A CREATIONIST CHURCH
Early on in his papacy Francis surprised everyone with his untroubled off the cuff interviews with the press and even individuals, all expecting the customary scripted statements from an infallible religious leader. His spontaneous answers to the media, though pleasantly surprising to an impatient liberal wing of the Catholic Church (CC), have been amazingly consistent with his papacy to date. They manifest a developed, balanced path to seek, God, the UNKNOWN OTHER, heavily influenced by his Jesuit spirituality and Vatican II. One interview, although not so much off the cuff and lasting seven hours over three different days was arranged with fellow Jesuits, editors of several national Catholic journals. Answering questions organized by topics with sincere simplicity and without scripts Francis laid bare his vision of a new and very different Church, clearly identified with three sources, Jesus’ gospel, his Jesuit spirituality and Vatican II. The original interview was taken down in Italian. Our quotes are from the English version prepared by the Editors of America publication under the title (A BIG HEART OPEN TO GOD: A CONVERSATION WITH POPE FRANCIS America Press. Kindle Edition. 2013-12-15).(link: Quotes)
AN INITIAL OBSERVATION
You can detect an impatient urgency in Francis’s answers more than two and a half years ago to interview questions. This helps understand the sources of his interior strength in recent struggles with an ensconced bureaucracy and its international support system. Comments without quote are occasionally those of the interviewer or more frequently my own (Post author is responsible for italic and bold print).
FRANCIS AND THE URGENCY OF CHANGE (REFORM?)
In change you find God’s action. In reference to laments and criticism of todays’ “barbarism” in global society Francis reminds us that the Creator creates such barbarism: “But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. Complaints ‘…end up giving birth within the church to desires…of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today…in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.’ ” (Kindle Locations 412-413). God, the Creator, is the bottom line. Francis emphasizes this when commenting on THE CHURCH AS A FIELD HOSPITAL, “God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude.”(Kindle locations 275). We need to seek now where we can find our father/mother God.
“Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty…If one has the answers to all the questions—that is proof that God is not with him…You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties.”(Kindle locations 392). The age old custom of waiting years for a needed change in the CC has no excuses when technology jumps centuries in a decade. Help and support for God’s children are more important than outworn rules or the need for certainty. God’s will is found in created reality, Francis’ mess, not in ancient decrees or customs.
In the same vein Francis offers explanations for the adventuresome innovative spirit of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), “…Christ and the church, it has two fundamental points of reference for its balance and for being able to live on the margins, on the frontier.” (Kindle locations 139-140). “The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment…The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. No, the Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking at the horizon toward which he must go” (Kindle locations 152-162). Francis opens up that Jesuit spirituality gives him confidence with respect to the pace of reform.
After responding that of all the aspects of Ignatius’ spirituality discernment has been the most useful in his ministry, in reference to St. Paul’s discussion of discernment in Corinthians, Francis singles out the important relation between timeliness and decision: “This discernment takes time….I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment.”(Kindle locations 123). Then he adds: “Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months.”(Kindle Locations 126). Francis’ spiritual discernment with respect to reform tells him to look to now rather than later.
Under the topic CERTITUDE AND MISTAKES Francis talks pointedly about the environment he anticipates for effecting reform: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing…Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life….”(Kindle locations 412-413). Francis has dogmatic certainty that reform has to come quickly. And to find its form we must look at real people’s problems on the path God has created for them.
Again, when asked about two approaches to reform, FRONTIERS AND LABORATORIES, Francis shows his impatience with those who resist change—he is convinced that the time is now–by replying: “…insist on the frontier, I am referring in a particular way to the need for those who work in the world of culture to be inserted into the context in which they operate and on which they reflect…God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths…in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them, out of their context. You cannot bring home the frontier,…” (Kindle locations, 470-481). The “world of culture” Francis refers to exists now, not in the future. We run the risk of not finding God who is operative now if reform is put off into the future.
Inherent in the above comments of Francis is that we are the creatures, Jesus’ brothers and sisters in a created world. It is our obligation and that of the CC to look for the Creator in everything, event or person that God puts in our paths to him/her.
