To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election to the pontificate, we are remembering some of our favorite teaching moments from the past decade.
“Everyone is in need of reassurance, and if we, who have touched ‘the Word of life’ (1 Jn 1:1) do not give it, who will? How beautiful it is to be Christians who offer consolation, who bear the burdens of others and who offer encouragement: messengers of life in a time of death!” Easter Vigil homily, 2020
In the pope’s homily for Easter 2020, delivered as the deadly Covid-19 pandemic was sweeping around the world, Francis spoke to us about how the hope of Christ breaking through darkness and pain, and he reminded us that we as Christians are called to bring hope and encouragement to the world.
“What does the Holy Spirit tell us? He says: God loves you. He tells us this. God loves you, God likes you.” General Audience. Wednesday, 8 May 2013.
What jumped out at me the first time I read these words wasn’t “God loves you.” We’ve all heard these words thousands of times, and I think many of us are numb to them, unfortunately. Additionally, I fear that many of us at times see God’s love as something that comes with strings attached. We often fail to see that God’s love is something that he freely and fully gives to us, whoever we are.
The sentence, “God likes you,” is something different and new. It reminds us that God not only loves you, but he wants to be with you, he wants to spend time with you, he wants to be in your presence, he is inviting you to his feast — as you are.
Pope Francis offers this same invitation on behalf of the Church. For many, his outreach to the peripheries of the Church and society has been refreshing. While I strongly believe his approach has roots in the papacies of his predecessors, his radical openness and willingness to reach out to so many has been a surprising change in tone. ´
Pedro Gabriel and Claire Domingues
“The Word of God runs swiftly; it is dynamic; it irrigates all terrain onto which it falls. And what is its strength? Saint Luke tells us that human words become effective not thanks to rhetoric, which is the art of fine speech, but thanks to the Holy Spirit, who is God’s dýnamis, God’s dynamic, his force, who has the power to purify the word, to render it a bearer of life. For example, in the Bible there are histories, human words; but what is the difference between the Bible and a history book? That the words of the Bible are taken by the Holy Spirit who gives a very powerful impulse, a different force, and helps us so that this word may be the seed of holiness, the seed of life, that it be effective. When the Spirit visits the human word it becomes dynamic, like “dynamite”, that is, capable of kindling hearts and of shattering schemes, resistance and walls of division, opening new paths and expanding the borders of the People of God” Pope Francis at General Audience 29 May 2019
This quote is very important to us, because it was spoken in a General Audience that we attended soon after our wedding, as Sposi Novelli. It resonated with us, because, in our apologetics, we tend to focus on rhetoric, but this quote helped us to always ground our words in God, and His dynamic force that moves the world towards Him. It is the love of Christ that urges us on (2 Corinthians 5:14)
This quote is also representative of Pope Francis’s pontificate. Francis has always been very forceful in his warnings against what he calls Neo-Gnosticism. Rather, he constantly asks each one of us to open our hearts to the transformative action of the Holy Spirit and, after converting, to go out and evangelize. Not only with words, but above all with our lives.
“Realities are more important than ideas.” (Evangelii Gaudium 231)
More than anything else Pope Francis has taught, this principle has guided my relationship with God and the ministry that I do. The real flash and blood person in front of me—their real experiences and suffering—must shape my ideas, rather than trying to put this person into a box created by my ideas.
“Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities. Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a “most chaste” father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom…” (Patris Corde)
Often when we talk about chastity we talk about sexuality. Likewise, in our popular prayers to St. Joseph we refer to him as the “Most Chaste Spouse.” But Pope Francis refers to Joseph here as “Most Chaste Father.”
When our third child was baptized, the priest read the story of Hannah giving up her son Samuel to live a life dedicated to God in the temple (First Samuel 1). The priest said to us, “By baptizing your child you are handing her over to God.” I had a real sense that in that moment that my children are not my possessions. I am responsible for them, but I do not possess them. They don’t belong to me.
Chastity is more than the correct use of our sexuality. Chastity is being able to love someone without possessing them. That is, loving them without an agenda…even a good agenda. And, as Francis makes clear, chastity is for parents as much as it is for spouses.
I am called to love my children without possessing them. To respect their freedom, even when doing so means letting them make mistakes.
“Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 153)
This passage captures the heart of Pope Francis’s teaching about the law of gradualism that’s found in Amoris Laetitia and Gaudete et Exsultate. God, in his kindness and gentleness, never asks more of us than what we are able to give him in that moment. He doesn’t make demands of us that he hasn’t already empowered us to respond to. He is constantly empowering and calling us onward, constantly healing and transforming us into Christ, but he does so gradually and with tenderness.
Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”,and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. In every case, as Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: “Grant what you command, and command what you will”. (Gaudete Et Exsultate 49)
Pope Francis is a pope who stands out for his solidarity with the weak. He has genuinely developed the idea of the law of gradualism, a concept that has been sparsely acknowledged by prior popes. In this passage, he identifies the proud and pelagian attitude that is too often found in the Church. And he refutes what could be called the fallacy of immediatism, which assumes that perfecting grace is available instantly and immediately for everyone all the time. “Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once.” God’s grace is at work, but we must be patient and tolerant of a process that unfolds in God’s time, not ours.
