Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Pope Francis had a reason for his jeremiad

Right after all those no-nos I’ve just presented, Francis offers a “Yes!” It’s very simple: “Yes to the new relationships brought by Christ.”  He means in community and he is speaking to those of us who are online right now.
... some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.
He knows we are afraid. Yet he insists:
The Christian ideal will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us.
To Francis, true faith “is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others” and “the revolution of tenderness.”

Most meaningful to me, in addition to the well-worn advice to see Jesus in others (difficult to follow often enough), is the little gem advising “to suffer in the embrace of the crucified Jesus whenever we are unjustly attacked or meet with ingratitude, never tiring of our decision to live in fraternity.” How much better than anger, rancor and bad blood! Just envision Jesus on the cross saying he knows how that feels.

OK, so here comes the surprise. In that last post I skipped over a bit before getting to what the newspapers reported about the document I am analyzing.

The headlined stuff wasn’t the first thing in this document in any case, but I didn’t think the critique of the world by a man whose position is in many ways removed from it would make sense without first laying out Francis’ internal critique of the Church and the noes that have to begin being said internally.

Most importantly, he said those newsy things in the context of the joys of the gospel and its news of new possibilities for human relationship.

So here are his noes for society at large:
  • No to an economy of exclusion
  • No to the new idolatry of money
  • No to a financial system which rules rather than serves
  • No to the inequality which spawns violence
 Exclusion is meant in the sense of access to the essentials of life in dignity.
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.
There is little that is new here to anyone with a cursory familiarity with the gospel or the last hundred years of papal social teaching.

Jorge Bergoglio knows something about walking the walk. After all, as a Jesuit he took vows of lifelong chastity, poverty and obedience. Those vows turn upside down the socially approved goals of sex, money and power.

Next: How Francis thinks of the Church ...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

No to selfishness and spiritual sloth, sterile pessimism, spiritual worldliness and warring among ourselves

The title summarizes some of the temptations Pope Francis sees affecting all believers engaged in the essential mission of the Christian Church, from bishops to “those who provide the most humble and hidden services.” For this item of his agenda, the pope takes off his miter, grows a beard and puts all of us with faith on the psychotherapist’s couch.

This includes you and me. Dr. Bergoglio diagnoses us in the following way:
At times our media culture and some intellectual circles convey a marked scepticism with regard to the Church’s message, along with a certain cynicism. As a consequence, many pastoral workers, although they pray, develop a sort of inferiority complex which leads them to relativize or conceal their Christian identity and convictions. This produces a vicious circle. They end up being unhappy with who they are and what they do; they do not identify with their mission of evangelization and this weakens their commitment. They end up stifling the joy of mission with a kind of obsession about being like everyone else and possessing what everyone else possesses. Their work of evangelization thus becomes forced, and they devote little energy and very limited time to it. (EG, 79)
For example, the pope complains, priest and laypeople alike “feel an overbearing need to guard their personal freedom, as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than a joyful response to God’s love which summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive.” The result is that they “end up in a state of paralysis and acedia.”

This word acedia is very important to this text. I looked at the Spanish version, which I am guessing is the one the pope penned, and instead of “No to selfishness and spiritual sloth” this section is called No a la acedia egoísta (No to selfish acedia).

Dictionary.com defines acedia as: 1. sloth and 2. laziness or indifference in religious matters. In a peculiarly un-dictionary way, the site reminds us also that it is one of the seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The list was first drawn up in Greek by a 4th century monk and in the 6th century put in its present order by Pope Gregory the Great, he of the chants and the mission to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons.

Importantly, the use of sloth instead of acedia in English is relatively recent. Sloth lacks the element of dejection of the original Greek term akedia. It is a sad laziness, drenched in melancholy.

Francis begs believers, instead, to experience and happily share the joy of the gospel.

“The evils of our world—and those of the Church—must not be excuses for diminishing our commitment and our fervour,” he bids the reader in paragraph 84. “With the eyes of faith, we can see the light which the Holy Spirit always radiates in the midst of darkness, never forgetting that ‘where sin increased, grace has abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20).”

