Of Many Things

On March 28, America and St. Joseph’s Seminary welcomed Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, to the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York. You will recall that Father Spadaro was the person who interviewed Pope Francis last year on behalf of Civiltà and America as well as 14 other Jesuit journals around the world. That interview, which dominated the news cycle in the United States, fully inaugurated the Age of Francis.

In the 18 months since those heady days, the pope has emerged as the most credible public figure on the planet, the subject of constant speculation and the source of not a few surprises. As Kathleen Parker observed in The Washington Post, Francis is the E. F. Hutton pope: when he speaks, people listen. That has been true of most popes, but Pope Francis’ unique elixir of credibility, authority and simplicity turns almost every papal pronouncement and gesture into media gold.

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Yet it is not just the media that are paying rapt attention, says Father Spadaro. Catholics throughout the world are watching with hope and awe, most of them asking just what the pope is really doing. Father Spadaro told his New York audience that this quintessentially American question, “What’s the bottom line?” is actually the wrong question.

Pope Francis does not think in results, he said, but in processes. In other words, the pope is setting in motion a series of processes through which we can better discern the mission of the church in the modern world, but he doesn’t have specific, predetermined outcomes in mind. That is the key, says Father Spadaro.

Sure, the pope is working on systematic reform of the policies and procedures of the Roman Curia, but when it comes to the big questions that occupy most of our water-cooler conversations, the pope doesn’t have easy answers, let alone answers he seeks to impose. He wants, rather, to create a culture and a process in which we can better discern the Holy Spirit’s answers to those questions, not necessarily in an absolute way, but in a way that makes sense in our own time.

Many commentators call this a radically new way of proceeding. But is it? On the one hand, as a friend recently observed, no U.S. corporation would hire a chief executive officer who did not have goals and a plan to realize them, let alone a man who would publicly admit as much. On the other hand, the church is not a corporation and the pope is not a C.E.O.

If anything, says Father Spadaro, the pope believes that the Holy Spirit is the church’s C.E.O. and the pope is more like the chief operating officer—a big deal, to be sure, but the number two at most. In that sense, what the pope is doing is not entirely new, but rather the ancient way of the church. In other words, the pope’s “process” is actually a pilgrimage and, as every pilgrim knows, what happens in every step along the path is often more important than the destination.

That way of looking at things, of course, is counterintuitive for everyone but people of faith. And that is what the pope is ultimately inviting us into: an act of faith. But let’s not mistake faith for certainty. They are not the same. In fact, they are opposites. Certainty is found in finite spaces, while the subject of faith is eternal.

As the pope has written, we cannot “allow our hope to be dimmed by facile answers and solutions which block our progress, ‘fragmenting’ time and changing it into space. Time is always much greater than space. Space hardens processes, whereas time propels toward the future and encourages us to go forward in hope.” A people of faith does not possess “a light that dissipates all of our shadows, but rather a light that guides our steps in the night; and this is enough for the journey.”

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