Everyone should be invited into a relationship with Christ
“Pope Francis recently made headlines by…” This could very well begin every column in a Catholic newspaper written in the last year and a half; but what would follow that opening sentence in any given week would still be entirely unpredictable.
But when the Pope recently said that he’d be happy to baptise Martians, it had an eyebrow-raising factor even higher than usual. Yes, Martians. "Green men, with a long nose and big ears, like children draw” were the words used.
"If tomorrow, for example, an expedition of Martians arrives and some of them come to us … and if one of them says: 'Me, I want to be baptised!' what would happen?"
“Who are we to close the door?” he asked. “When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent!’” Pope Francis said, adding that the Holy Spirit “makes unthinkable choices…unimaginable!”
I don’t know about you, but to me this is quite…awesome, in the original sense of the word. You know that strangely persistent “well what if you found out that aliens were real?” gotcha question? Francis answers it with a resounding “Bring ‘em on”.
Is Pope Francis saying something at variance with the tradition of the Church? Nope. The Vatican’s chief astronomer (of course the Vatican has a chief astronomer) Fr José Funes, said similar things about evangelising extra-terrestrials in 2008: “This is not in contrast with the Faith, because we cannot place limits on the creative freedom of God,” Fr Funes said. “To use St Francis’ words, if we consider earthly creatures as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters,’ why can’t we also speak of an ‘extraterrestrial brother?’” He said that if aliens (should they exist) were in need of God’s mercy in the same way humans are, there’d be no obstacle to the Church providing it.
All Francis is doing is illuminating the epic, shocking nature of orthodox Catholicism. This is a Church that’s happy to baptise Martians, yes, but more importantly it’s a Church that wants to baptise Martians, because it has a message that they desperately need to hear, a relationship with Christ that all sentient beings need to be invited into.
I know the Church is a deeply flawed and battered institution. I know she faces vast problems – from secularism to clericalism – that cannot be wished away or eliminated overnight. I know the solutions will be complicated.
But sometimes I think the main problem is that most of us Catholics take the wonders we’ve been given for granted. We don’t belong to some pokey faith that’s bothered by aliens. We think that God so loved the world that he gave us his only son, who died for our sins. We have a coherent worldview that stands in stark contrast to the ‘isms’ of modernity.
It’s the no-nonsense, practical and yet utterly overwhelming love that is depicted in the film Calvary. It’s the wonder described in David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God at seeing “the truth that shines in and through and beyond the world of ordinary experience”. It’s the willingness to baptise Martians.
This is mind-blowing stuff. You can think it’s a load of twaddle, you can do your best to ignore it, you can fight it, you can love it, but the one thing that should be impossible is to trivialise it.
And yet that’s what we do.
We do it when we decide that GAA training or a drama group is a higher priority than Sunday Mass – the Mass, where we receive the body of Christ. We do it when we turn First Holy Communions into performances, where every child has a job to do but the transcendent majesty of the sacrament is side-lined. We do it when we fear to grapple with the Church’s moral teaching in its fullness and complexity, or when we don’t even bother finding out what that is. We do it when we reduce the Faith to “being nice and doing good things” and don’t mention grace, or sacrifice, or sainthood.
Look, I believe in this stuff. I believe it enough to write pompous newspaper articles about it. But I don’t make the space each day for prayer. There is a concrete way that I could come to better know the Source of All Being, and I regularly choose to do something else. Faced each morning with the gift that is creation, I don’t even find 10 minutes a day.
We are fortunate indeed that God is merciful, that the Church is a field hospital for sinners. We can always try again, try to more willingly receive the gift God has given us – try to live out that epic, gorgeous faith, so that if we ever do meet the Martians, they’ll have a reason to ask for baptism.