In yesterday’s weekday homily, Pope Francis exhorted Christians to recognize in our lives those obstacles—particularly the ones that are not always immediately apparent—to the grace of conversion. He said, “We all have hidden obstacles; we must ask ourselves what is their nature. They always surface to stop a process of conversion. Always!”
How true it is that there are obstacles to the grace of conversion, and that they are very often “unseen” or “hidden,” as Pope Francis put it. It’s rare that one explicitly embrace a position of resistance or denial. Instead, the obstacles and barriers to change tend to be more subtle.
Pope Francis identified three “kinds” of hidden obstacles to conversion:
- The obstacle of “empty words”—Pope Francis used two scriptural images to illustrate what this kind of obstacle looks like. The first came from the Gospel of the day in which Jesus warned his followers that “not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt 7:21). The other example comes from the parable of the two sons who are sent into the field by their father to work; one says yes but doesn’t and the other says no but does (Matt 21:28-32). Pope Francis highlights the empty words of the first son who seems to be giving the correct response only to shirk his responsibility, thereby offering nothing but an empty promise.
- The obstacle of “words the justify”—This is when someone is constantly justifying themselves in a spirit of self-righteousness or according to excuses that, as the pope says, do not reflect the “aroma of God” but the “bad stink of the devil.” It is a way of resisting conversion because one comes up with reasons to stay exactly as they are.
- The obstacle of “accusatory words”—This is when we blame others to maintain our status quo or accuse others so as not to have to look at ourselves. The scriptural image Pope Francis uses to illustrate this hidden obstacle is the famous Gospel scene of the Pharisee and the publican, wherein the Pharisee gives praise to God that he is “not like” this sinful publican.
As Advent continues, may we use these insights of Pope Francis to reflect on our own obstacles to conversion. And may we grow in awareness of the hidden excuses, words, and practices that make our invitation to follow Christ more difficult.