Yesterday Pope Francis released a remarkable letter to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, of which he is the diocesan bishop in addition to his numerous other responsibilities and powers over the Church outside central Italy. He warns against several temptations and false or unhelpful attitudes affecting priests’ ministry, including in this passage, in which he speaks of the difference between form and reality when it comes to leading a life in Christ:

They are things I have recalled on other occasions, but I would like to reiterate them, considering them a priority: spiritual worldliness, in fact, is dangerous because it is a way of life that reduces spirituality to an appearance: it leads us to be “traders of the spirit”, men clothed in sacred forms that in reality continue to think and act according to the fashions of the world. This happens when we allow ourselves to be fascinated by the seductions of the ephemeral, by mediocrity and habit, by the temptations of power and social influence. And, again, by vainglory and narcissism, by doctrinal intransigence and liturgical aestheticism, forms and ways in which worldliness “hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church”, but in reality “consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being” (Evangelii gaudium, 93). How can we fail to recognise in all this the updated version of that hypocritical formalism, which Jesus saw in certain religious authorities of the time and which in the course of his public life made him suffer perhaps more than anything else?

Spiritual worldliness is a “gentle” temptation and for this reason even more insidious. Indeed, it seeps in, well aware of how to hide behind good appearances, even within “religious” motivations. And, even if we recognise it and banish it from us, sooner or later it presents itself again, disguised in a different fashion. As Jesus says in the Gospel: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Lk 11: 24-26). We need inner vigilance, to safeguard our minds and hearts, to feed in us the purifying flame of the Spirit, because worldly temptations return and “knock” politely: “they are ‘elegant demons’: they enter smoothly, without our ever being conscious of them” (Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2022).

Read the whole thing. I would caution against the old Catholic (and more generally Christian) habit of attributing “hypocritical formalism” to current Jewish religious practice, but that aside, this letter provides much insight into Pope Francis’s theology of the priesthood and the sacraments. It also provides some needed insight into the thought process underlying some of his controversial policies regarding things like restricting the celebration of the antecedent form of the Latin Rite. The parable in Luke 11 that Pope Francis cites is also worth a reread. If we don’t fill up our empty hearts with love of God and love of neighbors, other things will come and fill them up more quickly and insidiously than we think.

Image: Jesus driving out an unclean spirit, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, fifteenth century.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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