“Realities are more important than ideas.” I have been confronted with this line from Pope Francis a few times lately. The first time I encountered it was several years ago when I read the Pope’s letter The Joy of the Gospel with the parish staff I was with at the time. I recall that many of us struggled initially with exactly what Pope Francis was talking about.
More recently, it popped up in one of the writings our Basilica small faith community is using on Tuesday evenings, Fr. Daniel mentioned it in a staff meeting, and I mentioned it again at the Basilica Young Adult fall retreat a few weeks ago. Most recently, I had just finished a wedding rehearsal and was starting to prepare for another one when a gentleman came in and started looking around. Eventually, he came to me and started asking questions about our beautiful Basilica. His first question was about our Baptism font, and early in our conversation he mentioned he had no faith background at all but was drawn in by the beauty of the space, as many are. We ended up walking around for a while and I tried to point out some of the many highlights around the church, trying to explain who Jesus was, who Mary was, why Jesus died on a cross, who the apostles are around our sanctuary, etc. It’s never easy trying to crystalize the great Mysteries of our faith in just a few sentences!
Eventually, he had to go check out another local landmark, the Mall of America. I invited him to join us for Mass that weekend before he had to travel back home to California, but he would not be able to come back. In reflecting on this time spent with him, I realized a few things. First, my admiration for our staff and volunteer docents who know so much about our lovely space was reaffirmed; I know just enough to usually refer people to our wonderful self-guided tour booklets. Second was a growth in my understanding about what Pope Francis meant in saying that realities are more important than ideas. I was able to point out some facts to him about our Basilica and the many ways it teaches us our Catholic faith, and for where he is at in his spiritual journey, it may have been helpful. However, if those ideas never become realities for him, if he only knows about Jesus Christ but never recognizes the experience of having an encounter with Jesus, he will always at best be stuck with an idea. Now, it’s a pretty great idea, but it’s nothing like the reality of knowing Jesus Christ.
This encounter led me to have a powerful examination of my own conscience. How much do I really seek the kind of experiential encounter that Pope Francis is referencing? Am I more comfortable with the idea of God, rather than seeking an actual encounter with God through prayer, participation in our sacraments, and/or encounters of service that lead me to those who are on the margins of our society? The Saints we honor in our icons throughout our sanctuary this month lived out the truth that realities are more important than ideas; perhaps we can all learn from them and follow their example.