01-03-2014 - Traces, n. 3



Four main points elucidates the traits of Pope Francis’ relationship with today’s man–inside and outside the Church.

by Massimo Borghesi

One year after Pope Francis’ election, it is possible to delineate, even if only briefly, the features of a pontificate that, in a short time, is profoundly transforming the face of the Church, attracting once more the attention and congeniality of millions of people. Here, we indicate its salient elements in four points.

Razing the bastions. Pope Francis represents, on both the personal and pastoral plane, the peak of the movement promoted by the Second Vatican Council. That motion had found its direction in the formula “Razing the Bastions,” the title of a clear and prophetic work by Hans Urs von Balthasar in 1952.  The Church then was set in plaster, closed in its stronghold, and resisted a hostile world by contentiously reaffirming its own identity in antithesis to secular society and the entire modern world. It was the portrait of the 1950s: closure, emphasis on identity, clericalism. And this was a portrait that the Council wanted to overcome, starting from the idea of a new missionary period for the Church, which, after the post-conciliar confusion of the ’60s and ’70s, was then re-proposed at the end of the millennium. The challenge of radical Islamism to the “Christian” West, on one side, and, on the other, that of eugenic manipulations, gender ideology, and gay culture, saw Catholicism often close itself in its compound once more, marked by a theocon vision in which the theological element mixed with the political one, starting from the friend-enemy dialectic. It is this mentality, which has been depositing sediment over the course of the last 20 years, that the Pope is substantially correcting. As he said to the Jesuit fathers, “Today God asks this of us: to leave the nest which encloses us in order to be sent” (“Wake Up the World!”, La Civiltà Cattolica). The oft-repeated invitation to turn toward the “outskirts of the world” takes on this meaning. Christians must leave the enclosure, must not be afraid to bring the novelty of faith into the world, must be capable of intercepting the positive, and must not be defined, a priori, by a negative prejudice. “The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to the point of accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed” (Evangelii Gaudium, 24). This is not a vaguely optimistic and naïve invitation. The opposite perspective generates an ideology, that of the Christianists, which was denounced in its time by Rémi Brague. As the Pope said to Fr. Antonio Spadaro, “The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is–these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the Church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today” (La mia porta è sempre aperta [My Door Is Always Open], Rizzoli, p. 96). The risk that the Pope dreads is that of a self-referential Church, a Church in which clericalism and bureaucratization are two phases of the same process. For this reason, the Church, the movements, the associations, must “decentralize,” go out from themselves. They must open the doors, not close them. “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (Evangelii Gaudium, 47).

A new balance. From this missionary need, which takes the “pagan” face of the world into consideration, arises the related need to give order to Catholic thought. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.... The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow” (La mia porta è sempre aperta, p. 62). The same concept, the need to find a new balance in Catholic thought, is reiterated, with nearly identical words, in Evangelii Gaudium, in paragraphs 34-39. This is a carefully considered choice, and not a concession to relativism–as certain sectors of the Catholic world have rather myopically affirmed, contentiously contrasting Ratzinger’s and Bergoglio’s teaching on this point. There where the world already presents itself as “pagan,” Christianity cannot propose itself simply by starting from its ethical consequences. On the civil plane, these can have a katechontic value, in the Pauline sense–that is, they can contain, restrain, a nihilistic anthropological drift, not positively generate faith in the hearts of men.

Witness as “encounter” in the present. If the goal, today, is to communicate Christianity in its simple and essential form, then witness becomes the privileged form of presence–witness, and not, first of all, the dialectical position. Christianity is not, in its essence, dialectical: it is an affirmative that does not need enemies in order to be.
On this point, Francis is in complete harmony with his predecessor Benedict. “He [Benedict] said that the Church grows through witness, not by proselytism” (“Wake Up the World!”). And again, still citing Benedict, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (from Deus Caritas Est, cited in Evangelii Gaudium). The priority of the encounter signifies the corporeality of Christianity, the perceptible nearness, a nearness that is embracing and loving. The tragedy of the Church in recent decades has been distance: of the bishops from the priests, of the clergy from the people. Ecclesial bureaucratization has resulted in the disappearance of “shepherds with the odor of the sheep,” in the useless multiplication of meetings, conferences, and documents that no one will ever read, in the formalism of language, in the emptiness of homilies that do not refer to anything real or true that has happened. For the Pope, witness as encounter indicates a nearness that is personal, affectionate, gratuitous–that presumes nothing, that desires nothing, if not the happiness and the good of the other. Francis’ confession to Fr. Spadaro is striking: “I manage to look at individual persons, one at a time, to enter into personal contact with whomever I have in front of me. I’m not used to the masses.” The encounter is a modality of being that, in an anonymous and convulsive world, makes present Christ’s face, Christ’s gaze full of tenderness for each individual person.   

Grace and mercy. The preceding points take on a new significance because they are lived in person by the Pontiff. Francis renews the Church by bringing his person. He puts himself and his existence in play. He can do this because of the awareness that he is a sinner, and that Grace and sin are the authentic modality of relationship between the Church and the world today. From this point of view, the usual categories–secularization, “Christian” West, and so on–are useful, and, at the same time, misleading. Francis speaks an evangelical language that is able to inflame the hearts of the people who are still Christian and, at the same time, the hearts of the “pagans.” And he does this, not with the language of “values”–which judges–but with that of Grace, capable of embracing and forgiving every sin. It is the perspective of the first centuries, which thereby becomes current again–that perspective that moves from encounter to encounter, from encounter of Grace to encounter of Grace. It is through the experience of grace that the awareness of sin opens up. A world that no longer has awareness of sin now finds itself recognizing its own guilt because it has been touched by the accent of mercy of a shepherd Father. And it can do this because it finds itself embraced by one who knows that he, in the first place, is a sinner. “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre.... I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon,” he says to Spadaro. A sinner, looked upon by Jesus, is a grateful man who conceives of the Church as a “field hospital,” as Mater misericordiae.
This Pope is extremely attuned to what the present world expects from the Church. He knows that it is capable of the greatest ferocity–wars, the devastation produced by an inhuman economic system–and, at the same time, reflects the greatest fragility. The latter, hardened and suspicious in its resentment, can dissolve only in front of a gratuitous humanity, a divine mercy. This is the path that the Pope traces for the Church of our time, for its encounter with the contemporary man.