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Pope Francis and Experiential Anxiety

November 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Paul McCusker

Life, As I Find It

My friend Anne called in a state of great agitation about her husband Jack. They had been arguing, she explained, and now she hoped I might talk to her husband before he succumbed to despair. I was alarmed. I wasn’t sure how I could be of help – I’m not a counselor, nor particularly smart – but said I’d try. What was the argument about? Pope Francis had given yet another interview, she said. “Oh – that,” I said, and laughed. Jack wasn’t laughing. He was apoplectic because the Holy Father had yet again suggested a few things the liberal/progressive Media were in throes of ecstasy about.

Anne and Jack, along with my wife and I, had journeyed together through the heartbreaking moral morass that the Episcopal Church in the U.S. had become. We watched as the anti-orthodox lobby supplanted orthodox doctrine in the name of tolerance and compassion. We endured all those “times of listening” which the revisionists in the Episcopal church demanded of all orthodox Christians, realizing too late that the “time of listening” was actually code for “you listen until you accept what we’re saying as the truth.” We felt like morons when the proponents of the sexuality du jour said we needed to stop arguing about sex and get back to preaching the Gospel – and when we did, they used the time to forcefully push through their sexual agenda and trigger the domino-effect of theological compromise necessary to accommodate that agenda.

At the time, Anne and Jack began to ask the same questions that I asked: who has the authority to interpret Scripture and establish doctrine? Together, we discussed and debated. We created an “inquiry group” with a sacrificial and knowledgeable Catholic priest who guided us through our questions and concerns. We came to similar conclusions and were received into the Catholic Church around the same time. And, like me, they were determined not to be “cafeteria Catholics,” but wanted to apply themselves totally to the Catholic faith with allegiance to the Magisterium.

I suggested to Jack that, regardless of what the Pope had said or how he had said it or how it was being reported (which may or may not be reliable), the Magisterium still stood. The Pope hadn’t issued a Papal Bull or spoken ex cathedra or actually said anything that changed Catholic doctrine. The Pope seemed to be challenging everyone to rethink how we articulate and apply that doctrine, even modeling how to stir things up.

Jack wasn’t comforted. He argued that the Pope’s words – whether quoted accurately or not – would be used as ammunition by the many progressive/ liberals or weakly catechized Catholics to justify actions and theology at the parish level or at the diocesan level. The Pope was giving fodder to our many Protestant family-members and friends who seized his words to renew their attacks against us. Ultimately, Jack wished the Pope hadn’t spoken at all, or that he had said what he said differently, or had clarified what he said to avoid misunderstanding. This is the sound-bite generation, Jack argued. The ability of people to dig deep to discern the real meaning of the Pope’s words has disappeared. And, for Jack, it was indicative of the vastness of the problem that the internet was filled with bloggers and orthodox Bishops trying to explain what the Pope actually meant. It was like President Obama’s press secretary trying to explain Vice President Biden’s latest off-the-cuff faux pas with the usual “I know he said that, but it’s not what he meant…”

I realized after the call ended that Jack was suffering from a form of Experiential Anxiety. He hears the Pope’s words and has that terrible sense of déjà vu – the fear that we’re about to relive the nightmare we’d had as Episcopalians. It’s the Slippery Slope all over again. We’ve seen this before and we know where it will lead. Or, if nothing else, it simply makes life more difficult for those orthodox Christians who feel as if they’re hanging on by their fingernails in a culture that is aggressively against them.

In a recent speech, comedian Stephen Colbert articulated the view of too many Catholics when he said: “I believe the Pope is infallible. But I also believe he’s wrong about a lot of things.” Orthodox Catholics suspect that’s what liberal/progressive Catholics think, but we’re beginning to feel that way ourselves with every new interview that comes out. Rather than rejoice, we cringe, fearful of what he’s said this time. We worry that if the Pope himself isn’t truly a progressive/liberal, then he’s playing into their agenda.

I believe there are a lot of faithful Catholics suffering from Experiential Anxiety. I know I do. The Holy Father’s impromptu words make me nervous, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned here. They force me to examine my Experiential Anxiety and what’s at the heart of it.

