In this morning’s General Audience address, Pope Francis began a new catechesis series on St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In just a few words, he returned to some familiar themes: inculturation of the Gospel, trust, discernment, prayer, and rigidity. These themes are especially pertinent to the situation today in the United States Catholic Church.
Once again, Pope Francis reminded us that rigidity is opposed to the working of the Spirit. He said:
The path indicated by the Apostle is the liberating and ever-new path of Jesus, Crucified and Risen; it is the path of proclamation, which is achieved through humility and fraternity – the new preachers do not know what humility is, what fraternity is. It is the path of meek and obedient trust – the new preachers know neither meekness nor obedience. And this meek and obedient way leads forward in the certainty that the Holy Spirit works in the Church in every age. Ultimately, faith in the Holy Spirit present in the Church carries us forward and will save us.
I am reminded of one of the most profound lines from Pope Francis’s catechesis on prayer, from his discussion of blessing. He said, “God’s grace changes lives: he takes us as we are, but he never leaves us as we are.” The grace of God never comes into our life on our terms, but always in language we can understand. Grace is otherworldly, but manifests itself in our day-to-day realities.
To pursue a life of holiness, we don’t need to look “out there.” A saint is not a “superman” who possesses miraculous powers all at once. Rather, holiness is cultivated in the small, seemingly irrelevant moments of daily life: chores done without complaint, small sacrifices of suffering we make for the benefit of others. As he said in another catechesis,
Saint John of the Cross believed that a small act of pure love is more useful to the Church than all the other works combined. What is born of prayer and not from the presumption of our ego, what is purified by humility, even if it is a hidden and silent act of love, is the greatest miracle that a Christian can perform.
Humility, itself a grace, becomes our pathway to greater acceptance of God’s transformative mercy. It is humility to let go of the quest for comfort; humility to ask God how we should live our lives; humility to ask him for help in doing so. Even though we all have anxieties great and small, we are called to humbly ask God to help us bear them, not to seek ways to escape them. God is not a psychological crutch, but neither is it true that lasting peace can be found outside the embrace of his constant loving presence in our lives. Pride is the greatest threat to Christian holiness for it produces a life lived not for others but for its own sake and enjoyment.
Importantly and somewhat paradoxically, even our ambitious quest to sainthood can be rife with spiritual and moral pitfalls. We are often tempted to substitute our ideas of success—including spiritual success—for discernment of God’s plan in concrete circumstances. Pope Francis likely had this in mind when he said in today’s catechesis,
Paul, when he arrived in a city, in a region, did not construct a great cathedral immediately, no. He created small communities that are the leaven of our Christian culture today. He began by making small communities. And these small communities grew, they grew and they went forward. Today, too, this pastoral method is used in every missionary region. I received a letter last week, from a missionary in Papua New Guinea, telling me that he is preaching the Gospel in the forest, to people who do not even know who Jesus Christ was. It is beautiful! One begins by forming small communities. Even today this method of evangelisation is that of the first evangelisation.
Think of all the programs that have been designed to catechize or serve a spiritual need by Catholic leaders, lay or ordained. As well-intentioned as they may be, we cannot forget that evangelization begins with the “slow” work of cultivating friendships and building Christian communities rooted in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. This takes time. Only the faithful can do this, wherever they find themselves, in their parishes and neighborhoods.
Massimo Borghesi made a similar point in his recent article for Where Peter Is. He wrote, “In a ‘world without bonds,’ in a fluid society, the meaning of life is not found at the conclusion of a process of logical reasoning as much as it is the outcome of the discovery of feeling loved, being loved.”
Closeness (another important theme for Pope Francis) is the antidote to our modern crisis. We are in need of closeness through thick and thin, through the pains and joys of life, but if we forget our central mission—to renew the Church through the work of evangelization—we will be tempted by needs that seem more urgent. Few Church leaders will have the patience needed to allow closeness to grow and mature over time. Evangelization and community-building can take years, decades, or even centuries, but the pressure to produce tangible results immediately crowds out the movement of the Spirit and the grace of God, which does not transform people all at once. Pope Francis’s principle that ”time is greater than space” is reassurance that we should not be afraid “to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results” (Evangelii Gaudium 223).
Cardinal Ladaria recently reminded the bishops of the United States that taking a slow and serene process of discernment on contentious issues, marked by patient dialogue, is necessary in order to preserve unity and to provide a truly fruitful catechesis on the Eucharist. A slow process undoubtedly runs up against the urgency that some bishops apparently feel regarding President Joe Biden’s reception of the Eucharist, but Ladaria’s warning has proven quite prescient. What was intended to address a scandal has become itself a scandal, a “source of discord within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States.” By trusting in the Spirit, who works in time, we can put aside our own ideas about what must happen, what needs to happen. Only then we will have the freedom to work for the Church’s healing and growth.