meaning of any infused virtue, the divine is in the details. For if we “dig, dig,” as Francis suggests we do, we discover there is no such thing as the vice of rigidity, or the virtue of charity, in the abstract. As I learned as an 18-year-old, and as the Supreme Pontiff no doubt knows as an 80-year-old, impulsive judgments, directed by uncritically inherited prejudices, formed by one’s own narrow experience, may themselves be manifestations of unjustified rigidity, even when they claim to be advancing the cause of human liberation.
This is why, for example, the Holy Father is correct in not believing that he engages in the vice of rigidity when he declares in starkly absolutist terms the impossibility of the ordination of female priests, the wrongness of capital punishment, the grave immorality of abortion, the responsibility of first world nations to distinguish migrants from refugees, the goodness of the invitation of God’s mercy, and the power of the papacy to issue authoritative apostolic exhortations and to later clarify or decline to clarify their meaning.
In other words, if Pope Francis were an equal opportunity critic of “rigidity in the abstract,” he would unwittingly be contributing to the undermining of his own ecclesial authority. If that were the case, Catholics would have no more reason to take his pronouncements seriously than they would the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Joel Osteen, or Donald Trump.
But clearly that could not be the Holy Father’s intention, especially given his penchant to speak extemporaneously to international media on matters that he believes are of global importance.
Consequently, it would be wise for the Holy Father to not cease “digging” into the hearts and minds of those moved and transformed by the sublimity of the Latin Mass. Perhaps he will discover in these Catholic young people, as I found in my Mennonite friends in the summer of 1979, an unassuming sanctity, joy, and liberality. Only when I realized that my inability to see this inner beauty and freedom was the result of my being held in bondage to the spirit of the age did I humbly confess, “Who am I to judge?”