by Sheila Liagminas
Time and again, Pope Benedict XVI repeated with some urgency that modern man is living “as if God does not exist,” acting and making decisions “with no reference to God.” In January 2012 he issued a weighty message1 to Catholics in America through the US bishops, warning that ours is a culture of radical secularism, and one growing “increasingly hostile to Christianity.”
In his address to the bishops during their ad limina visit, Pope Benedict said the Church “is called, in season and out of season, to proclaim a Gospel which not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering.” That’s extremely unpopular business in our culture; but this proclamation of the Gospel is required of clergy and laity in unity of message and purpose.
With his resignation of the papacy in February, Pope Benedict entrusted the guidance of that mission to his successor. On that day, papal biographer George Weigel was my guest on radio and helped re-set our thinking and expectations by reminding me and listeners that the next pope would be the first in modern times not to have attended the Second Vatican Council, but whose job it would be to continue the reform and renewal it called for, to which the past two popes had dedicated their pontificates. “A premium is going to be placed on a pope from wherever who can be the chief evangelist,” he said the day Benedict resigned. “I think there’s a critical mass of cardinals who understand this. The Church needs an effective, compelling leader, and everything in the Church will have to focus on mission effectiveness. Every-thing in the Church has to be centered on evangelization.”
Weigel called Pope Benedict XVI “the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great,” and declared he will be recognized as such “for a long time to come.” That’s a very tough act to follow, but the times have changed and demanded a new style of preacher as the world increasingly tunes out preaching of anything transcendent.
While the still-convening college of cardinals would have to “take a tour of the horizon and assess the state of the Church,” Weigel told me, the wave of the future is going to have to center on the missionary Church and its mission to convert the world. “The next pope must have a transparent faith,” he said. “He must be a charismatic pastor.” And, he added, a reformer of the Vatican’s Curial offices. “The Church’s bureaucracy is an impediment to evangelization,” he stated emphatically.
Those observations and assessments were made in Weigel’s book Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, newly published at the time of the pope’s resignation, and most prescient. It was not only a blueprint for the kind of reformation the Church needed from the foundation up, but the one we received, in the election of the new pope.
The cardinals entered the conclave with a list of problems plaguing the Church worldwide, and it was anybody’s guess how they would order those priorities. Governance, “Vatileaks,” Curial reform, clerical abuse scandal, revitalizing the faith, advancing reform of the liturgy, evangelizing the modern world, reaching the developing world they were all vital issues the Church had to face and the cardinals took turn addressing their concerns during their congregational meetings the week before the conclave began.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio gave a brief but pointed intervention.2 It turned out to be emblematic. Here it is in full:
Evangelizing implies Apostolic Zeal
1. Evangelizing pre-supposes 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 geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.
2. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick. (cf. The deformed woman of the Gospel). The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that He is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to His knocking from the outside in order to enter but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let Him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let Him out.
3. When the Church is self-referential, inadvertently, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness (which according to de Lubac, is the worst evil that can befall the Church). It lives to give glory only to one another.
Put simply, there are two images of the Church: Church which evangelizes and comes out of herself, the Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidente proclamans; and the worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself. This should shed light on the possible changes and reforms which must be done for the salvation of souls.
4. Thinking of the next pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
The existential peripheries. That’s exactly where the Church needs to reach at this moment in history.
When the white smoke appeared above the Sistine Chapel, George Weigel said the rapidity of that conclave probably reflected the cardinals’ recognition of the “hinge moment” the Church is in, the evangelical fervor and missionary vitality that would produce a pope “who embodies the transformation and the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”
In his earliest days, the new pope proved that he did embody the renewal and reform that his predecessors put in place, in his own unique way. The name a pope chooses says everything about how he envisions his pontificate. Francis was devoted to rebuilding the Church by caring for the poor, preaching the Gospel by example, living humbly, standing strongly for what is just and right, reaching out to far flung places in peace with unyielding truth. “The existential peripheries.”
“Walking, building professing”
In his first homily,3 Pope Francis brought the readings together in a way that brought those themes of Saint Francis together. He talked about movement in the Church, as “walking, building, professing.”
This is the first thing God said to Abraham: “Walk in my presence and be blameless.” Walking: our life is a journey and when we stop, there is something wrong. Walking always, in the presence of the Lord, in the light of the Lord, seeking to live with that blamelessness, which God asks of Abraham, in his promise.
Blamelessness is a key word. Speaks volumes.
Building: to build the Church…
That had to be on every cardinal’s list of priorities going into the conclave.
Third, professing: we can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO,4 but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not build on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency.
That can apply to many situations in today’s world, from the Church to geopolitics to global finance.
