Keynote Address to The National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy
2017 NOCERCC Convention
Oblate Renewal Center – San Antonio, Texas
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, Canada
February 23, 2017
No one can deny the fact that Pope Francis has introduced into the Church (and the world) a new vocabulary for pastoral ministry. Catch-words such mercy, dialogue, devil, encounter, accompaniment, discernment, field hospital, periphery and others have echoed throughout the whole Church over the past four years and have become the Pope’s signature expressions of his Petrine ministry. It is also important to understand what Pope Francis means when he speaks about evangelization. I would like to examine with you the Holy Father’s use of each of these words which can help us and guide us in our own pastoral ministry.
Allow me to begin by returning to the meetings of the College of Cardinals in the days that preceded the Papal conclave and election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the See of Peter in March, 2013. I was working in the Holy See Press Office those memorable and intense weeks and witnessed up close the ending of the “Benedictine” era and the first moments of the “Franciscan” era. In those intense sessions of the Cardinals that took place behind closed doors in the Vatican Synod Hall, the Pope’s “senate” discussed the situation of the Church and was not encumbered with funeral preparations as in previous meetings during interregnums. Those were decisive meetings that outlined the plan of action for whomever would be elected Pope.
In one of the “interventions” to the assembled Cardinals on March 7, 2013, the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires gave a brief yet riveting talk on “The Sweet and Comforting Joy of Evangelizing
” “Evangelization,” he said, is the raison d'être of the Church. …It is Jesus Christ himself who impels us from within.” Cardinal Bergoglio then described evangelization in four points:
- To evangelize implies apostolic zeal. To evangelize implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery.
- When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick. The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-reference and a sort of theological narcissism. In [the Book of] Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Evidently the text refers to his knocking from outside in order to enter but I think of the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out.
- When the Church is self-referent without realizing it, she believes she has her own light. She ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very great evil which is spiritual worldliness. (According to Henri deLubac, SJ, it is the worst evil that can come upon the Church). The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another. In simple terms, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that comes out of herself: the Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidente proclamans, (the first words of the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that can be translated as “Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith”) and the worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself. This must give light to the possible changes and reforms which must be made for the salvation of souls.
- Thinking of the next Pope, he must be a man who from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.
The Cardinal who spoke those words in the Vatican Synod Hall would be elected Pope the following week on March 13, 2013. In that brief intervention (as it is called in Vatican language), the future Pope presented a Mission Statement or plan of action that we have seen actualized and realized over the past four years. One could sum up Cardinal Bergoglio’s thought that day with these words: the Church is in the business of evangelization and she is only effective when she goes outside of herself and encounters people on the geographical and existential peripheries of life.
The Art of Accompaniment
In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium
, Pope Francis added several phrases to his ever-expanding lexicon and vision of the New Evangelization. One of his favorite phrases is ‘the art of accompaniment
“The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).” (Evangelii Gaudium, 169) While some pastoral ministers have asked if the papally-encouraged art of accompaniment refers more to listening rather than teaching or exhorting, they can often miss the positive emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on this expression. For Pope Francis, the whole purpose of our accompaniment of people along life’s journey is a means to an end – and that end is evangelization. We do not accompany for the mere sake of accompanying. Pope Francis writes: “Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization.” (EG, 173) Spiritual accompaniment must lead others closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. (EG, 170)For Pope Francis, the whole purpose of our accompaniment of people along life’s journey is a means to an end – and that end is evangelization. We do not accompany for the mere sake of accompanying. Francis writes: “Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization” (EG, 173).
Having served as a priest for 31 years this year, and worked closely with priests and bishops around the world, I am certain that this careful art of accompaniment has not always been obvious to those of us involved in the Church’s mission of evangelization. At times our zeal and deep desire for others for their change, repentance and conversion overshadows the necessity that people have to be accompanied through the deep valleys and dark nights of the human journey.
