Monthly Archives: April 2014

Peace and Unity

One of my favorite parts of Evangelii Gaudium is Francis’ study of peace and unity. As we celebrate Pope Saint John XXIII, whose best-known encyclical is Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), and whose best-known anything was convening the Second Vatican Council, which paved the way for any number of steps toward Christian and interreligious signs of unity, the timing isn’t bad to look at this.

Peace and unity among Christians is an essential part of our witness, our evangelization. “I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another.” (99)

But it’s in one of his last sections, after most of us have nodded off or flipped on TV, that Francis outlines some really good thoughts on what peace is and isn’t. “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor.” (218) “Nor is peace ‘simply the absence of warfare, based on a precarious balance of power; it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day towards the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect justice among men.'” (179) (quoting Paul VI’s Populum Progressio

So where does true peace come from? Francis offers four principles. 1) “Time is greater than space” (222-225), which means playing the long game, taking the long view, focusing on the process and not the immediate results. This only happens with Christian hope that God is in charge. It is here that Francis invokes the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

2) “Unity prevails over conflict” (226-230). Francis rightly assesses that when faced with conflict, we tend to choose from three options: ignore it, embrace it, or resolve it. That last option (the right answer, if you weren’t clear), requires perspective-taking in which parties seek to understand each other and work toward resolution. It approaches diversity not as discord but as a potential for greater harmony.

3) “Realities are more important than ideas” (231-233) (can you imagine Benedict XVI ever saying that?) Francis worries that too many leaders get so caught up in thoughts that are disconnected from real life that what is logical triumphs over what is practical. He does not use the phrase “keeping it real,” but he well could.

4) “The whole is greater than the part” (234-237) What’s most interesting here is that Francis isn’t elevating globalization over localization here (because that would promote ideas over realities). But he is calling for solutions that take everyone into account, not just those that society thinks count.

I can’t do justice to this section. It’s worth the read.


Who’s in Charge Here?

From my initial list of topics for Evangelii Gaudium, I’m down to one major theme, two minor themes, and some extra stuff that I probably won’t get to. I’ve got some travel coming, and I’m trying to learn Italian, and I’m betting Francis will have an encyclical on the environment out sooner than later, so I will leave it with these last three.

This is not a major theme, not an overt one, but given the whole “Four Popes Sunday” last weekend, I thought it was worth pointing out now that Francis’ writing, like other things he’s done, betrays a sometimes subtle but thoroughly radical devolution of power that I’m not sure any previous pope has displayed. (Though I’m sure a real Church historian could come up with some contenders.)

First of all, and you have to actually read the document to pick this up, because I didn’t make a complete list, Francis puts a lot of credibility in his fellow bishops. Most papal documents I’ve read cite preceding popes HEAVILY. Some draw on the catechism, or the Doctors of the Church, or a Vatican Council. Now, maybe an apostolic exhortation is a different beast than the encyclicals I read, but it was striking how many different times Francis cites pronouncements by bishops. And from everywhere! Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Brazil, Africa, Oceania, Philippines, France. I think he cites bishops in Haiti once, even. This is not a vicar-of-Christ approach to papal authority; this is a first-among-equals approach. That’s significant. When he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” I think he meant it.

And he says as much: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question that affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization.” (16)

This works its way down. In 31, Francis posits that bishops will look for ways to encourage participation “out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.” This applies to him, even: “It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.” (32) In fact, 32 is one long confession that Vatican II hasn’t been effective in reforming the papacy by making it more collegial and less hierarchical.

In 51, Francis admits “It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality”; it’s hard to imagine John Paul II, or Benedict XVI, or even Paul VI or John XXIII conceding that point.

In 104, as Francis rules out the ordination of women, he offers this important qualification: reserving priesthood for men “can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general…The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head…does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.”

He later (106) identifies the need to better engage young people in leadership. Also the elderly (108).

Finally, this; “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (184)

If you’re looking for a Pope who has all the answers and all the powers, Francis isn’t your guy.


(Pope Saint John Paul II didn’t really say this.) (But Francis never would.)

