The Fresh Wind of the Spirit of God
Fr Steven Tynan, MGL
Pope Francis is certainly causing a bit of a stir in the press. There are many applauding what he has to say and also many expressing consternation with positions that he seems to be taking, or that people claim that they can read or discern in his statements and interviews. There are those in the media painting the new pope as a ‘breath of fresh air’ and a liberal based upon some of his comments to media and peripheral statements made in interviews.
Is Pope Francis about to challenge or even change the Church’s position on various moral or doctrinal issues? Is he going to open the way for the liberalization of theology and morality? I think not! If one reads the more in depth interviews that he has made over the years, and I speak here particularly of his extensive dialogue with the then Chief Rabbi of Argentina, Abraham Skorka, available to us all under the title of “On Heaven and Earth,” New York: Image, 2013 [trans.]), one will see that Pope Francis is about as orthodox as they come in his views on morality and doctrine. Those who suggest he has a liberal streak or are drawing conclusions that he is about to change the Church’s teachings in these areas have either not read this discussion or choose to ignore it and grasp at phrases taken out of context in the more widely available statements and interviews of and with the pope.
My attention has been called to the recently published interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. that appeared in a number of journals including America (Sept 30, 2013), where some are suggesting that they read a radical repositioning of the Church under the watch of Pope Francis. Is this true? Let us briefly look at this interview and see what the pope has to say in it.
For me the first major point Pope Francis makes is that he wants to enter into dialogue and discernment concerning first and foremost the things that really matter. He mentions this in the context of one of the mottos of John XXIII concerning good governance in that one should “see everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little." This he argues is derived from the vision of Ignatius, “not to be limited by the greatness and yet to be contained in the tiniest – this is the divine.” (Non coerceri a maximo, sed contineri a minimo divinum est.) The Pope is not advocating blissful ignorance of the problems facing the Church but saying that through careful and patient dialogue we must identify the right way(s) in which to lay the foundations for moving forward in the work of the Church. Many would suggest that the idea of spiritual discernment is at the heart of what Ignatian spirituality offers the Church, and thus it is not a surprise if it will be at the centre of Pope Francis’ papacy. Pope Francis notes that this will require patience and commitment.
The second point that really drew my attention was the pope’s use of the image of the Church as a Field Hospital. The pope is calling for a Church that has to the ability to heal wounds and minister mercy. It is the duty of the pastors of the Church to walk with and attend to the needs of their flock and see that no one gets left behind. Bishops should be in their dioceses and priests in their parishes and ministries so that the first priority of the Church, preaching the Gospel on every street corner is a living reality. This call to conversion of heart to the point that the hearts of the faithful ‘burn’ with faith and love like the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24), needs to be the Church’s first concern.
Its second concern needs to be a comprehensive catechesis that forms the faithful in the ways of the Holy Spirit. Only when the faithful’s hearts are converted to Christ and formed in his mind and heart will it be possible to successfully address the third concern, namely the issues that confront the faithful in their moral lives and their relationship with a secular society. If we make the first focus the issues, which some might argue has been a tendency of late, then the danger will be that the Church spends all its energies trying to convince people of Church teaching without any common understanding or foundation. I believe the pope is of the opinion, and it is something that I would agree with, that if we can foster living relationships with God as the general experience of the faithful then there will be a desire for formation and catechesis that will lead to a situation where the issues, particularly the moral ones, will ‘work themselves out of their own accord’ within the context of a lived experience of faith. Why? If the work of true conversion is ongoing in our lives then we will not be focused on the ‘issues’ but on deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ! This is what truly matters; conversion gives a person a totally new perspective and means by which to approach any moral or doctrinal issue. So, Pope Francis wants the Church to rediscover its identity as ‘proclaimer of the Kingdom of God’ and ‘the community of the faithful,’ as this is at the heart of the way forward as he sees it.
For Pope Francis the life of discipleship is a journey, an adventure to be undertaken with passion and patience. We must make room for God in our lives and not just expect him to fit in where it is convenient to us. We will make mistakes, all people do, but if these mistakes are made within the context of our seeking God above all things, they will be learning experiences as well as mistakes. The dogmatic certainty that Pope Francis wants us to have first and foremost is the belief and trust that God is working in every person’s life. We are all in search of our identity as sons and daughters of God and as we embrace this journey of seeking and discovering God in the midst of our daily lives, we cannot afford to lose sight of either our humanity or God’s compassion – his desire to be with us as Immanuel.
In summary, we as members of the Church or the Church as a whole cannot reconstruct our lives or the institution of the Church with the starting point of doctrinal purity. Faith is a lived relationship and so our focus and that of the Church must first and foremost be evangelization whereby that relationship is established. It is pastoral concerns, proclaiming and witnessing to the truth that God wants to draw near to us, and our drawing close to him, that have the highest priority. Secondly, the relationship must be nourished through thorough catechesis. And finally the issues, moral and doctrinal, can be addressed.
It is imperative that the Church gets the emphasis right and continually focusing on the issues that only result in division will not build a healthy and loving community. Our faith community is built on the common element of God’s love for all mean and women and this has to be the starting point of both evangelization and pastoral practice. Once our relationships have been thoroughly nourished in God’s Word and the life of the Holy Spirit, we will be ready to address the various doctrinal and moral issues in detail.