Late last week, in response to Archbishop Christophe Pierre’s address to the US bishops during their Spring assembly, Pillar editor Ed Condon was compelled to write not one, but two articles expressing his frustration with the nuncio’s address. The first appeared in an “analysis” article that questioned whether “Pierre’s synodality” has a future in the Church. The second appeared in his weekly Pillar Post newsletter — allegedly the only section of the Pillar that contains “editorials” — in which he suggested that Archbishop Pierre’s presentation of synodality risks “pegging the synod to Francis personally.”

In his initial analysis of the speech, Condon correctly notes that Pierre called on the bishops “to be open to the Holy Spirit through closer adherence to Pope Francis’ synodal plan,” but then offers a peculiar interpretation of the nuncio’s references to the work of the Holy Spirit in the synod, claiming that Pierre implied “several times that the synod, the pope, and the Holy Spirit were effectively inseparable.”

The following morning, in his Pillar Post letter, following several sarcastic jabs at the nuncio and the comparison of synodality to a “lazy river” in an Orlando hotel, Condon returned to this odd reading of the archbishop’s message: “Pierre’s explicit and repeated suggestion that synodality was somehow a unique, apparently prophetic remaking of the Church, desired by God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit and uniquely delivered through the person of Pope Francis.”

What did Pierre say to set Condon off in this direction? The archbishop did refer to the movement of the Holy Spirit in leading the Church towards synodality several times, such as when he said, “This fall, it will be two years since Pope Francis, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, opened the synodal path to the whole Church and asked us to begin a renewed journey, alongside Jesus, with our people.” The nuncio also told the bishops, “Synodality, we should trust by now, is not a new ‘program’; nor is it a disguise for a plan to change Church doctrine.  It is a way of being Church that allows us to discern the path on which the Spirit of God is calling us.”

It seems that what most agitated Condon were Archbishop Pierre’s assertions about the Holy Spirit speaking and working through Pope Francis, and that he told the bishops that “a true experience of synodality” requires that they approach the questions raised during the synod with “openness to the Spirit’s answers, and with trust that the Spirit still speaks through Peter’s successor.” It appears that to Condon such statements indicate that these words of the pope’s representative — which are quite common in Catholic parlance — amount “to framing the synodal process as a kind of prophetic charism rooted in the pope personally.”

After putting forward this rather absurd reading of the nuncio’s message, Condon then shows his hand by arguing that the nuncio is “setting up enthusiasm for the synodal process … as a kind litmus of test [sic], not just of loyalty to the pope but of faith in the Holy Spirit.” Later he says that Archbishop Pierre was “suggesting a unique and uniquely Francis vision for remaking the Church which must, as a matter of divine will, be judged a success before the fact.”

When the Pillar was launched in 2021, Condon wrote about the pitfalls his new journalistic venture sought to avoid: “The temptation to view and present the Church through the simple lenses of personalities and ecclesiastical politics, and the desire to pick and promote sides, sparing friends from awkward questions and framing opposing points of view as enemy fire.” But is there anything more partisan than attacking the papal nuncio for delivering the message of the pope?

To be clear, as Pope Francis’s delegate to the United States, it is Archbishop Pierre’s job to communicate the pope’s message to the US bishops. And his address was entirely in line with the message of the Holy Father. Pope Francis has been talking about the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church — and of synodality being the direction in which the Holy Spirit is leading the Church — since early in his pontificate. In recent years, it has been the central theme of his papacy. But unlike what Ed Condon and many US bishops seem to believe, the pope is not putting forward synodality as a pet project or an eccentric hobby. Pope Francis, reading the signs of the times, has discerned that the Holy Spirit is calling the universal Church in this direction. He’s not joking around. He said it clearly in his address to open the global synod in October 2021:

I am certain the Spirit will guide us and give us the grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity.  May we experience this Synod in the spirit of Jesus’ fervent prayer to the Father on behalf of his disciples: “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).  This is what we are called to: unity, communion, the fraternity born of the realization that all of us are embraced by the one love of God. … In the one People of God, therefore, let us journey together, in order to experience a Church that receives and lives this gift of unity, and is open to the voice of the Spirit.