This work of authentic evangelization must be guided by principles, but it is clearly an art. Each expression of art requires practice, repetition, even failure at times, yet the desire to keep trying. The energy required for our evangelization efforts flows from human virtues of kindness, charity, humility, affability, courage, patience, and hope. Accompaniment continues throughout our lives, helping us to know ever more fully and live the Joy of the Gospel.
is the fruit of very intensive listening on the part of Pope Francis. This important Apostolic Exhortation – the fruit of two highly significant Synods on the Family – is the pastoral accompaniment of individuals and of families by the community of the Church. The journeying together of all of the members of the Church implies this accompaniment. But it also calls for a change in pastoral style and intensity. Pope Francis calls pastors to do more than teach the Church’s doctrine – though they clearly must do that. They must take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ whom they serve so that the sheep are willing to hear their voice (EG
, #24). This requires a more careful and intensive formation of all who minister to families – lay ministers, catechists, seminarians, priests, and families themselves AL
, #200 - 204).
In Amoris Laetitia
Pope Francis describes the notion of ‘accompaniment’: “Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. For Pope Francis, as also for his predecessors, accompaniment does not mean simply walking with those who are divorced and remarried as if to follow them along a wayward path. Rather, it means coming up alongside them, taking them by the hand, and leading them to the objective truth and reality of their situation, and to feel the loving embrace of the Lord. When we accompany people, we not only assert truths of the faith simply because “The Church has always taught this way,” nor do we insist that these truths are inalterable and immutable no matter what one’s circumstances may be. We must be deeply concerned that those we seek to help and counsel may discover the radiant, merciful person of Jesus Christ and develop a deep, personal relationship with the Lord.
The Church as a Field Hospital
Several months after his election to the See of Peter, Pope Francis was asked what kind of Church he dreams of. In his interview with the Jesuit publications in September 2013, he compared the Church to a field hospital:
“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.”
The expression “field hospital” is not a Bergoglian invention! It is found in the Spiritual Exercises of the founder of the Society of Jesus, Pope Francis’ religious family. Ignatius of Loyola founded the society after being wounded in battle and experiencing a religious conversion. ‘Field hospitals’ are tents set up in the midst of battle. The wounded who arrive at these emergency health stations don’t come for analyses of cholesterol levels or other such lab tests. That’s done at a later stage. Field hospital workers are trained in triage; they recognize very quickly the wounds, stop the bleeding, and initiate the process of healing. Field hospitals refer patients to specialists. It is a very apt image for the Church, especially for those of us working on the front lines in parishes, chaplaincies, etc. Unlike a stationary institution that occupies a certain territory and defends itself against intruders, a field hospital is mobile; it is an event more than a fixed structure or high-tech building. A field hospital goes outside of itself to respond to emergencies. It neither withdraws from the world and only treats its own, nor resigns itself to the world as it is.
The Pope could have answered the question about his dream church with an idealized portrait of the institution, but immediately he turned to the overwhelming reality of suffering; the ideal church is a wounded church, one where wounds are acknowledged first, and the acknowledgment itself begins the healing. Instead of condemning the evils of the world from a position of clerical superiority, the church needs to be on the battlefield – a corps of emergency medical workers risk their own safety and live in order to bind up the wounds inflicted in battle.
The ‘field hospital’ is the opposite image of a fortress under siege. The image of a church as a field hospital is not just a simple, pretty poetic metaphor; from this very image we can derive an understanding of both the church’s healing and salvific mission. The Church, acting as a field hospital continues to accompany all who suffer from the illness of sin and to mercifully dispense the medicine of God’s healing grace in the sacraments throughout our lives.
What does life in the field hospital require of us? That we know, first of all, the many battles that are being waged: those public battles, and those less evident. We have to know about doing triage work and assess wounds and brokenness that at times are not evident to our eyes: the psychological wounds, the wounds of alienation, of sadness and grief. Francis invites us to be warm, welcoming, and forgiving, as Jesus has modeled to us on every page of the New Testament.
Pope Francis’ tweets and homilies about the devil, Satan, the Accuser, the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Ancient Serpent, the Tempter, the Seducer, the Great Dragon, the Enemy and just plain "demon" are now legion! For Francis, the devil is not a myth, but a real person. Many modern people may greet the Pope's insistence on the devil with a dismissive, cultural affectation, indifference, or at the most, indulgent curiosity. Yet Francis refers to the devil continually. He does not believe him to be a myth, but a real person, the most insidious enemy of the church. Several of my theologian colleagues have said that the Pope has gone a bit overboard with the devil and hell! We may be tempted to ask, why in the devil is Pope Francis so preoccupied with the prince of demons?
