Pope Pius X, who served at the beginning of the 20th Century, began his pontificate under the motto of “Restoring all things to Christ”. He is remembered for his resolute condemnation of the heresy of modernism but also for his allowing children as young as seven to take Holy Communion. There was no question about this Pope’s zeal for souls. In fact, today he is invoked as St. Pius X.
One can draw many parallels between his inaugural encyclical, E Supremi, with Pope Benedict XVI’s, Deus Caritas Est. Both men were concerned with the gospel not being presented as an oppressive lists of “don’ts” but rather as it truly is: good news, a wonderful invitation to mankind to find in Jesus Christ the true vision of life and the path to true freedom. And so in E Supremi he wrote: “that Christ may be formed in all, be it remembered that no means is more efficacious than charity”. He adds, “…it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity.”
Following the example of Christ himself, we must love the sinner even while we hate the sin. As St. Paul advised his disciple, Timothy: “Accuse, beseech, rebuke” but he adds “with all patience’ (II Timothy 4: 2). We will not be successful in converting those enslaved to sin and blinded by error unless we first love them. Such was the pedagogy of Christ himself who came to call sinners. He called them to conversion, of course; but with great gentleness and compassion.
Today in America political discourse is increasingly filled with shrill polemics that generate much heat but little light. Such divisive partisanship perhaps is the way of the world but it cannot be the way of the Church, for the way of the Church must be, as Saint Paul told the contentious Corinthians, a “more excellent way”, the way of love (cf. 1 Cor 12: 31- 13: 13). A “bitter zeal”, rather than witnessing to the Truth, will undermine it. And instead of restoring all things to Christ who prayed that all his followers be one, bitter zeal will fracture the unity of his Body, the Church. Indeed the cause of so many ruptures in the Body of Christ that resulted in schisms over the course of history can be traced to such “bitter zeal” among those who fancied themselves as “reformers”.
Yet a Church that embraces sinners will always be in need of reform. And many of the problems we face: the decline in Mass attendance, the crisis in vocations, the ignoring of Church teachings on matters of morality, the “religious illiteracy” among many of the faithful, not to mention the sexual abuse crisis of recent years, all underscore the need for what Pope John Paul II called “a new evangelization”. Saint Pius X wrote: “…it is not priests alone, but all the faithful without exception, who must concern themselves with the interests of God and souls – not, of course, according to their own views, but always under the direction and orders of the bishops.” However, without this direction from the bishops “who preside in charity”, those who insist on “their own views” can easily become consumed with a bitter zeal. And no true reform or revitalization of Church life has ever been the fruit of a bitter zeal.