‘There is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also present in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today.” Pope Francis said this in the groundbreaking interview conducted by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., on behalf of La Civilità Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal of which he is editor in chief, and of Americaand other Jesuit magazines.
“God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystalizes them. God is in history, in the processes,” he stated. Consequently, “We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather that occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics.”
The interview took place in August 2013. Francis had already finished writing his first magisterial document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” an apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world. In that text, the programmatic document for his pontificate, he emphasized the need “to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events” (No. 223).
This criterion also applies to evangelization, he said; “it calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long run” (No. 225).
I recall all this because I believe it is important to see “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”) as a milestone in a historical process that began with Francis’ decision in 2013 to hold a worldwide consultation and two meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family. “The Joy of Love” is not the end of the process. On the contrary, it has opened doors to something more far-reaching in the Catholic Church and its approach to marriage and the family. It recognizes there can be “various ways of interpreting some aspects of [the church’s] teaching or drawing certain consequences from it” and says “each country or region can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” Francis had already decentralized decisions regarding marriage annulments to the local church and now goes further in the area of inculturation.
The first impact of “The Joy of Love” is sure to be felt by bishops and priests, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn predicted when he presented the text at the Vatican press conference. They will have much more work because of its call for “accompanying, discerning, integrating” Catholics in “imperfect” situations and forming consciences. Bishops, of course, will have to ensure that their priests and pastoral workers are suitably prepared for this delicate task.
In the exhortation, Francis makes demands also of those who teach moral theology, whether in seminaries, universities or other institutes. He asks them “to incorporate” (No. 311) the considerations in “The Joy of Love” into their courses and affirms that “although it is quite true that concern must be shown for the integrity of the Church’s moral teaching, special care should always be shown to emphasize and encourage the highest and most central values of the Gospel, particularly the primacy of charity as a response to the completely gratuitous offer of God’s love.” At times, he says, “we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance,” and “that is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.”
Yet again, Francis explains that “mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth.” For this reason, he says, “we should always consider inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.”
He tells pastors: “That is the mindset which should prevail in the church and lead us to open our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society.”Pope Francis has started a process that has already given new hope to many people and, in the long run, could renew the face of the church.