Friday, February 26, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am

It had to happen. This has been one long and a little bit crazy political campaign. Something was bound to happen to bring the church into the fray front and center.

As you are probably well aware, on Feb. 17 Pope Francis was holding his customary in-flight news conference as he headed back to Rome at the end of his six-day trip to Mexico. The papal trip had just concluded with a Mass celebrated just yards from the U.S.-Mexican border.

With the immigration debate being a heated subject in the presidential campaign, the issue was bound to be raised at the in-flight news conference, especially as Republican candidate Donald Trump had already told Fox Business Network that Pope Francis was a “politician” who was being used as a pawn by the Mexicans.

When asked on the flight about Trump’s proposal that the United States extend the fence along the full length of the Mexican border to keep out immigrants, Pope Francis answered that: “a person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, isn’t Christian.”

The explosion then commenced. The Trump camp — and Trump himself — went ballistic assuring that the lead story in the news was that Pope Francis was attacking the presidential candidate and denigrating his faith. Locally, I was asked questions ranging from whether a Catholic who voted for Trump could still be considered a good Catholic, to whether such a vote could be grounds for excommunication.

Things finally scaled down when the full quote was later reported. It was made clear that Pope Francis wasn’t telling anyone how to vote, in no way was he engaging in a personal attack on a candidate, and that he was not certain what was in Trump’s heart when he said what he said about immigration. The pope concluded by saying that he “would give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Trump later called Pope Francis a “wonderful guy” and chalked up the day’s drama to media hyperventilation.

The pope’s teaching

The fact is that the Holy Father has long used the analogy of building bridges, not walls, when it comes to refugees and immigration. He has been dealing with this issue in Europe and, despite claims to the contrary, he is speaking as a pastor. Not as a politician. As a matter of fact, one of the titles used for the Pope is “PONTIFF,” which literally means “bridge builder.”

The pope had just spoken out forcefully on the issue when he celebrated that Mass in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexican border. Broadcast live into Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso on the U.S. side of the border, the Holy Father had given an impassioned homily. While not calling directly for open borders, the Holy Father begged: “No more death. No more exploitation!” In calling for “open hearts,” he said that, “They are our brothers and sisters who are being expelled by poverty and violence, drug trafficking and organized crime.”

Naturally, the Holy Father, when asked about building walls, would have questioned whether such a position was Christian. He is talking about our lived experience as Christians — how we are to order our lives and see the world around us but through the eyes of and with the heart of Jesus. As Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, later stated, “the pope said what we know well from following his teaching and his positions.” At the very heart of the pope’s teaching as our pastor is the call in life to build bridges, not walls, between us. And this holds so critically true for the world’s refugees, fleeing war, terror and violence.

No one is excommunicated for supporting or voting for Donald Trump nor for any other candidate. But the issue we have to look at in light of our own formed consciences and our own faith is how we come to that point. What are the principles we hold in applying our faith to how we vote and how we arrive at our political positions? Do we get there in a secular vacuum, divorcing our faith from our politics?

The issue for each of us is how we make our decisions on issues in the public arena. Does the party or the candidate come before following our conscience? Does political ideology trump faith?

The question then is not whether a person is a “bad Catholic” for supporting either of the current frontrunners, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or any other candidate for that matter. The question you and I need to ask ourselves is what criteria do we use to determine our support of a candidate. Do we apply (as we must) the principles of our faith to a candidate, our lived Catholic experience, and be comfortable with him or her and the positions espoused in the public arena? That’s the heart of the issue.

Faith in the voting booth

As the primary season goes on at full speed, and to be followed soon enough by the nominating conventions and the presidential campaigns, it’s good to remind ourselves now of the call to faithful citizenship.

Faithful citizenship means that we are actively engaged in the political process and that we bring to that process the perspective of our faith. It means that we are not controlled by political ideology, cynicism or conventional wisdom.

Just as Pope Francis made clear, the church does not tell anyone how to vote! The church does not suggest to anyone what candidate to vote for in the primaries or in the General Election! But the church asks, the Holy Father asks and I will certainly ask it of you as I ask it of myself — are we bringing our faith into the voting booth? This is not so easy! In fact, it is complex! There is, after all, no one candidate who espouses all of what we hold important in the church.

In this light, will you enter the voting booth with a clear understanding of the sacredness and dignity of every human life anywhere in the world? Do you understand the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion? Do you look for what is of the greatest service to our world, our country and our neighborhood? Do we look in particular for that which relieves suffering, serves the poor and allows for the greatest good? These questions are guided, as they must be, by our relationship to Jesus and his Gospel.

Politics can too often bring out the worst in us. We get inflamed by rhetoric and we tend to take it all very personally.

But on the other hand, politics can also bring out the best in us. It can be a means where the faith is applied in concrete ways to the issues of our day. We are not meant to run away from the challenges that face our world. (That’s one of the ground rules I try to follow as a leader.) We are meant rather to apply our faith to those challenges. As Pope Francis reminds us over and over and over again, we are called to faithful citizenship.

So! Where to begin!

First, study the issues at hand AND get familiar with the teachings and traditions of our Catholic faith!

Second, drop to our knees in prayer, looking for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit!

And third, apply our freedom as citizens combined with the richness of our faith as followers of Jesus and get ready to VOTE!

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