This language is not the result of divine inspiration or a message directly from God. It’s what Pope Francis, as the Roman Pontiff and Successor of Peter, has prayerfully determined is where the Church needs to go at this time. And in the history of the Church, there is nothing unique about the pope using this kind of language.

Pope St. John Paul II spoke about the active role of the Holy Spirit in the Church in his encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem, stating that “the Council has given a special confirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit-the Counselor. In a certain sense, the Council has made the Spirit newly ‘present’ in our difficult age” (26). In the same encyclical, he spoke of the integral role the Holy Spirit would play in the upcoming Jubilee, in the year 2000, saying, “The Church cannot prepare for the Jubilee in any other way than in the Holy Spirit. What was accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit ‘in the fullness of time’ can only through the Spirit’s power now emerge from the memory of the Church” (51).

I wonder if Mr. Condon would also conclude that John Paul was claiming for himself “a kind of prophetic charism rooted in the pope personally” in the Jubilee year. Seriously, this is the language of the Church. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the ecumenical movement, stating in their decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, “Everywhere large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day the movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians” (1).

Pope Pius XII, on the feast of Pentecost in 1941 and the 50th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s great social encyclical Rerum Novarum, gave an address in order “to render to Almighty God from the bottom of our heart our humble thanks for the gift which fifty years ago he bestowed on the Church in that encyclical of His vicar on earth and to praise Him for the life-giving breath of the Spirit which through it in ever-growing measure from that time on has blown on all mankind.” Might Condon read such a statement and look with scorn upon Pius XII’s claim that Leo XIII’s encyclical was “somehow divinely willed”?

I bring up just a few random examples of popes speaking about the work of the Holy Spirit in history to demonstrate that this isn’t uncommon, and it is common for faithful Catholics to think nothing is unusual with such statements. Unfortunately, the state of the resistance to Pope Francis’s message, especially in the US Church, is such that many of his critics have decided to regard him as a temporary setback rather than the true Successor of Peter.

Condon isn’t alone in this line of thinking. Not all of the pope’s critics are writing blog posts and making YouTube videos decrying his heresies and calling him an apostate or worse. The fact is that many prominent Catholics who oppose Francis — academics, clerics, writers, apologists, journalists, and US bishops — seem to have adopted the mindset that if they ignore him for long enough, he’ll eventually go away. Many toil about their business as if Francis was never elected, and others try to minimize the “damage” he’s doing. They might not be as public about their views as Cardinal Raymond Burke, who recently said, “My own personal prayer every day to our Lord is that somehow he makes it so that the Synod doesn’t take place because I can’t frankly see any good coming from it,” but they are saying the same prayer.

These papal minimizers are willing to pay lip service to Pope Francis’s synod, they’ll highlight the things they like, they’ll try to “popesplain” away the things they don’t. And they will rebuff anyone who dares to call them “anti-Francis.” But occasionally they are faced with the stark reality that this papacy is real, and that the pope has the authority to make decisions and changes and appointments they don’t like, and that’s when their true colors come out. Archbishop Pierre was calling their bluff, and it was impossible to deny. (Although some tried.)

John Paul II once said, “The Holy Spirit dwells in the Church not as a guest who still remains an outsider, but as the soul that transforms the community into “God’s holy temple” (1 Cor 3:17; cf. 6:19; Eph 2:21) and makes it more and more like himself through his specific gift, which is love (cf. Rom 5:5; Gal 5:22).” Pope St. Paul VI, in his exhortation Gaudete in Domino, makes clear that the Holy Spirit is, and always will be, at work in the life of the Church. He wrote, “The Holy Spirit stirs up in the Church divine life and the apostolate. And the Christian knows that this Spirit will never be quenched in the course of history. The source of hope manifested at Pentecost will never be exhausted” (III).

Even if Pope Francis’s critics refuse to believe it, we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is alive today in the Church, and that the Holy Spirit is at work in the synodal process. Even if future popes will bring their own unique gifts and ideas and charisms to the Church (and they will), Francis is our pope today, and faithful Catholics should embrace that.

By Antoine Taveneaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33954123

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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