So, the Church of the poor…

There is a grassroots movement afoot to check Pope Francis’ command that the Church be poor and for the poor, and it’s starting near the top. First, a German bishop is taken down for spending lavishly on a retirement home. Now the Atlanta archbishop feels heat for an expensive home. I don’t know about your local paper, but I suspect many have done as mine and asked the local bishop the question of how much his pad costs.

So what did Francis say in his apostolic exhortation about the poor?

In paragraph 48, the Pope asks of the Church as it “takes up this missionary impulse,” “to whom should she go first?…above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, ‘those who cannot repay you…there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them.”

In perhaps his most visceral statement, Francis says “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own scrutiny.” (49)

In a positive statement on the progress of society, he reminds us of the reality of global poverty. “We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences” (52).

Over the last several popes, the concept of the “preferential option for the poor” is a consistent theme that Francis ceases on in paragraph 198: “For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy” [quoting John Paul II]. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians…Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.”…This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us…in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”

A Church that is poor and for the poor may be the statement that defines Francis’ papacy. It has certainly shaped the narrative of its first year. Applying that concept to real life draws on another concept that John Paul II once leaned heavily upon, the principle of solidarity. In 169ff, Francis gets at the principle with another turn of phrase, praising the “art of accompaniment.” “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” He goes on “Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the are of listening, which is more than simply hearing.” (171). “One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.” (172) “Jesus…hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (270)

We tend to think of poverty in terms of a lack of things, an inefficiency in society that is addressed structurally. Solidarity counters that with the understanding that we are called as Christians to accompany, to walk personally with, the poor. Without the latter, I doubt we will ever have the will to tackle the former. Francis posits the duality like this: “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” Solidarity is not generosity toward the other. “It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.” (173) ”

Francis’ stance towards poverty calls into question some basic tenets of Western life. “We must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity. It must be reiterated that ‘the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.’ To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country. We need to grow in solidarity which ‘would allow all peoples to become the artisans of their destiny’, since ‘every person is called to self-fulfillment,’.” (190) The quotes there are all Paul VI, perhaps the pope most critical of capitalism.

What does Francis want for the poor? Not just food. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity’. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.” (192)

Twenty years in


It’s hard to believe that this Easter marks twenty years as a Catholic. When I first joined the Church, I was coming from a position of relative theological strength: I had been raised in a melange of Protestant schools and a great United Methodist church, had majored in religion in college, and was about to graduate with a Masters of Divinity from a United Methodist seminary (with an honors thesis on Catholic social thought). So joining the Church wasn’t a marker in a major Saul-to-Damascus conversion. It was more of a reasoned decision.

Besides the obvious factor that my bride and I wanted to worship together, whatever the denomination, and she was a devout Catholic, I had my reasons. They were mostly reasons of the head, not the heart: I was attracted to the universality of the Church, the thought that people across the world were reading the same readings and praying the same prayers. I appreciated the historical continuity of a Church who traced it’s start to Peter. More concretely, I preferred the style and schedule of worship: short homilies, services throughout the day and evening, getting to move around in worship a little.

Those aren’t terrible reasons, but they aren’t the reasons I have grown to love being Catholic. Over the last two decades, my faith has gravitated south, from my head to my heart. I still value the intellectual challenges that Church teaching offers, but I have grown to feel Christ’s presence in the Mass. I feel the power of the sacraments. I’ve adopted the universal Church as an extended family, with all the discord and dysfunction that any family of a billion people brings. The Church feels like home. Because I travel, I get to see it manifested in different communities across the state, and in other places too. I love learning about the strengths and the quirks of the saints who came before us; they are like distant relatives. When we travel as a family on vacation, mass in another community’s Church is a delightful mix of familiar and foreign. I love the sights, sounds and smells of each sanctuary.

I still love the back and forth of a rich theological tradition, particularly as it pertains to social justice issues. I hold those I agree and disagree with in true, personal, fervent prayer; they are my brothers and sisters. Lately I have gotten hooked on Vatican Radio’s newscasts, for the international news that gets short shrift in the local paper but much more for the reports on what Pope Francis is doing now, as well as what bishops, priests, religious, and regular lay people around the globe are doing to serve the same Lord. With no disrespect to my Wesleyan heritage, I can say: It is family. It is home.