After the Pope’s Interview: Three Hard Things

Cape Cod, Mass. Like many readers of America, I am grateful to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editors of America and allied journals, and all those involved in Pope Francis’ interview, which is so much in the news this week. It is hard to believe where we are at the moment, with this breath of fresh air—prudence, humility, common sense and a deep commitment to the Gospel—that Francis is breathing into the church. We can only hope that his words lead to actions that change things, so that this is the start of a new era in today’s church, a living out of the insights of the Second Vatican Council 50 years later. We can only hope that those in the church, who ever reminded the rest of us to listen to Cardinal Ratzinger-Pope Benedict, are listening to our current Holy Father with the humility and docility they so highly prized just a few months ago.

That said, I was a little worried after reading the interview. Of course, I am always a little worried when a leader is so attuned to my own thinking, and speaks words that so seamlessly make sense to me. If the pope is making sense to me, will he also be making sense to the church as a whole? Clearly he is making sense—tapping into the sensus fidelium—if first reactions are indicative. But I have three worries that remind me of how narrow a path the pope is leading us along. For he is asking (at least) three hard things of us.


First, Francis expects us actually to discern, to find the will of God out there before us, in the large and small, easy and difficult things before us: “This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change… Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later… Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor.” Francis is calling for an end to the passive, spectator church, where we applaud when we like it, selectively adhere to some Catholic values, and sit on our hands or walk away when we are not pleased. Discernment, the pure and simple seeking of the will of God, demands our full engagement. Nobody gets to sit back and watch, merely criticizing those who try seriously to engage the world. What Francis says is true on top, with cardinals and bishops, needs to be true from the ground up: “I do not want token consultations, but real consultations. The consultation group of eight cardinals, this ‘outsider’ advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.” If Francis makes these words come true in the church, parishes and dioceses will become places of real and not token consulations run from the top. We will have to take the time to represent ourselves more loudly, listening to others who do the same, all of us faced with a future we do not know clearly and therefore need to discern.

Second, he is asking us to think like Jesuits. Of course, not everyone is a Jesuit, and we know that Ignatian spirituality is neither unique nor solely for Jesuits. But is he expecting too much? “Discernment” is a word that goes down easily for a Jesuit, and smoothly rolls off our tongues. But not everyone is familiar with this tradition, the practice it takes and the detachment it entails. A call to discernment as the church’s way forward requires tremendous effort at every level, a free and grown-up search for the will of God, and not determining the future by what had seemed best in the past. How does this Jesuit ideal, which after all is just one charism if taken in a narrow sense, make sense to Catholics steeped in other spiritualities? Benedict’s professorial and semi-monastic and inward-looking vision of Christendom made sense in terms of where he was coming from and challenged us, even if at times it did not ring true with our experience. Will Francis’ Jesuit vision likewise seem foreign for too many in the church? If he asks us to discern in freedom and rethink our priorities, there is always the danger that for some it will come down to a freedom not settled upon deeper spiritual foundations.

Third, Francis is giving us a lot to do. His fresh air brings new life to the church and renews the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. He reminds us that we can keep our values, without obsessing over contraception, abortion, gay marriage and ordination issues. But after obsession, there is work to be done. Francis is not suggesting that we can all sit back and relax. By no means, because when the church is freed from undue attachment to just some issues, it can then turn to its full and urgent mission for today. Again: “Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor.” The world is in terrible shape. People still suffer desperate deprivation; resources basic to human dignity are in short supply; the environment is in terrible shape. In our own country, the gap between rich and poor is growing, even as Congress attempts to cut food stamps; the economy’s slow drift is causing enormous suffering for ordinary people and creating a whole new class of the permanently under-employed; deeply engrained “ordinary” racism cruelly demains people and denies them their dignity, in subtle and not so subtle ways; our prisons are overflowing to no good purpose; gun violence seems only to get worse and our politicians are afraid to act; the unresolved issues of immigration leave people cruelly vulnerable and deprived of basic security. Where there are such great needs, there the church must be.

Francis’ vision of the church is not simply that we become less uptight and more open, but also that we directly point to the crises of our time and face down those in power. But prophets cause upset and make enemies: “Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves… Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’” If Francis is calling us to a new vision of church, letting go of old baggage and discerning as if we are adults means that there are new risks to take. No one will get to be a spectator in Francis’ fresh vision of church.

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