In his homilies, Francis warns people strongly to avoid discouragement, to seize hope, to move on with courage and not to fall prey to negativity or cynicism. He is drawing on a fundamental insight of St. Ignatius of Loyola. With his continual references to the devil, Pope Francis parts ways with the current preaching in the church, which is far too silent about the devil and his insidious ways or simply reduces the devil to a mere metaphor.
In his first major address in 2013 to the cardinals who elected him, the Argentine pontiff reminded them: "Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day." In numerous daily homilies in the chapel of the Vatican guest house, the Pope shared devilish stories with the small congregations rapt in attention as he preached on taboo topics. He has offered guidelines on how to rout the demon's strategy: “First, it is Jesus who battles the devil. The second is that we cannot obtain the victory of Jesus over evil and the devil by halves, for as Christ said in the Gospel of Matthew, who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters."
Francis has also issued calls to arms in his homilies: "The devil also exists in the 21st century, and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him; Christians should not be naive about the evil one's ways.” The devil is anything but a relic of the past, the pontiff said. Acknowledging the devil's shrewdness, Francis once preached: "The devil is intelligent, he knows more theology than all the theologians together."
In a powerful, unscripted address to several hundred thousand young people at a rally in Paraguay in July, 2015, the Pope presented the job description of the devil:
"Friends: the devil is a con artist. He makes promises after promise, but he never delivers. He'll never really do anything he says. He doesn't make good on his promises. He makes you want things which he can't give, whether you get them or not. He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy. ...He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone. Everything is based on appearances. He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess."
For Francis, the spirit of evil ultimately does not want our holiness, [the devil] does not want our Christian witness, he does not want us to be disciples of Christ. The devil is so frequently active in our lives and in the church, drawing us into negativity, cynicism, despair, meanness of spirit, sadness and nostalgia. We must react to the devil, as did Jesus, who replied with the Word of God. With the prince of this world one cannot dialogue. one can only respond with the Word of God that defends us. The devil has made a comeback in this pontificate and is playing an important role in Francis' ministry. Francis is dead serious about the devil! And he takes every opportunity he can to tell the devil to get out of our lives and our world!
Throughout his Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis has stressed the pre-eminence of dialogue. Each one of us is called to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths to dialogue and not by constructing new walls! Pope Francis has said that dialogue does not mean giving up our identity as a Christian. On the contrary, he stressed: "true openness means remaining firm in one’s deepest convictions, and therefore being open to understanding others.” Dialogue cannot take place from a position of insularity, but requires radical and generous openness to the other that is both born from, and leads to a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of all things.
During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis used the word ‘dialogue’ twenty-three times in five of his addresses. In his historic address to Congress on September 24, 2015, he made clear his desire to enter into a dialogue “with all of you,” referring to the American people. He elevated Thomas Merton, the great 20th century American Trappist monk, as the preeminent model of dialogue for the country: “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.”
Pope Francis continued his theme of dialogue in his very moving address to the Bishops of the United States, gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2015. The Holy Father said that dialogue is not limited to political activity outside of the Church, but also within the Church. To his brother bishops he presented a portrait or job-description of shepherds – and indeed for each one of us:
“It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The “style” of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant “for us”.
“…Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).”
“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia (boldness), the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.” Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
Last fall (October 22, 2016) in a reflection on dialogue during an Extraordinary Jubilee Audience in St. Peter’s Square, before a crowd numbering over 100,000 people, Pope Francis spoke again about mercy and dialogue.
“Dialogue allows people to know themselves and to understand the one another’s needs. It is both a sign of respect, an expression of charity; it allows us to see one another as a gift from God. But often when we encounter one another, we are not prepared to listen, preferring instead to interrupt and convince the other that we are right. True dialogue requires moments of silence, and the ability to welcome the other as a gift from God.”