There are a lot of Bible verses about trust, about God’s peace, about not being anxious. I suppose God gives us those verses because He knows we live in a world where trust is often difficult, where peace feels like a luxury item, and where experience teaches us to be anxious. This has happened before, I tell myself, and I know where this will lead. The difference, Catholic history has shown me, is that the foregone conclusions that make me so anxious are not truly foregone nor concluded. There’s an unpredictable factor that sometimes smashes like a brick through our expectations of the future – or it sometimes shapes the future like a gentle stream washing over the hardest rock. That factor is God Himself, working through His Church. Again and again, He saw the Church through times when she rode the line of great faithfulness or moved dangerously near the edge of apostasy. Foregone conclusions – everything experience suggested as an outcome – were undone by Him.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy. It certainly isn’t convenient. But, as I wrestle through the unpredictability of the Holy Father’s words and actions, is it possible to turn my Experiential Anxiety into something else? When I say, this has happened before and I know where this will lead, is it possible to remember Catholic history and believe that experience doesn’t always have to lead to anxiety, but to faith?

So, bring it on, Pope Francis. And may God find me faithful, whatever happens.

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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • I’m loving every word of Pope Francis. It is good that he disturbs us. We can’t get comfortable in our orthodoxy.

    • Dear Jackie – glad you have joined us. Please see the FAQ regarding how to interact – it will help you engage with this family. With respect to your blog, it looks good but I found a link to a dissident priest that I would prefer not to promote. You may not be aware of his specific activities to undermine the Holy See. Send me an email to if you would like to learn more.

      • Thanks – I’ve remedied the situation

        • Awesome – grateful to have you with us.

          • $21510458

            I had to smile at this thread.

            At the bottom of this great article, it had a recommended link: ‘Can I trust Fr Richard Rohr?’. Of course, I saw that article when it was first published, and circulated it to lots of my Rohr-loving pals as it affirmed what I’d been telling them, except they didn’t believe little-old me…

            I am a bit surprised however – if it’s the same Jackie Parkes who follows the hermeneutic of continuity – that she’d post anything dodgy. She’s normally squeaky-clean. So it must indeed have been in error!

      • MaryofSharon

        Dan, your gracious vigilance is a gift to us all! And Jackie, your graciousness about about accepting Dan’s input is also a gift.

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      I think we need to be comfortable with orthodoxy, but not complacent. I, myself, find orthodoxy a great comfort, but I never feel complacent about my faith.

  • Gabrielle Renoir

    I am not worried at all. Pope Francis, prior to becoming our Holy Father, was a member of the most conservative group of cardinals out there. I don’t think he’s going to make any radical changes not in line with orthodoxy. “Your” parish priest might be less conservative than you like. Mine is very conservative. It seems today you are free to join the parish of your choice, though this was not the case when I left the US and went to live in Europe again. However, since it seems to be the norm now, if one finds his or her priest too progressive, change parishes and find a conservative one. I know that’s easier said than done, and I, myself, would hate to have to do it, but it is at least an option.

    I’ve not been back in the US that long, but one thing that struck me immediately was the lack of younger persons at Mass. However, on the flip side, I was also struck by the devotion of those who were at Mass. No more rote responses or lack of attention during Mass! Terrific! These people weren’t just fulfilling an obligation – they want to be there because they love God. This is, at least, the experience at my parish, which is quite large. We are an extraordinarily faith-filled community.

    The news outlets are always attempting to spin Pope Francis’ words into something the Holy Father did not mean. I’m sure the news outlets would love to see a married clergy and female priests, etc., but that isn’t going to happen. And when hasn’t the Church been under attack? True, the attacks on our priests as pedophiles is wrong and unfair. The rate of pedophilia among the male population in general is 4% and the number of priests who are pedophiles is four percent. That is not surprising for an institution as large as the Catholic Church, which is, I believe the oldest continuous institution and the largest institution in the world.

    To those who suffer anxiety about the Church: Go and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen said, and I have to paraphrase, the Catholic Church will always be out-of-step because it is a church for the ages, not a church for today.