Walking, building-constructing, professing: the thing, however, is not so easy, because in walking, in building, in professing, there are sometimes shake-ups there are movements that are not part of the path: there are movements that pull us back.
This Gospel continues with a special situation. The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it.” He says, “I’ll follow you on other ways that do not include the Cross.” When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
Getting Out of Ourselves
The week after Pope Francis celebrated his Mass of Inauguration, I interviewed Cardinal Francis George of Chicago during Holy Week. His insights mirrored the other Francis, the pope he helped elect.
I asked him, “How did this election reflect what the Church needs at this time in history?” Here’s part of his response, which has everything to do with freedom:
The Church needs to be free, externally to perform her mission, internally so we’re not bogged down, so we can be an instrument for evangelizing the world. The pope of the time resigned freely, and then [when we had to choose a new pope] we were faced with questions that in my mind were, am I free? What’s my motivation, why am I doing this? Is the man I’m voting for free to travel, to preach? Does he have integrity? It was an exercise in freedom. We have to be free. For the first time in our country we’re losing some external freedom to exercise the Gospel, so we have to be free internally. On that cross, Jesus was free to go voluntarily to his death.
He said his prayer and hope were that:
… God would keep the Church free of entanglements that stop the mission, that’s what Saint Francis did, that’s what the Holy Father will do, I hope.
The Church is free if she has her house in order. The Holy Spirit is full of surprises. We wanted someone with continuity in style, but something new. We looked for someone who could govern for sure. This pope is used to being the pastor of a large archdiocese and an urban center, the capital of his country. He’s experienced in how to keep his church free before a restrictive government in Argentina, he showed he can do that. He’s an experienced pastor.
People asked what are you looking for, I’m not sure who I was thinking of, but voluntarily poverty is a virtue and that was important. Most peoples of the world are poor. We have to pay attention to the poor and be present to them.
The pope is a man of great sympathy for all people, a man of great integrity with Christ, he has a pastor’s approach. He will open up the conversation with all people and be faithful to principle but open in style and approach.
How do we approach dialogue in a culture that is hostile to our message and even to our presence? Cardinal George responded:
Self-righteousness from ideological opponents is what we’re getting, but you have to keep trying. You can’t judge hearts. We have to be very careful about self-righteousness. It’s the Spirit who leads people to the Lord, not arguments, though we have to make the arguments.
Cardinal Bergoglio’s address to the cardinals during their meetings in congregation before the conclave was woven into his first messages as pope during Holy Week, and they left a lasting impression on Cardinal George.
During the Chrism Mass,5 Pope Francis told priests, “you’ve got to go out of yourselves” to reach others. Cardinal George told me this was consistent with what Cardinal Bergoglio said in his Congregation Intervention about being “self-referential,” looking at ourselves instead of the world. “It was a new word for me, and it struck me very much when he said it.”
It is probably the key word on which the papal election turned. The Vatican Information Service summarized Pope Francis in that early homily for the Chrism Mass like this:
He added that “it is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others.”
This fits hand in glove with Pope Benedict’s early 2012 message1 to the Church in America, warning about a growing secular orthodoxy:
… the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth… The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world.
Pope Francis represents a continuity with this pastoral direction, engaging a language we can all access viscerally in a new form of evangelical Catholicism with “the winsomeness to make robust orthodoxy exciting,” as Weigel called for.6 “A radically converted Christian disciple who believes that Jesus Christ really is the answer to the question that is every human life.”
So far, the world is still paying attention. ¦
1 Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the United States of America on Their “Ad Limina” Visit; January 19, 2012. Online at: vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2012/january/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20120119_bishops-usa_en.html.
2 “Bergoglio’s Intervention: A diagnosis of the problems in the Church”; March 27, 2013. Online: en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/03/27/bergoglios_intervention:_a_diagnosis_of_the_problems_in_the_church/en1-677269.
3 Pope Francis: First Homily; news.va/en/news/pope-francis-1st-homily-full-text.
4 Non-governmental organization.
5 Pope Francis: Homily for Chrism Mass; news.va/en/news/pope-homily-for-chrism-mass-full-text.
6 George Weigel: “Catholics Need a Pope for the ‘New Evangelization’”; The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2013; eppc.org/publication/catholics-need-a-pope-for-the-new-evangelization-2/.
Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a Chicago journalist who covers topics on faith, culture, and politics. She is host of “A Closer Look,” an hour-long news analysis on Relevant Radio and is network news director. Her work has been published in the National Catholic Register, Catholic New World, MercatorNet, National Review Online, and elsewhere. She blogs on current events at Inforum (inforumblog.com/) and Sheila Reports (mercatornet.com/sheila_liaugminas).
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