Francis: Theologians should smell like the sheep, too

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has called on Catholic theologians not to simply practice an academic exercise of studying at their desks, but to take their work to the frontiers to "pour oil and wine over the wounds of humankind."

Writing in a letter last week to the theological faculty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, the pope also adapted a favorite phrase he has used to describe the type of Catholic bishops he wants, calling on theologians to "smell of the people and of the road."

Francis' letter to the university, which is dated March 3 but was released by the Vatican on Monday, was addressed to its chancellor, Buenos Aires Cardinal Mario Aurelio Poli. The pope was writing on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the university's theology faculty.

Beginning his letter by noting that the faculty is celebrating its anniversary in the 50th year of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the pope tells them the council "produced an irreversible movement of renewal that comes from the Gospel."

"Now, we must go forward," Francis writes. "How, then, to go ahead? Teaching and studying theology means living on a frontier, one in which the Gospel meets the needs of the people to whom it should be proclaimed in an understandable and meaningful way."

"We must guard ourselves against a theology that is exhausted in the academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle," the pope says. "You learn it to live: theology and holiness are an inseparable pair."

"Do not settle for a theology of the desk," he continues. "Your place for reflection are the boundaries."

"And do not fall into the temptation to paint over them, to perfume them, to adjust them a bit and tame them," Francis writes. "The good theologians, like the good shepherds, smell of the people and of the road and, with their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of humankind."

"Theology may be an expression of a Church which is a 'field hospital,' which lives its mission of salvation and healing in the world," he continues. "Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude but it is the very same substance of the Gospel of Jesus."

"Without mercy our theology, our law, our pastoral care runs the risk of collapse into bureaucratic pettiness or ideology, which of itself wants to tame the mystery," the pope says. "Understanding theology is to understand God, who is love."

Moving on to address the kind of theology student the university should form, Francis says "certainly not a theologian 'of the museum' that accumulates data and information on revelation without really knowing what to do with it."

The theologian formed at the university, he says, "is a person able to build around themselves humanity, to transmit the divine Christian truth in a truly human dimension -- and not an intellectual without talent, an ethicist without kindness or a bureaucrat of the sacred."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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