Again, I go to the Spanish version to note that “abounded” is given as sobreabundó (literally over-abounded), meaning that God has over-forgiven, or forgiven all and then some, as humanity has had an abundance of misbehavior. The English doesn’t seem to convey the sense of lavish divine forgiveness.

Next he takes on the modern “Pharisees,” meaning those who display “appearance of piety and even love for the Church” but really seek “human glory and personal well-being.” ’Nuff said.

In the same short and sweet way I will dispose of the obvious about warring among ourselves. Francis writes: “How many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities! In our neighbourhoods and in the workplace, how many wars are caused by envy and jealousy, even among  Christians!”

Note that in all this list of temptations there is nothing about sex. Instead, there is a diagnosis that helps explain the boils and cankers of that turned the dulcet face of Christianity into that of hoary Roman whore (biblical rhetorical excess intended).

Still, Francis wants to put a welcoming smile on that face, one that may sweeten it once again. He wants Christianity to smile, as he does.

Next: a little surprise ...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Jesus was not born and did not die on the cross to bore people on Sundays

Jesus was not born and did not die on the cross for mediocre men to raise money for buildings where people could be guaranteed boredom on Sundays for at least some part of an hour.

Church, to the extent that Jesus envisioned such a thing, was meant to be merely missionary: go tell them what you’ve seen and heard. Not to put up buildings for worship. Not to establish very nice (but tax-exempt, thus suspect) charities. Not to found schools with crucifixes in classrooms.

Pope Francis even goes on to say, “There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization.” He doesn’t name them: he’s a glass half-full kind of guy.

Anyone expecting Francis to rejigger the organizational chart or to rewrite the rules of the Catholic Church, or of Christianity, had better be warned. He won’t.

He says the parish is OK. The bishops are OK. And yet … here and there he sprinkles some ideas of how they could be better. Some of them are quite radical.

He tells bishops, “In the mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, [the bishop] will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law.” Then he footnotes a whole rafter of articles of the Code of Canon law (specifically, canons 460-468; 492-502; 511-514; 536-537).

Watch those footnotes! Once you read the particular ones I have just cited it is clear that he is telling bishops: Guys, use synods and councils and other bodies we already have to ... listen to people!

Still, he sticks to his topic: “Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone. ”

Translation: Forget the brick-and-mortar issues, guys; start and end with evangelizing. If you must, sure, get together to plan out your strategy (with a healthy dose of listening), but don’t dwell on who wears what uniform or has which title. Go out and spread the word, for crying out loud.

He starts at home, saying “It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. ” Then he goes on to criticize the current centralization of ecclesiastical decisionmaking in Rome and to suggest some rearrangements.

In the end, the spirit of the thing is what counts:
Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way.” I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.
I’ll leave you with that thought today.

Next: temptations … they’re not what you think!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

There’s a twinkle in Francis’ eyes

“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” Pope Francis knows that the gospel is not going to be shared persuasively by a bunch of gloomy complainers who are “dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious.”

Enough already with the bad news! Give them the good news. Show them how happy it makes you.

That’s why Francis began his essay with “la alegría del evangelio,” knowing full well that as his Spanish was rendered into the official Latin, then translated to other languages, it would come out starting with the “the joy of the gospel.” Joy first.

The evangelists he wants his fellow Christians to have had the encounter with Christ, experienced “a profound liberation” that has made him or her “more sensitive to the needs of others” and acquire a generous spirit open to the newness that God imbues in an old message.

Here’s where Francis sets me up to tell a modestly irreverent old joke.

You see, there was an old priest who at the community dinner table said grace with everybody, then exclaimed, “Hebrews 13:8!” The first time he heard it, the new young priest went to look up the verse (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever”) but remained puzzled.

An older colleague told him to insert an exclamation mark after the second word, capitalize the third, then add another exclamation mark at the end of the sentence. Then the new priest got it: calling out the verse citation was a “biblical way to complain about the same old, same old meals.

