In an conversation on October 24, 2016 with the participants of the Jesuit General Congregation and now recently published in the publication La Civiltá Cattolica, Pope Francis offered numerous insights and comments worth further reflection. The format was informal, with the Holy Father requesting that questions be spontaneous and without advance preparation. Therefore, his responses were also extemporaneous, lending the conversation a sense of fraternity and accessibility oftentimes absent from more formal papal statements.
Some of the comments have already made headlines, including his strong critique of some seminary formation programs in which rigidity is emphasized and discernment minimized. He said: “in a certain number of seminaries, a righty that is far from a discernment of situations has been introduced. And that is dangerous, because it can lead us to a conception of morality that has a casuistic sense.” Pointing to the great Doctors of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, Pope Francis notes that, in dealing with complex moral questions, they always asserted that “the general principle holds for all” and yet were able to respect the nuances of particularity that emerged when one moved from the general concept to specific cases.
Although criticisms of seminary formation—criticisms with which I certainly agree—are sure to draw widespread attention, there are precious nuggets of wisdom found throughout the text. Pope Francis in true form, no doubt inspired by the Holy Spirit, offers us powerful challenges that help us to live the Christian life. For example, in addressing a question about those who have made critical remarks about the Society of Jesus over the years, Pope Francis reminds the Jesuits and us that, “sometimes even the most malicious critic can say something that helps me.” How true and how difficult a statement.
On the subject of clericalism, Pope Francis offers a reiteration of a theme near to his heart and yet relevant for the entire Church.
Clericalism, which is one of the most serious illnesses that the Church has, distances itself from poverty. Clericalism is rich. If it is not rich in money, it is rich in pride. But it is rich: there is in clericalism an attachment to possession. It does not allow itself to be nurtured by mother poverty, it does not allow itself to be guarded by the wall of poverty. Clericalism is one of the forms of wealth that we suffer from most seriously in the Church today. At least in some places of the Church.
Later in the text Pope Francis reiterates the challenge and danger of clericalism in terms of its stifling of the church and the way it negatively affects the baptismal vocation of others. “Clericalism does not allow growth, it does not allow the power of baptism to grow. The grace and evangelizing power of the missionary expression comes from the grace of baptism. And clericalism controls this grace badly and gives rise to dependencies, which sometimes have whole peoples in a state of very great immaturity.”
In a way that reminds me of St. Teresa of Calcutta and her decades of living the ‘dark night of the soul,’ Pope Francis addressed a question about what gives him consolation, to which he replied:
I am talking to family, so I can say it: I am rather pessimistic, always! I am not saying that I am depressive, because that is not true. But it is true that I tend to focus on what did not work well. So for me consolation is the best antidepressant I have ever found! I find it when I stand before the Lord, and let Him manifest what He has done during the day. When at the end of the day I realize that I have been led, when I realize that despite my resistance, there was a driving force there, like a wave that carried me along, this gives me consolation.
He acknowledges his own weakness and resistance at times to the Holy Spirit, but also recognizes that God prevails despite himself and this is a great source of consolation. This response helps humanize the Holy Father.
Finally, for someone who is a professor of theology, Pope Francis’s remarks about the need to study theology “in a real-life context” and his exhortation for people to return to his earlier magisterial teaching was heartening. On this first point, Pope Francis said:
My advice is that everything that young people study and experience in their contact with different contexts, be also subject to personal and community discernment and taken to prayer. There must be academic study, contact with real life not only at the periphery but at the boundary of the periphery, prayer and personal and community discernment. If a community of students does all this, I am at peace. When one of those things is missing, I start to worry. If study is lacking, then one can say nonsense or idealize situations in a simplistic way. If there is no real and objective context, accompanied by those who know the environment and help, foolish idealisms can arise. If there is a lack of prayer and discernment, we can be very good sociologists or political scientists, but we will not have the evangelical audacity and the evangelical cross that we must carry, as I said at the beginning.
On the second point, Pope Francis is concerned that in our fast-paced world, people are quick to drop an earlier document or text for whatever is most recent. In other words, to forget about Evangelii Gaudium because Laudato Si has arrived or to put Laudato Si to the side and focus exclusively on Amoris Laetitia. To this sort of attitude, Pope Francis says “By no means!” He encourages us to return to Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si to be read more deeply and alongside Amoris Laetitia and other teachings. This point gives me further enthusiasm for the return of my video series on Pope Francis’s documents, the current series on Amoris Laetitia is set to resume on a regular basis after the New Year. Stay tuned!