Some may fear that Pope Francis is leading the Church into a situation of accommodation with the world, such that the Church will come to look more and more like the world and so cease to be a sign of contradiction. Some thus view with suspicion the Pope's frequent appeal to dialogue, fearing that dialogue necessarily leads to accommodation. Far from accommodating the Church to the world, Pope Francis wants to demonstrate that the Church provides a way of existing and interacting that is opposed to the prevailing logic of the world. Pope Francis believes that this path of dialogue is a path to conversion for a Church that too often operates under the logic of a world that it supposedly rejects. For it is only through dialogue that the Church truly can be a sign of contradiction, especially in a world – and at times elements in the Church – that prefer monologue. Yet the Pope is clear that God truly is to be found in the world today, that we are all interconnected, and that it is only through genuine encounters with others in dialogue that the Church can most fully live out the theological vision of generous love to which Jesus calls it.
In keeping with his own Jesuit formation, Pope Francis is a man of discernment, and, at times, that discernment results in freeing him from the confinement of doing something in a certain way because it was ever thus. In paragraph 33 of Evangelii Gaudium
. Francis writes: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory.”
Pope Francis has stressed the quintessential, Ignatian quality of discernment which is nothing more than a constant effort to be open to the Word of God that can illuminate the concrete reality of everyday life. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius provided steps for helping people to recognize or discern where God is working in their lives and what draws them closer to God or pushes them further from God. Recently Pope Francis addressed proper priestly formation for discernment when he met with members of the Jesuit order in Krakow, during World Youth Day 2016 in Poland.
“When it comes to the Christian life, too many seminaries teach students a rigid list of rules that make it difficult or impossible for them as priests to respond to the real-life situation of those who come to them seeking guidance. …Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, and that set aside concrete situations."
The Vatican did not publish details of the pope's meeting July 30 with the Jesuits, but – with Pope Francis' explicit approval – a transcript of his remarks to the group was published in late August 2016 by Civiltà Cattolica, an authoritative, Vatican approved Jesuit journal. Francis told his brother Jesuits in Poland: “Without the wisdom of discernment, the seminarians, when they become priests, find themselves in difficulty in accompanying the life of so many young people and adults. And many people leave the confessional disappointed. Not because the priest is bad, but because the priest doesn't have the ability to discern situations, to accompany them in authentic discernment. They don't have the needed formation."
In Amoris Laetitia
, the Pope refers to discernment thirty-five times. Particularly when dealing with individual Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried, Pope Francis wrote, “discernment recognizes that, since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. Priests have the duty to accompany (the divorced and remarried) in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the church and the guidelines of the bishop.
The approach to morality used in Amoris Laetitia
is exactly the same used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
: affirm general principles while encouraging pastoral care that recognizes a person's personal situation and seeks to lead them to holiness. Pope Francis has called for a recovery of moral reasoning after the example of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, who affirm that “the general principle holds for all but – they say it explicitly – as one moves to the particular, the question becomes diversified and many nuances arise without changing the principle.
A very important paragraph of the Synod’s Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia
speaks to the Church’s great respect for the consciences of the faithful as well as the necessity of formation of consciences:
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (AL #37)
The Church does not exist to take over people's conscience but to stand in humility before faithful men and women who have discerned prayerfully and often painfully before God the reality of their lives and situations. Discernment and the formation of conscience can never be separated from the Gospel demands of truth and the search for charity and truth, and the tradition of the Church.
CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters
The Culture of Encounter
In a homily given on his first Pentecost as Bishop of Rome, Francis suggested that the word “encounter” is key to the way he thinks of Christian relationships. He said: “in this stepping out [of ourselves] it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others… Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.
