How should the Catholic Church minister to those who feel excluded? That is one of the questions being taken up by the Synod on the Family, the gathering of bishops now meeting at the Vatican to discuss a vast array of topics, including how the church should treat divorced and remarried Catholics, LGBT Catholics, and other people who have felt shut out.
There are two main ways for a church to welcome people, and these approaches are exemplified by two figures in the Gospels, a delineation mapped out by the biblical scholar Ben Meyer.
The first you could call the “John the Baptist method,” where the church asks for conversion as a prerequisite for joining the community. Even those with scant biblical knowledge can easily conjure up an image of John the Baptist, a fiery prophet wearing a camel-hair garments and eating locusts, passionately calling people to a “baptism of repentance,” as the Gospel of Mark has it.
Conversion meant a change of heart and a change of life that oriented one toward God. Only then were people ready to enter the reign of God. For John the Baptist, it was conversion first, community second.
By contrast, there is what you might call the “Jesus method.”
In the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spies a man named Zacchaeus perched high in a sycamore tree. He was the chief tax collector in the region, which at the time would have also meant that he was considered the “chief sinner” in the region, since he was colluding with the hated Roman authorities. Jesus calls up to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today!” Zacchaeus shinnies down the tree and repents, saying that that he will repay anyone he has defrauded “four times as much.”
Jesus’s offer of welcome prompted Zacchaeus’s change of heart. For Jesus, it was community first, conversion second.
Obviously these are simplifications of the complex ministries of John and Jesus. It’s unclear whether John’s disciples gathered around him before being baptized or after. And, needless to say, Jesus called people to conversion after he met them.
But in general, the two models are accurate: John’s emphasis was mainly on purification; Jesus’s mainly on mercy. They are also helpful templates when considering how the church approaches those on the margins, those who feel distanced from the church, those who have engaged in sinful behaviors—in fact, everyone who feels excluded from the church.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier briefly addressed this divide on Twitter last week when he disputed the idea that we should “meet people where they were.” (The Jesus method.) Rather, he said, Jesus “called them away from where they were.”
Yet before Jesus could think about calling people away from where they were, he did in fact have to meet them where they already were.
This is true both literally and metaphorically. Think of Jesus, for example, traveling all the way from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, a distance of some 40 miles, to call St. Peter, as the Gospel of Matthew and Mark recounts. Jesus, quite literally, met Peter where he was.
He also used language from Peter’s world, rather than from his. When Jesus calls Peter, he doesn’t use the language of a carpenter, with which Jesus was more familiar. (For example, he could have said, “Follow me and we will build the house of God.”) Instead, he uses the language of the fisherman, which Peter would better understand. (“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”). Again, Jesus is doing his best to meet Peter where he is. Only then does he call Peter away from the Sea of Galilee and his old life.
The Synod on the Family is grappling with, among other issues, how the Catholic Church can welcome people on the global level. This also happens on the local level. Pastors, pastoral associates and all church workers deal with these questions almost every day.
As I see it, the movement for Jesus was always from the outside-in. He went out to those who were officially excluded or who felt excluded—in his time, that meant primarily the sick and the sinful—and brought them in. He restored them to the community. This is something the church may need to do more of: welcome, meet people where they are, and listen. Certainly conversion is in order for everyone—including me. But how can we change hearts if we don’t welcome them first?
While both John the Baptist and Jesus’s methods are valid, in the end we need to remember why John the Baptist said of Jesus: “He must increase and I must decrease.”
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of the new novel The Abbey: A Story of Discovery, published this week.