Column: Did Pope Francis lose the battle?

Published on October 28th, 2014.

I can understand the struggle-for-reform narrative that allows commentators to call the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Pastoral Challenges to the Family a setback—but I doubt whether Pope Francis sees it that way. The narrative arc is clear, for example, in James Politi’s dispatch from Rome dated Oct. 26: “[I]t is hard not to see the turn of events in the Vatican this month as a setback for a Pope who has energized the Catholic world with his quest to make the religion more accessible and modern.”

It is even more hard to see the turn of events as going according to the Pope’s plan, but I will attempt to show, if not exactly that, then at least the nearest thing: That the Pope could not have seen it as a setback, and himself as “losing the latest battle.” (Politi again.)

First, the limits of possibility.

Francis has been compared to Saint John XXIII, the “Good Pope John” who convened Vatican II, because his pastoral touch inspires hope in many. But in that revealing interview he gave to fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro last year, Francis remembered John XXIII as a radical in a sense that ordinary Catholics would not readily understand.

(I wrestled with the idea for a long time.)

“According to St. Ignatius, great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time and people. In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension. You can have large projects and implement them by means of a few of the smallest things. Or you can use weak means that are more effective than strong ones, as Paul also said in his First Letter to the Corinthians.”

To the Vatican II generation, who see John XXIII as a reformer of the ages, audacity personified, this is news: “[H]e chose to correct the minimum dimension.” (And yet look at all he has wrought.)

I hope I understand this application of Ignatian discernment to church governance correctly; the context in which Francis spoke of the pope he is often compared to is the discussion about what he calls the “virtue of the large and small…. That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.”

Second, “time is greater than space.”

That phrase recurs in Francis’ interviews, and finds a special place in his “Evangelii Gaudium.” I understand it to mean that process is more important than structure; this, the Pope writes, is “a first principle for progress in building a people.”

What does this mean, exactly? An entire paragraph from the apostolic exhortation (No. 223) is worth quoting in full:

“This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time. One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.”

I see this passage as characteristic of Pope Francis’ approach to “repairing a church in ruins”—he is more concerned about initiating processes than possessing spaces. In this sense, the Extraordinary Synod was an initiative in process, unseen since Vatican II, and marked by unusual passion and candor. Who will call it a setback?

Third, the guarantee of unity.

In his closing speech at the Synod, Francis gave a powerful defense of the synodal process. “Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church …”

His confidence in that guarantee was formed by his experience in Aparecida, the 2007 conference of bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean, which produced a landmark document (he served as chief editor).

Later that year, he gave an interview in which he described the process in Aparecida as harmonious.

“‘Harmony,’ I said, that’s the right word. In the Church harmony is the work of the Holy Spirit. One of the early Fathers of the Church wrote that the Holy Spirit ‘ipse harmonia est,’ He Himself is harmony. He alone is author at the same time of plurality and of unity. Only the Spirit can stir diversity, plurality, multiplicity and at the same time make unity. Because when it’s us who decide to create diversity we create schisms and when it’s us who decide to create unity we create uniformity, leveling. At Aparecida we collaborated in this work of the Holy Spirit.”

Doesn’t sound like a defeated general to me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s