It feels almost trite to choose something from a social encyclical, because of the perception that Francis’s pontificate is all politics, but I’ve always liked this passage from Fratelli Tutti:
“This presupposes a different way of understanding relations and exchanges between countries. If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere. My own country also shares responsibility for his or her development, although it can fulfil that responsibility in a variety of ways. It can offer a generous welcome to those in urgent need, or work to improve living conditions in their native lands by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinder the dignified development of their peoples. What applies to nations is true also for different regions within each country, since there too great inequalities often exist. At times, the inability to recognize equal human dignity leads the more developed regions in some countries to think that they can jettison the “dead weight” of poorer regions and so increase their level of consumption.” Fratelli Tutti, 125.
It’s nice to know that someone whose voice matters on the world stage notices this, because this sort of thinking is all over the place these days and I find it profoundly cruel. The sort of rhetoric that gets passed around about impoverished, increasingly right-leaning areas in my own country wouldn’t be out of place coming from Job’s comforters. Francis sees this for what it is.
This is one of the great convictions that the Church has come firmly to hold. It is so clearly expressed in the word of God that there can be no question of it. Like the supreme commandment of love, this truth should affect the way we live, for it flows from the heart of the Gospel and demands that we not only accept it intellectually but also make it a source of contagious joy. Yet we cannot celebrate this free gift of the Lord’s friendship unless we realize that our earthly life and our natural abilities are his gift. We need “to acknowledge jubilantly that our life is essentially a gift, and recognize that our freedom is a grace. This is not easy today, in a world that thinks it can keep something for itself, the fruits of its own creativity or freedom”.
Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation. We must first belong to God, offering ourselves to him who was there first, and entrusting to him our abilities, our efforts, our struggle against evil and our creativity, so that his free gift may grow and develop within us: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). For that matter, the Church has always taught that charity alone makes growth in the life of grace possible, for “if I do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). Gaudete et Exsultate, 55-56.
The Church in the United States is gripped by the Pelagian heresy. While American Catholics may profess with their lips the truth that we are saved by faith, we often live as if we were saved by our own works, constantly anxious and petrified by the fear that we won’t make the cut at the pearly gates. Such Catholics would have a difficult time understanding the “joy” of faith. The “Joy of the Gospel” not surprisingly is the title of Francis’s first major document, and this quote comes from his document on holiness called “Rejoice and Be Glad”. The Pope’s teachings in these documents and throughout his papacy reaffirm the most basic principle of Christianity: we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and his promises, this faith generates immense joy in the heart of the believer, which then overflows into true transformation—our growth in holiness. By rediscovering this joy at the heart of the faith, we can once again be an inspiration to others in their darkest moments and be a witness to the saving power of God’s limitless mercy.
“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).” Lumen Fidei, 57 (2013).
This paragraph from Lumen Fidei, Francis’s first encyclical (somewhat co-authored with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as it completed his trilogy on the theological virtues) is one I discovered much later than 2013, during a difficult time of grief in my life. Francis’s insight here that God does not respond to the problem of evil or the trials in our own lives with an argument, but with the person of His Son who approaches us, is to me the central truth of Christian life. God’s accompaniment with us is a lamp, a light that shines in difficult times and may provide glimpses of the light of eternal life. This is such an anchor of hope for me, that God will guide and console in the darkness, not only by scattering all of it.
“You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is. I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home. You have to make for the margins to find a new future. When God wanted to regenerate creation, He chose to go to the margins—to places of sin and misery, of exclusion and suffering, of illness and solitude—because they were also places full of possibility: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).” From Let Us Dream, part one.
A “preferential option for the poor” has always been a key part of the Church’s social teaching. We are called to serve and protect the weak and vulnerable. The danger, however, is that our service to the poor can become patronizing and self-affirming. We can end up seeing ourselves as superior to those we serve, and forget that before God we are all poor and helpless. Pope Francis warns us of this danger; he reminds us that it is only from the peripheries that we can see clearly. Sending aid to the peripheries is not enough; we ourselves must move to the peripheries and become “marginal”. Among the poor and weak of the peripheries, we find God himself, who “brings down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly” (cf. Luke 1:52).
“It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.” Laudato Si’, chapter 4, paragraph 138.
I love this quote, because it is true on so many different levels. In Laudato Si, it points to a basic fact of ecology; we can’t fully understand the different aspects of our environment in isolation. But this is equally true of any form of knowledge. One of the great dangers of our time is the fragmentation of knowledge; as Pope Francis points out, this fragmented form of knowledge can become a form of ignorance. Similarly, we can’t fully understand ourselves in isolation from others; we are fundamentally relational, and our personal identities are in large part bound up with our relationships.
Fragmentation is particularly detrimental to the Church’s moral teaching. If such teachings are seen merely as random rules, they seem incoherent and incomprehensible. Or worse, particular moral precepts are weaponized by political or ideological groups; different aspects of Christian morality are pitted against one another, and so become corrupted. The moral precepts of the Church can only be fully appreciated when they are seen as part of a cohesive whole, as many different aspects of what it means to be a loving person in relationship with God and neighbor.
And this unity of morality flows from the deepest source of unity; the unity of all things in the love of the Trinity. The three Divine Persons are totally united by their love for one another. Everything in existence flows out from this love, and everything flows back into it.
Fr. Alex Roche
“The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity. The word of God unites believers and makes them one people.” Aperuit Illis 4.
It is a tender reflection on the word of God that could only come from a man who has been deeply impacted by scripture. Israel’s story is one of the Lord gathering a scattered world into a single people around his presence. This tells us everything we need to know about Francis’ relationship with God and his vision of the Papacy.
Image Credit: File photo of Pope Francis (Vatican Media)
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