FRANCIS DEVELOPS HIS CREATIONIST VISION OF CHURCH
Francis’ views confirmed by his lived example reflect not only the momentous changes of Vatican II mentioned in former posts and the paragraphs above, but also the spirit inherent in its responses to religious and spiritual challenges of a modern world. Although pastoral concerns may drive the need for reform, Francis without proclaiming it, is modifying pastoral practice to become changes in our doctrinal views of God and man. One concise phrase can summarize the novelty of his approach: finding God’s action IN the created world instead of imposing man’s (the CC’s) outdated ideas about God ON the world. Francis’ states it forcefully: “Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”(Kindle location 291-292). This is the freedom of the Spirit created and embedded for purposes of decisions in each person’s path traced for him/her by God.
A UNIVERSAL CHURCH
Vatican II effectively opened the doors of the CC to the entire world. The range of the Church’s mission has been modified to include all humankind instead of only the baptized, in itself a seismic change at the time of the Vatican council in the twentieth century. Modern scriptural analyses established (remember the periti or specialists) at the Council that Jesus came transmitting to us his human brothers/sisters a new stage of the man-God relationship. The basis of the Jewish Covenant, creator-created men, was elevated to the plane of father/mother-all-sons/daughters. This more intimate relationship for all men is exemplified in the universal call of the Kingdom in The Our Father (See link: Our Father). Simultaneously along with expanding the scope of the CC outwardly the council fathers worked inwardly by defining the central meaning of baptism thus eliminating the non-functional so-called ontological differences between the ordained priests/bishops and laity. Francis in practice interpreted the Council’s work as a redefinition of the UNKNOWN OTHER in its relationship to humankind.
Francis opens a new platform for finding God by recognizing all paths delineated by the Holy Spirit starting with the recognition of everyone’s unique reality being carried along in an extremely complex, messy and even violent world just beginning to be understood by us. God is the originator where the individual person is a son, child of a father/mother God’s loving work. Each has an exclusive makeup, experience and knowledge window, and then within that framework God helps the person freely seek his/her path. Frequently the person can be crushed by life or lost facing free choices offered by circumstances, in other words, his/her unique search path to God. At the same time God, the UNKNOWN OTHER, engenders unconditional trust, transforming apparent mistakes in our choices into unforeseen twists or turns on the journey.
THE ROLE OF CHURCHES
And almost as a corollary to Francis’ above perceptions of the Council, the CC and all religious bodies are expected to respect the individual’s freedom, Christian or otherwise, to discern his/her unique path traced out by the Holy Spirit. Again, although freedom of conscience was always accepted to some degree, Vatican II loosened the CC’s interpretation from complete dependence, a practical impossibility for most official mandates, to a more ample freedom to interact with the Holy Spirit. Official religious bodies arise as larger communities to inspire, lead and guide believers in the paths fashioned by the Creator for each one’s journey, but they are not to usurp the action of the Holy Spirit.
In that context the mission of the church, as Francis teaches by word and example, is not to legislate a regulatory environment according to a belief system, but to form a community traveling together on a pilgrimage, each traveler making his/her contribution(and sometimes perhaps obstacles) to the paths of the others. In the interview topic Thinking with the Church Francis’ refers to the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (No. 12) where answers to questions point to life’s journey: “There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.” (Kindle Locations 213-215). With respect to the leadership (read hierarchy) in the CC it has definite limitations, “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.” (Kindle Locations 223-225). A view that is clearly borne out by history, the CC leadership clearly does not have a monopoly on knowing what the Holy Spirit wants of the community traveling together toward God.
In a following post, Part Four of what we like to describe as a Creationist Vision of God, we present Francis’ interview spots with his religious confreres as an early look into Francis’ program to reform the Church. From later information about the consistory it appears he was actually mandated by the Cardinal electors mostly to reform the Vatican bureaucracy. Instead Francis proclaims God wants a new Church. His quotes are organized by themes presented in bold first, then cited in the respective interview discussion topic. They serve to contextualize the original directions of his papacy as well as anticipate the problems facing a Church to be modeled on Vatican II.