In Florence, Francis Re-Boots Evangelii Gaudium

by Michael Sean Winters

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Pope Francis gave a very important, and impassioned, talk this morning at the Cathedral in Florence to a Congress of the Italian Church. My colleague Joshua McElwee has a report on the talk here.

The Holy Father’s address is a kind of re-boot of the vision of the Church he outlined in Evangelii Gaudium, his programmatic apostolic exhortation issued in the first year of his pontificate. He doubtlessly returned to the themes articulated there because they have not entirely been absorbed. Also, because this meeting in Italy is a big deal, bringing together thousands of Catholics from across the country every ten years. The only thing even remotely akin to this meeting in the U.S. Church is the national Encuentro, which brings together Latino Church leaders from across the nation. Here was a moment for the pope to speak from his heart about what is most important. As you read McElwee’s account, you will realize he did not disappoint.

These words from McElwee's report seem to be a reflection on the opposition Pope Francis encountered at the recently concluded Synod:

"Before the problems of the church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally," the pontiff said at one point during his remarks.

"Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives -- but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened," said the pope. "It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ."

"The reform of the church then, and the church is semper reformanda  ... does not end in the umpteenth plan to change structures," he continued. "It means instead grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit -- so that all will be possible with genius and creativity."

The pairing of “unsettled” and “enlivened” is stunning, yes? So, too, the call for genius and creativity, which seemed rather lacking in some synod interventions. Indeed, one could say that some synod fathers evidenced a commitment to a joyless Gospel in their interventions, all Good Friday with no Easter Sunday.

The joy the pope is calling us to is not just any joy, but the joy of the Gospel. The theme of the conference was Christian humanism. And, what is distinctive about Christian humanism is its rootedness in the person of Jesus Christ.

Looking at his face, what do we see? Before all, the face of a God who is emptied, a God who has assumed the condition of servant, humble and obedient until death. The face of Jesus is similar to that of so many of our humiliated brothers, made slaves, emptied. God had assumed their face. And that face looks to us. If we do not lower ourselves we will not see his face. We will not see anything of his fullness if we do not accept that God has emptied God’s self. Therefore we will not understand anything of Christian humanism and our words will be beautiful ... but will not be words of faith. They will be words that resonate with emptiness.

“If we do not lower ourselves we will not see his face.” Again, it is hard not to recognize that these words came from, and were strengthened by, a heart saddened by some of what he heard at the synod, and in other meetings with bishops and, perhaps especially, curial officials, who are not known for lowering themselves. There are echoes of Gaudium et Spes #22 here as well, a text which always draws the Church away from worldliness and remains a kind of hermeneutical key to the entire body of conciliar texts.

The Holy Father identified some impediments to his vision, notably Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Of Pelagianism, he said, “Often it brings us to assume a style of control, of hardness, of normalcy. The norm gives to the Pelagian the security of feeling superior, of having a precise orientation. In this is found its force, not in the lightness of the breath of the Spirit.” Those three dead nouns – control, hardness, normalcy – go a long way towards explaining the various ailments that afflict the Church in the U.S. Think of the initial response to the clergy sex abuse scandal. Think of the way some prelates deal with those who challenge them. The pope urged the Italian Church to “Assume always the Spirit of the great explorers, that on the sea were passionate for navigation in open waters and were not frightened by borders and of storms. May it be a free church and open to the challenges of the present, never in defense for fear of losing something.” The words “not frightened” and “never in defense” again seem like a response to the naysayers at the synod, those who wondered why they were discussing issues that were “settled.”

On Gnosticism, the Holy Father said, “The difference between Christian transcendence and any form of gnostic spiritualism remains in the mystery of the incarnation. Not putting it in practice, not guiding the Word to reality, means building on sand, remaining in pure idea ... which does not give fruit, which make sterile [God's] dynamism.” Again, overtones of GS # 22. And the phrase “guiding the Word to reality” may be the keenest expression of Pope Francis’ understanding of ministry we have yet seen.

Reading the report, and seeing it as, in some ways, a reflection of the pope’s experience at the synod, I wondered why he did not add Jansenism to the list of impediments to his vision for the Church. Then it hit me: These were Italians to whom he was speaking, not Americans.

The Holy Father’s message to the bishops was the antithesis of clericalism. He said, “To the bishops, I ask you to be pastors. May this be your glory. It will be the people, your flock, that sustain you…As pastors may you not be preachers of complex doctrine, but pronouncers of Christ, dead and resurrected for us. Aim for the essential, the kerygma.” The first half of the quote indicates an end to the Reverse Caiaphas Syndrome, in which the whole people are sacrificed for the sake of one man, namely, a bishop unequal to his ministry. The second half, again, seems redolent of the Holy Father’s experience of the synod, which mistook the Church’s ethical norms for the essential, when it is the kerygma that is essential.

Yesterday, I wrote about next week’s USCCB meeting. I now have a new idea. When the session opens on Monday morning, the bishops should set aside the agenda, read this entire talk, pray over it, maybe have small group discussions of it, and then return to their agenda in the afternoon. How do they evaluate their ministry, individually and as a conference, in the light of the pope’s remarks? The Holy Father said this morning, “We are not living an era of change but a change of era.” Will that change of era be manifest in Baltimore next week?


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