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The substance behind Pope Francis' style

Less dogmatic is the order of the day

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • May 19, 2014
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It’s clear that Pope Francis has a style and approach to his job that contrasts sharply with those of his predecessors over the last 50 years. The frequently asked question is whether there is substance behind the style and if so, what does it look like?

Traces of what he draws on are there to behold – if you know what you’re looking for – and offer clues to the direction in which he is leading the Church.

Pope Francis has made popular the image of the Church as a “field hospital”, something deployed to bring healing to battle-scarred warriors.

But there’s also an essential, if apparently little understood, connection to the mission of the Church as expressed in the opening words of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World – Gaudium et Spes: “ The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” (GS, 1)

An all too familiar and contrary understanding of the Church and its mission has prevailed particularly in the last two decades and especially in the West: the fortress Church, the one locked behind its defenses and giving admission only to the pure, the elect and the approved.

In the gatherings of cardinals before he was elected, Cardinal Bergoglio was reported to have said that Catholicism has become altogether too “self-referential”, a word he used to describe the situation of elitism and condescension, most particularly evident in one of his frequent objects of criticism as pope – careerist clericalism.

Self-referential used in the context of the Church easily translates to a more commonly used English term – self-absorbed.

This condition of self-absorption has had practical impacts throughout the world, vividly illustrated in the Church’s handling of sex abuse cases. Done behind closed doors for fear of scandal, something even more scandalous was done to cover it up.

While Pope Francis has not distinguished himself yet on the subject of sex abuse and, on a couple of occasions, has shown himself to be in need of being brought up to speed on the subject, it will take too much of an imaginative leap for him to grasp the problem and authorize the relevant changes needed in the conduct of Church authorities on the issue.

Why? Because put positively, what Pope Francis is saying is that the Church gets its bearings not from its own internal fixed points but from where its vocation is to be found – where Vatican II in general but Gaudium et Spes in particular suggested it would: in its service to a world that is hungry, thirsty, bruised and in need.

One of the earliest actions of Francis as pope was to canonize a Jesuit, Peter Faber, to whom he has had a deep devotion over many years. It is in this gesture that we can see what is at work in his wider agenda.

Peter Faber was the first Jesuit priest. He was no remarkable theologian though he was a peritus at the council of Trent shortly before he died at the age of 40.

As described by the title of the best-known biography of him, Faber was “the quiet companion” whose major distinction was the accolade given him by the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, as the best director of what Ignatius created – the 30 day retreat according to his Spiritual Exercises.

Faber was above all the pastor of souls who would go to the greatest lengths to bring comfort, reconciliation and encouragement to people, often travelling great distances on foot or by horseback to minister to those in need.

Here is Pope Francis’ portrait of Peter Faber whom he canonized, one that could be considered an autobiographical reflection. For Pope Francis, Faber was a man able to “dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents. He was a man of simple piety, a certain naiveté perhaps, someone able to be available straightaway, capable of careful interior discernment, a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”

This irenic approach draws deeply on the contemplative vision proposed by St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises and in fact echoes what he suggests as the first thing someone contemplatively attuned should do when caught in controversy or dispute – be prepared to consider one’s opponent as well disposed and even to force oneself to see the plausibility of what the opponent is proposing.

This is essentially a mystical rather than dogmatic approach to accepting or communicating the faith, and it seems to have its basis in the writings of a little-known Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau, who died in 1986.

For de Certeau, the Church of statutes and dogmas offered no path forward for Christian faith in a pluralistic, postmodern and secular world. The future for Christians, de Certeau believed, lay in the mystical. What did he mean by that?

For de Certeau, a mystic is one who understands that life is dynamic and that any achievement or destination reached is only a prelude to a further discovery.

Where Pope Francis takes this attitude, which is essentially a contemplative and searching one rather than a didactic and dogmatic one, will be significant for where his emphasis as pope will lie.

Pope Francis believes “the correct attitude is that of St Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever”.

This view corresponds exactly with de Certeau’s definition of a mystic. As with de Certeau, the pope’s favorite metaphor for talking about encounters with God is traveling, or “walking” – something they both take from St Ignatius who always reffered to himself as a pilgrim.

As Pope Francis puts it: “God is encountered walking, along the path. […] God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him.”

Such an approach is anything but dogmatic and applies to more than the interior life, as expressed by Pope Francis during an interview published last year in America magazine.

“Human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

Being ready to receive what life experience throws up leads to another deep source which is already demonstrably part of the current pope’s make-up – discernment, that daily practice of any Jesuit still in touch with what lay at the heart of the Order’s Spiritual Exercises.

But the purpose of choosing is to do something, to act. Choices are always difficult and decisions can be costly and wrong. The discernment process the pope is most familiar with stresses the need to have as many of the facts as can be had before a decision is made.

That is where the Ignatian framework proposes attention to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and finally an act of faith in what may turn out to be right or wrong.

It is clear that Pope Francis wants action. Some things he has done quickly, like taking homosexuality off the table as a point of contest among Catholics and the quaint pageantry that passed for Catholic liturgy and ceremony at the Vatican. Other matters of greater complexity need an inclusive process.

Access to the Eucharist for remarried divorcees, celibacy of the male clergy and the role of women in ministry in the Church are all issues that need to have substantial understanding and support before any effective and successful enactment can occur.

Only a process headed for decision that also patiently gathers people, gathers and shares the facts and viewpoints on them can take the Church beyond the paralysis that currently enfeebles it.

Fr Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com

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