  • I can understand how those who have swum the Tiber can easily flip out over behaviors that look like what they went through in Protestant denominations. Those of us who have been lifelong Catholics and have survived “The Spirit of Vatican II” can identify with those feelings. We have to remember, though, that the Holy Spirit is with the Church, we have a Magisterium that has taught immutable truth for around 2000 years now, and the gates of hell aren’t going to prevail according to the promise of Christ. So peace.

    This is an opportunity to deepen our faith, to study it and know it more fully, to build a closer relationship with Christ, and to perform supernatural acts of kindness to show the love of Christ to those who need healing. All the crazy allegations about Pope Francis saying this and that and meaning this and that are a huge distraction, stirred up by the devil, to sow discord and cause us to lose focus on bringing Jesus to others according to God’s plan for each of us. Unless it is our specific vocation to deal directly with this situation, we need to jJust focus on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, spend time with Jesus every day, fulfill our obligations to others and God according to our state in life, and leave God to sort out the mess. He’s done a great job of creating saints in the midst of turmoil and will continue to do so. Let us each be one of them.

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      I agree with you 100% and think you said it very well. I, too, understand the anxiety of former Episcopalians, but there is no need for anxiety in Catholicism. Yes, we guard against complacency, but as you pointed out, we have survived just about everything for more than 2,000 years now, and that is not about to change just because the media would love a story about a progressive pope. Our numbers may grow or lessen, but we will endure until Christ comes again.

  • Randy Gough

    What a timely post to the blog! As a former Anglican I too have been through the same process and feel the same experiential anxiety, in fact I feel that you read my very thoughts.

  • Barbara Moeller

    Boy, can I relate to the PESD mentioned in this article (Post-Episcopalian Stress Disorder) mentioned in this article. My counsel for anyone feeling the same kind of disturbance when they hear something the Holy Father says, or hear it reported in a way that is unfaithful, go volunteer to be on the RCIA team at your parish, or in another capacity that allows you the opportunity to affirm for people who are confused or questioning the truths of the faith. Continually hold up Christ in the mystery of Faith and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and this will guard us all from every evil, and incidentally, make you feel much better.

    I believe that it is a part of the great lie to think or to tell yourself that there was a “better” time that we need to go back to. A careful reading of the history of the Church reveals that there never was a time without enormous trials. Pope Francis has an experience with temporal powers that resembles the experience of John Paul II, and a down to earth way that is part and parcel of that experience. Give him his due and pray for him.

  • Sandra Saunders Traw

    Laughed all the way through this. I left the Episcopal church for all the same reasons…BUT spent years in the Evangelical world…missing what I had left behind BUT sure I could never accept ALL of What the Roman Catholic Church taught. Three years ago at almost 65 I made the Journey Home. Part of my long process was history….history tells me my Church will not fail me and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against IT!! Go Pope Francis…God has chosen you for such a time as this to strengthen the Body and bring more into the fold!

  • chit mercado

    I am greatly encouraged by all your comments. Pope Francis is God’s annointed. Let us continue to support him with our trust and prayers. Personally, when I need to see Jesus more clearly, I go up my sycamore tree, like Zaccheus, and then He looks up to me with a smile of understanding. Then I inevitably recall Paul’s impassioned assurance to those who, in his time, must have been in the throes of experential anxiety: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword ? …In all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” (Rom.8, 31ff). Thank you Bro. Dan Burke, and all those who share their thoughts in rcspiritualdirection blog, truly an invaluable light in the journey,

  • MaryofSharon

    I, too, have had some real anxiety over some of what was said in the interviews. Sure the commentary from all over the blogosphere and publications like The National Catholic Register help, but the strategy I find the most helpful is to take the time to get to know Pope Francis from sources other than those interviews, like, for example, the books about Pope Francis from Ignatius Press. Even his prepared speeches give one a clearer sense of his mind and heart.

    The reading that has have given me the clearest understanding of the nature of Our Holy Father’s relationship with Christ is from an address he gave as Cardinal Bergolio which was featured as a reflection in the October 13 Magnificat magazine:

    Everything in our life, today just as in Jesus’ time, begins with an encounter. An encounter with this Man, the carpenter of Nazareth, a man like all men and yet different. The first ones, John, Andrew, and Simon, felt themselves to be looked at into their very depths, read in their innermost being, and in them sprang forth a surprise, a wonder that instantly made them feel bound to Him, made them feel different.