Pope Francis has frequently spoken of a ‘culture of encounter’ as a goal for human society. Societies that embrace the culture of encounter foster right relationships among humans and involve a spirituality that emphasizes a personal friendship with God who first encounters us in love. In order to mine the depths of meaning of this expression, we must consider the Pope’s native tongue: Spanish. The word encuentro is often used in spiritual terms. Most translations of the Pope’s use of ‘encuentro’ are rendered in English as ‘encounter.’ But once again see see how something is lost in translation. The term ‘encuentro’ in Spanish is loaded with more meaning than a literal translation than the English rendering is able to convey. An encounter between God and one’s self begins first and foremost by acknowledging that we are being encountered by our Creator who loves us infinitely – an encounter requires a dynamic back and forth between two parties. In Evangelii Gaudium
Francis urges the faithful to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them” (3). This is a dynamic encounter with Christ, and not something static. The encounter means that there has been a response on behalf of the person who is met! With every human encounter there is always a moment of vulnerability as well as the hope of a response. Pope Francis’ understanding of ‘culture of encounter’ implies the structuring of a society in which persons encounter each other and because of this are able to encounter the living God. Such a culture denounces situations and systems that promote structures in which the poor are marginalized.
Pope Francis has said that the global capitalism is one such system that inhibits a culture of encounter. Capitalism succeeds in convincing the consumer that all economic endeavors are private. To see the world through the lens of encounter is to realize the presence of God all around us and that we are connected to each other through both visible and invisible ties. For Pope Francis, the culture of encounter moves us to walk the journey of our lives tenderly, holding each other’s hands and knowing that it is Christ who is our faithful, silent companion on the journey.
(CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
According to Pope Francis, the centrality of mercy is Jesus' most important message, and he made that very clear to us within a few days of his election in 2013 when he told us why he chose the name Francis for three reasons: because of Francis of Assisi’s love of the poor, his love of peace, and his care for creation. We see these three reasons being played out before the eyes of the world on a daily basis. Pope Francis’ episcopal motto, Miserando atque eligendo
is a rich expression taken from St. Bede’s homily on the call of Matthew, the evangelist, "Having had mercy, the Lord called him". The motto was not chosen for the Papal office but one that already accompanied Jorge Mario Bergoglio from the beginning of his episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires, and now as Bishop of Rome.
What is the story within the story of mercy? What does it mean for us priests? What does it mean for bishops? What does it mean for our people? As Pope Francis has said correctly, "We're in the middle of the Third World War right now – a war being fought in many different places at the same time". There is anxiety in people, fear, terror, destruction, death, random bombings and the phenomenon of ISIS that's attracting so many young people – not just those claiming to be Muslims, but so many young people are lured into a vortex of evil, violence and darkness. What is all of this saying about the state of the world, about humanity, and what is the antidote to all of this? Pope Francis has stated unequivocally: "There's only one antidote and that antidote is mercy".
Pope Francis stated in his first Angelus address in 2013 that a little mercy makes the world a little less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, our Father who is so patient with us." Throughout his priestly ministry, Jorge Mario Bergoglio sought to give concrete expression to God's mercy. In Evangelii Gaudium
, the term "Mercy" appears thirty-two times. Throughout his priestly ministry, he sought to give concrete expression to what he had been saying right along, to what he, himself experienced. Mercy is not just the pastoral attitude, it's not a project. It's not another thing on the agenda; it's the substance of the Gospel.
There’s a very powerful scene that Pope Francis describes in the book The Name of God is Mercy
. He speaks about a Capuchin priest in Buenos Aires who went to Cardinal Bergoglio one day and said, “Monseñor, I’m very worried that I’ve been too merciful when I’ve heard confessions.” The archbishop asked the Capuchin, “Have you prayed about this?” The Capuchin priest said to Bergoglio, “I go to our chapel, and I stand in front of the tabernacle, and I say to Jesus, ‘Lord Jesus, forgive me if I’ve forgiven too much, but you’re the one that gave me the bad example.
How can the Church put this mercy into practice in the midst of so many challenges and crises assailing us each day? In the Pope’s own words, “In order for this to happen, it is necessary to go out. To go out from the churches and the parishes. To go outside and look for people where they live, where they suffer, and where they hope. Mercy is the fundamental law that dwells inside the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy is the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”
If we proclaim to be followers of Christ and to be his ministers, priests and shepherds, we have to go where Jesus went. We have to take upon ourselves, like the good Samaritan, the man we encounter along the road, the one we encounter in seeking the lost sheep. To be like Jesus we have to be close to people. Francis invites us to eat with tax collectors and with sinners. He wants us to forgive the woman caught in adultery, while admonishing her at the same time to sin no more. He wants us to welcome and respect foreigners and refugees, even those who are enemies or potential threats. And above all, the plea has been consistent: stop judging. He’s spoken simply, unambiguously and beautifully about returning to a lost unity, a desire to achieve a missing fullness, a desire to witness to the beauty and the love of Christ.