I’m sure the pope has heard of this one. Indeed, to those who might be puzzled at finding new ways to preach the same old message Francis offers the following:
Though it is true that this mission demands great generosity on our part, it would be wrong to see it as a heroic individual undertaking, for it is first and foremost the Lord’s work, surpassing anything which we can see and understand.
Then he gilds the lily with, you guessed, Hebrews 13:8. So get ready for surprises and laughter around Francis.

Next: Francis’ first agenda item.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What's it all about, Francis?

Pope Francis is not writing just for so. Very little he does is accidental. Perhaps that is because his very papacy, as his coat of arms’ motto miserando atque eligendo (lowly but chosen) acknowledges, is an unexpected paradox.

This is his very first major papal document that is completely his own.

The encyclical released in June, Lumen Fidei (The Light of the Faith), took up a draft of a document his predecessor had left unfinished. Similarly, the various speeches and motu propios have been addressed to visitors on particular occasions or to Vatican officials for administrative purposes.

This is a message to the universal Church and to the world announcing his agenda.

An apostolic exhortation is one of the newest forms of papal documents (first used in 1939). It’s an essay in which the pope thinks out loud. Unlike constitutions, bulls and sometimes encyclicals, an apostolic exhortation does not set out to define doctrine, state policies or rule on some aspect of canon law.

To exhort is to urge or advise a course of action earnestly. Think of Francis as standing by the side of a road urging and calling out to his students, “come on, let’s go!”

Indeed, just as a outings sometimes fulfill education aims unmet in the classroom, Francis has seized upon a recent extracurricular event, in this case the XIIIth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome in October 2012, as the teachable moment to address his class.

“I was happy to take up the request of the Fathers of the Synod ,” he writes, winking a little at the reader, to think about the meeting’s official topic: the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith.

No sighing. Keep in mind that such phrases come from Latin, still the official language of the Catholic Church. Put into simpler terms it was a meeting about: spreading the gospel in a new way, to make sure it gets passed on.

Francis is not an iconoclastic firebrand by any means. He takes the traditional means to pour in some new life, some new wine, into the vessels that carry the faith.

Since the business of the Church is to spread the gospel, a meeting about that is an especially good springboard to start “pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

Next: what a real evangelist looks like to Pope Francis.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Papa Bergoglio invites us to feel better

An experiential and emotional response to the “good news” (or gospel) of Jesus Christ provides the opening for Pope Francis’ first document addressed to the whole world that is entirely his. From what follows I surmise that Papa Bergoglio is not merely following form; he is sharing his experience and his feelings with us, and assuming that he feels as every Christian does.

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” is the first sentence, so very un-papally reader friendly, without stern finger wagging. To Francis the encounter and its consequences are not something you must and should do, but rather something entirely voluntary, a matter of becoming one of “those who accept his offer of salvation.”

Jesus offers, you accept. Or not.

But, hey, if you do you are “set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.” Not a bad deal, but it’s not one to be hoarded as if it were a cache of Black Friday purchases. Instead, it’s something he wants all those who take advantage of the salvation “sale” to tell everyone else how and where to get it.

The word for that in Catholicspeak is evangelization, or speading the gospel (from the Anglo-Saxon “good spell,” meaning good story).

Francis next provides an example, himself addressing those in the reading stadium, as if he were Billy Graham: step right up, right now and pray to Jesus. He even gives us the words to use:

Lord, I have let myself be deceived; 
in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, 
yet here I am once more, 
to renew my covenant with you. 
I need you. 
Save me once again, Lord, 
take me once more into your redeeming embrace.

That’s what I did; I prayed and felt a lot better. 

Francis is right: it feels good, we don’t have to accept a life of grasping consumption and a “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures” that keeps out concern for the poor and others and leaves us “resentful, angry and listless.”

Next: the document’s context and significance beyond this very personal opening to the reader.