    When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me?”, “his ‘Yes’ was not the result of an effort of will…; it was the emergence, the coming to the surface of an entire vein of tenderness and adherence that made sense because of the esteem he had for him … he couldn’t not say ‘Yes.’”

    We cannot understand this dynamic of encounter which brings forth wonder and adherence if it has not been triggered…by mercy. Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord….I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.

    In front of this merciful embrace…we feel a real desire to respond, to change, to correspond; a new morality arises….Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds…. No. Christian morality is simply a response. It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, “unjust” mercy… of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a never falling down but an always getting up again.

    This whole notion of God’s mercy on our sin being the place of deepest encounter with Christ reminds me very much of great online series of talks I’m working though by our own Dr. Anthony Lilles audio series on the Elizabeth of the Trinity’s “Heaven in Faith” retreat. I’d love to hear from Anthony about how he sees the pope’s spirituality mesh with that of some of this mystic saints. I think it might help those of us with some residual interview anxiety put our concerns behind us.

  • $21510458

    Thank you!

    This is not a very common view of the situation ‘out there’. I was beginning to think I was mad viewing the situation as you do. I found no-one seeing it from this viewpoint which, to me, rings true in light of a correct understanding of the Magisterium and Infallibility.

  • Terese10

    I don’t have the “experiential anxiety” that I’ve been here before when I read his comments, but I admit I’ve been thrown into some confusion over things he has said. I feel I am still learning the catholic faith and it has made me feel torn in two directions at times. I have decided not to think about it all as it is just making me confused. The good thing is it has got people talking but it is hard to know sometimes what is right.

    • LizEst

      You have the key to it there. Keep learning and studying the faith. But, let me qualify that. Keep learning it from faithful Catholic instruction, not those who are in opposition to what the Catholic faith believes and teaches. In Dan Burke’s book “Navigating the Interior Life”, he writes about how to select a potential spiritual director. These criteria are also good for those from whom we learn the faith, whether we are beginners in it or seasoned veterans. It’s important that those we listen to adhere to the Magisterium, the Church’s dogmas and what Scripture teaches. If those we listen to pick and choose what they wish to teach (and omit what they don’t like) from Catholicism, then we are listening to them instead of Christ and His bride, the Church. God bless you, Terese…and keep the faith!

  • Guest

    People seem concerned that the “inmates will be running the asylum” by teaching non-Catholic theology because of Pope Francis. If that is a concern, couldn’t one argue that such has been the case for a long time, and that it is a constant threat, and that the one protection against it lies WITHIN the Catholic practice? Does the Church contain wolves in sheep’s clothing? YES. I’ve met them myself. You peacefully do what you can, and leave the rest to God. I believe that the “wolves” will have nowhere to hide in the light of Pope Francis’s love, humility and self-sacrifice. I like that his behavior and words leave no room for equivocation in these crucial areas, which inform everything else we do.

    Pope Francis has not said anything contrary to the Magisterium. There will always be those who delight in presenting false choices and hair-splitting mischaracterizations, all of which bear no fruit and only disturb people. Catholicism is a family; greater than the sum of its parts, with a loving, holy and infallible patriarch who gives us wonderful and pragmatic examples for how to behave. I have thus far found his papacy to be a great consolation.

  • Oh Dear, and I thought everyone is in tune with what our Humble, Holy Father teaches us. But I have to appreciate many are not Cradle Catholics, of which this old gal is. Our Holy Father’s Catechesis is always faithful to the Magisterium and the Centuries-old Catholic Teachings on Faith and Morals which we learned in our youth from the dedicated Missionaries. His teachings resonate so accurately with what the Church has always taught over the Centuries with such simplicity and conviction. He is faithful and unequivocal with regard to what is called controversial Catholic Dogmas. Yet, we know they are not controversial because that is God’s Teaching Who is Truth and which we have to obey. He is a Blessing from the Holy Spirit for our Mother Church at this period in time when many have the tendency of questioning every line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Magisterium and struggling to give our Doctrine their own interpretation.

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