I am an avid reader, and sometimes I even gloat about being a speed-reader. I often take pride in my rapid pace of completing books and crossing them off my reading list.
Pope Francis’s Let Us Dream was different.
While reading the pope’s most recent book, I frequently paused when I came across a phrase that struck me, and I often remained on the same page for multiple days.
Let Us Dream offers many quotable passages, but I experienced this book as one to be prayed with, rather than simply to acquire knowledge. My experience of reading Let Us Dream was as a retreat with the Holy Father.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola counseled the importance of savoring the graces God offers to us in prayer. When we experience consolation in prayer, God is calling us to pause and remove our shoes—we are standing on holy ground (cf. Exodus 3:5). When we pause, we become disposed to welcoming God’s love and letting it fill us. Ignatius used the term acatamiento, roughly translated as “affectionate awe,” to describe his experience of God in prayer.
I believe the Spirit led me to pause and savor God’s presence, a necessary prompting to combat my anxiety during the pandemic. Until then, I found myself utilizing the Internet and binge-watching television to cope with this stress.
A retreat experience brings the healing and restoration of God bathing us in love. This is the initial focus of the Spiritual Exercises, and is a lead-in to the First Week of the Exercises, which is a call to acknowledge sin in one’s life and seek deliverance through the mercy of God.
Pope Francis’s words, like those of an experienced Ignatian retreat director, revealed to me two particular sins about which I had not previously been aware.
My first sin was related to criticizing members of our Church’s hierarchy. While my critiques might be warranted, Pope Francis reminded me that “Jesus did not found the Church as a citadel of purity nor as a constant parade of heroes and saints…Like its members, the Church can be an instrument of God’s mercy because it needs that mercy” (72). Yes, bishops who do not speak out against racial injustice or who refuse to address the spread of misinformation and fake news ought to be called to task. But if my response is solely to accuse, I am contributing to division and not working for healing within the Church. When I do this, I see the other as only the wrong they commit, and not how Jesus sees the person: a fragile, wounded and beloved child of God. When I do nothing but accuse the other person, I place myself on a pedestal. I act as if I am superior rather than acknowledging that I too fall short and need God’s mercy.
Pope Francis prescribes self-accusation as the antidote to being the accuser. “Just as the isolated conscience comes about by accusing others, so, too, unity is the fruit of accusing ourselves. Rather than justifying ourselves – the spirit of self-sufficiency and arrogance – self-accusation expresses what Jesus in the Beatitudes calls poverty of spirit” (74). In other words, instead of calling out the sins of others, I must be more vigilant in discerning and rooting out my own areas of sin. These words reminded me of a talk by Dr. Scott Hahn that I listened to twenty years ago, in which Hahn stressed the importance of hating our own sins more than the sins of others.
In Let Us Dream, Francis explains that self-accusation is an act of lowering ourselves and acknowledging our dependence on the grace of God. This is a means of deliverance from the real enemy, who is not the person we are accusing but the evil spirit working in the shadows. “Accusing myself, confident of God’s mercy, reveals the bad spirit, which loses its foothold. Often what divides us comes not from holding different views but from the bad spirit hidden behind those views, which remains hidden by the contagious cycle of accusation and counteraccusation” (75). When we expose the activity of the evil spirit, it loses its power. We are then free to choose to recognize our dependence on God and reflect the mercy we receive from God toward the one we were tempted to accuse.
Intertwined with this sin and falling into the trap of counteraccusation, the second sin I recognized was my tendency to perpetuate polarizing discourses. This can often occur amid lightning-rod topics such as racial justice, the ordination of women, and US politics. I have often returned fire against those who asserted that Black Lives Matter is incompatible with the Catholic Church or that “All Lives Matter” is a more appropriate slogan. I believed my reactions were just because I was defending the truth.
However, Pope Francis recognizes the inherent deception in my belief. He notes, “Polarization is amplified and exacerbated by some media and politicians, but it is born in the heart” (77). He continues by explaining how the action of the evil spirit causes division and leads to back-and-forth accusations. Francis connects the evil spirit to the Great Accuser of Revelation 12:10. The spiral of accusation is a trap of the Great Accuser to ensnare both of the parties involved in the exchange. Neither party wins because anger and hatred seep through the discourse. “You don’t argue or dialogue with the Accuser, because that is to adopt his logic, in which spirits are disguised as reasons. You need to resist him with outer means, throwing him out, as Jesus did. Like coronavirus, if the virus of polarization cannot transfer from host to host, it gradually disappears” (77). Therefore, we cannot succumb to the temptation to be hosts for polarization.
Francis exhorts us to shine a light on the evil one by imitating Jesus’ gentleness and powerlessness on the Cross. The Holy Father clarifies that this is not a disengagement from polarization but a call to “engage with conflict and disagreement in ways that prevent us from descending into polarization. This means resolving division by allowing for new thinking that can transcend that division. In this way, divisions do not generate sterile polarizations but bear valuable new fruit” (77-78). Someone who resolves divisions is a peacemaker, and Francis is calling us to live this Beatitude (cf. Matthew 5:9). Practically speaking, and using Francis’s own language, we are called to turn polarizing debates into acts of accompaniment (EG 169), by encountering the other as a child of God who also stands on holy ground. In the context of a retreat, I believe Pope Francis is calling us all not only to experience acatamiento in and around God’s love for us, but also God’s love for our neighbor. When we see our neighbor as God does, we can see that God loves our neighbor’s fragility just as God loves ours. This helps us realize that while we may have opposing ideas and preferences, we really are not that different. From this place, we can dialogue peacefully about matters we may be in disagreement with.
Along with my recognition of these sins, the Spirit reminded me that Jesus did not call the righteous, but sinners (cf. Luke 5:32), and that the Church is a field hospital as Pope Francis says. God does not reveal our sins for the purpose of condemnation but healing. Jesus the Divine Physician reads the sin as a diagnosis and applies His healing mercy to deliver us from this ailment. During this retreat I experienced the Lord’s mercy and a confirmation of His Love when I experienced contrition and mercy for these shortcomings. This was a moment of deeper conversion.
Ignatius viewed sin as something that limits our freedom, particularly the freedom to love and receive love. Conversion then is an exercise of the Spirit setting the captives free (cf. Isaiah 61:1) from the sin that imprisoned them. Freedom from sin leads us to freedom for Christ’s Kingdom, including serving those in need, loving our neighbor, and reflecting the mercy we received from God to those we encounter.
I am grateful for this retreat with Pope Francis, a retreat that was unexpected for me. It led me to recognize areas where my heart was not aligned with Christ and how Jesus was calling me to grow in order to follow and serve Him. During this time of heightened anxiety and social distancing, I invite you to partake in this retreat with Pope Francis as a way to grow in the Christian faith and experience connectedness with the Body of Christ.
Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future by Pope Francis (in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh) was published by Simon & Schuster in December 2020. In this book, Pope Francis explains why we must—and how we can—make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now. Click here for DW Lafferty’s review for WPI. For our podcast interview with Austen Ivereigh, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.
Image: Vatican News