Pope Francis: Two moments of much-needed inspiration
On October 23rd and 24th Pope Francis offered the kind of encouragement that can go a long way toward renewing the confidence of serious Catholics who lament the most obvious features of his pontificate. We have had rare flashes of such counter-cultural encouragement in the past, and it is obviously too early to suggest a new trend. But if the Pope were to more consistently stress themes that the world considers unwelcome—as he did on Sunday and Monday—I am convinced he would have greater success in re-energizing the Church.
Before I get carried way, I do have to admit that Francis also managed to hit his favorite theme of “rigidity” once again. This is one of those defining themes of Pope Francis that discourages those who care most about the teachings of the Church. In this case, he suggested the possible pathologies that lie behind “rigidity”, using the non-prodigal son as an example.
I suppose we have all met some people who strike us as far too “rigid”—those who believe adherence to rules, disciplines and traditions makes them holier than others. The Pope sees this attitude as duplicitous, self-righteous or pathological. Whatever the cause, it destroys charity, and charity is the true barometer of holiness. But few serious Catholics see this as a major problem in the Church today. After all, there has hardly been a rigid bone in the Church’s body since the first half of the last century. What we generally face now is not rigidity but spinelessness.
The difficulty of Pope Francis’ emphasis on this point is that terms like “rigid” and “rigidity” are routinely used to malign those who accept the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church. “Rigidity” is a term of art used by Modernists and secularists to discredit those who are unwilling to fudge their faith to accommodate secular culture. Serious Catholics have always wanted Pope Francis to give real examples of what he means by “rigidity” so that he cannot be interpreted—as he so often is—to be throwing out the Baby with the bathwater.
A zealous faith
One of the ways the Holy Father can avoid giving a false impression in this and similar matters is to uphold more frequently the need for Catholics to bear strong and positive witness to precisely those teachings of Christ and the Church which our surrounding culture rejects. It is far more difficult to take the term “rigidity” as a code word for orthodoxy when the Pope stresses the importance of bearing fearless witness even to those Catholic teachings which the world finds unpalatable. Happily, in two other interventions roughly 24 hours apart, Pope Francis has done exactly that.
The first case was an address to the leaders of the Society of Jesus, the Pope’s own order. The Society has over the past few generations become known for its betrayal of Catholic faith and morals. This has been especially true in university settings, where authentic Catholic witness is most needed in the formation of young adults. It is striking that Jesuit colleges and universities typically turn out students who are able to rise to leadership positions in the secular world precisely because they have learned how to explain away the most rudimentary demands of the Church.
Accordingly, committed Catholics have long hoped those in authority would recall the Jesuits to their founding charism. Sadly, when the Venezuelan Arturo Sosa, SJ was elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus a week or so ago, he speculated that the Order’s priorities would remain those set by the last General Congregation in 2008: Dialogue, work with migrants, and the fight against poverty. These are priorities which one hardly needs to be a Jesuit to pursue. Moreover, they usually have strong secular overtones which would make St. Ignatius turn in his grave. I cannot help but remember the old joke from Latin America: If you want to form a trade union, seek out a Catholic priest; if you want to learn about Jesus Christ, seek out a Protestant minister.
But yesterday Pope Francis offered a very different set of priorities when he addressed the leaders of the Society. Urging the Jesuits out to the peripheries, the Pope warned against worldly distractions from their central mission:
[J]ourneying, for Ignatius, was not simply to wander, but may be translated into something qualitative: it is profit and progress, it means going ahead, doing something for others. This is how it is expressed by the two Formulas of the Institute approved by Paul III (1540) and Julius III (1550) when they focus the occupation of the Society on faith—its defense and propagation—and on the life and the doctrine of people…. The benefit is not individualistic, it is common. The aim of the Society is not only that of occupying itself with the salvation and the perfection of the souls of its members through divine grace, but with the same grace to intensively promote the salvation and perfection of the souls of our neighbors.
The day before yesterday, Pope Francis had already devoted his Angelus address to the fearless proclamation of the Gospel, using St. Paul as a model of the missionary Church. This is striking because, of all the dynamic figures in the early Church, St. Paul has always struck “comfortable Christians” as the most rigid. Quite a few have even tried to prove that the letters of St. Paul, especially when they enumerate the sins which bar us from salvation, are nothing more than a distortion of Christ’s message.
But Pope Francis expressed a very different vision of the work of St. Paul. Here are two key excerpts:
The experience of the Apostle to the Gentiles reminds us that on the one hand, we must engage in pastoral and missionary activities as though the result depended on our efforts, with the spirit of sacrifice of an athlete who does not stop even when faced with defeat, and on the other, however, in the knowledge that the true success of our mission is a gift of grace….
We are required to have the courage to fight, not necessarily to win; to proclaim but not necessarily to convert. We are required to have the courage not to conform to the world, without however becoming polemical or aggressive. We are required to have the courage to be open to all, yet never to diminish the absolute and unique nature of Christ, sole Savior of all. We are required to have the courage to resist incredulity without arrogance. We are also required to have the courage of the publican in the Gospel today, he who with humility did not dare even raise his eyes to heaven, but instead beat his breast, saying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
If these themes were to become a staple of the current pontificate, a great many doubts would disappear. This is game-changing inspiration. It is a tongue of flame and a rushing wind (Acts 2:2). It dispels discouragement like so much smoke.
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