During the recent Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invited all of us to take seriously the lessons of the corporal works of mercy that many of us memorized as children. We know them and may have memorized them during our school years: to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, heal the sick, shelter the homeless, give drink to the thirsty, bury the dead, and welcome in the stranger. What do they mean practically for us today? How do we activate them, put them into practice, realize the Lord’s dream in our day?
Jesus’ teaching to his apostles, “Go to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15) can be accomplished only if one has lived and experienced the geographical and existential peripheries of life. First we must consider Jesus himself, who was born in a geographical periphery, not in Rome – the seat of the Empire – but in Bethlehem, in the Roman outpost of Palestine. Jesus lived in the periphery for 30 years and during his ministry and he never lost sight of society’s existential peripheries – the poor, the lost sheep, the abandoned, the discarded, the prostitutes, the demonically possessed and women who were clearly on the fringes of society. For Francis, too, the church is called to come out of herself and go to the ends of the earth, to the geographical and existential peripheries of our times which are in need of the flavor of the gospel and the light of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Pope Francis has fully embraced this “theology of the peripheries” and made it a cornerstone of his Petrine Ministry. He himself comes from the periphery. He was born and raised in Argentina, which is both a geographical and existential periphery. Francis is the first Latin American, non-European Pontiff in modern times to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Francis was born and raised on the periphery of political and ecclesial power. Over the past four years he has warned the church not to become so fixated on the center that it neglects the periphery – on those people who live on the edge of mainstream society, whether within the economically advanced nations, or globally. In Evangelii Gaudium
, Francis writes: “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.
Francis bases his ‘peripheral’ principles in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the action of going, encountering, sharing and accompanying, we also recognize that in the journey, we ourselves are also drawing closer to the Lord. In all of our evangelizing, teaching, catechizing, counseling, admonishing, and instructing, we also remember both God’s liberating truth and God’s saving mercy. None of us can claim yet to be perfect as is our heavenly Father. But we can grow closer to the Lord who will by his grace heal us so that we can have the life he wants for us.
Many are calling Francis the great revolutionary. The only time he uses the word "revolution", is in Evangelii Gaudium
paragraph 88, when he speaks about the revolution of tenderness of the Son of God who took on our flesh. I also think that there is another revolution that Francis is offering us: the revolution of normalcy. What Francis is showing us and modeling for us is normal Christian, pastoral behavior. Rather than focus on all the eye-catching, buzz-generating aspects of this Pope: the Ford Focus in Rome, the KIA Soul in Korea; the little black Fiat on the streets of Washington, New York and Philadelphia, the black traveling briefcase, the orthopedic shoes instead of red loafers, the cold phone calls and hand-written messages, and everything else that has captured the world’s attention, it's the normal human, Christian behavior of Pope Francis’ ministry that speaks to us and moves us. Whenever we are confronted by such normal, simple Christian behavior, it throws some of us for a loop, because it's more of a reflection on our own abnormal behavior and human cravings for ways of the world rather than the path of Gospel living that leads to holiness here below and in the life to come. Pope Francis’ normal Christian behavior is for each of us a challenge, a consolation, and a form of tenderness that we've desired for, for a long time. May we learn from him and imitate him.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB has been a priest in the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) since 1986. A native of Rochester, New York, and a biblical scholar, he did his graduate studies in Sacred Scripture in Toronto, Rome and Jerusalem prior to lecturing at the University of Toronto and directing the Newman Centre of Toronto from 1994-2000. He served National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada. In 2003, Fr. Rosica became the founding CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, Canada’s first national, Catholic Television Network. He has also served on the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and as English language media attaché at four Synods of Bishops. He was English language assistant in the Holy See Press Office during the 2013 Papal Transition and served the Vatican Press Office from 2013-2016 as an assistant to Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office. He continues his work at Salt and Light Television in Canada.