Thursday, 29 August 2013

Kandinsky: innermost necessity of the soul

Kandinsky several circles website hd 5 13

[Warning: long read :)] Wassily Kandinsky, the father of abstract painting, is among those artists whom I have greatest affinity to, not for some specific reason, but simply because of the persistent bond that I feel between his work and myself. Looking at a piece like “Composition VIII” or at “St George I,” a reproduction of which we have in our living room, is always an experience that is hard to describe and that I prefer to leave unverbalized.

A couple of days ago I then came across a video from 1926 of him painting, which was a completely unexpected treat (thanks, @openculture!) and which lead me to his book “Point and line to plane,” where he gives the following, stunning definition of the point:
“The geometric point is an invisible thing. Therefore, it must be defined as an incorporeal thing. Considered in terms of substance, it equals zero. Hidden in this zero, however, are various attributes which are “human” in nature. We think of this zero — the geometric point — in relation to the greatest possible brevity, i.e., to the highest degree of restraint which, nevertheless, speaks. Thus we look upon the geometric point as the ultimate and most singular union of silence and speech. […] In the flow of speech, the point symbolizes interruption, non-existence The (negative element), and at the same time it forms a bridge from one existence to another (positive element). In writing, this constitutes its inner significance.”
This is clearly neither a mathematical definition, nor a scientific one (invisible=incorporeal?), but a phenomenological, even spiritual one. It is more like what a close friend would say in a eulogy, and that is how I felt when reading this book: to Kandinsky the point, line and plane were not some hypothetical concepts, but intimate friends and collaborators. His writing about them at times sounds like a person’s memoirs, rather than detached rationalizations of a theorist. Needless to say, I was hooked, and then delighted when I came to reading the foreword to the book (which I don’t tend to do as a rule) and discovering that “Point and line to plane” was the sequel to “On the spiritual in art.” This fact alone pointed me to another interpretative key for the above passage about the point, and its parallels with the person of Jesus and indeed with the Trinity jumped out at me. The process of non-existence, while simultaneously bridging between existences is precisely the dynamic between the persons of the Trinity (each emptying themselves - becoming nothing1 - out of love for the other).

If you have any interest in art, I can’t recommend “On the spiritual in art” too highly - not only is it an insight into one of the greatest painters of all time, but, to my mind, it is of the order of Plato’s Republic in terms of foundation myths.

Kandinsky starts out by emphasizing the necessity to act in the present moment (much like Le Corbusier insisted too), instead of attempting to imitate the past, which he depicts in harsh terms:
“[E]very cultural period creates art of its own, which can never be repeated again. An effort to revive art-principles of the past, at best, can only result in works of art resembling a still-born child. […] The sculptor’s attempts to employ Greek principles can only achieve a similarity in form, while the work itself remains for all time without a soul.”
Within the space of a couple of pages from the beginning, Kandinsky then proceeds to present his view of the hierarchy of spiritual life, which he equates with that of artistic life, since “[the] grammar of painting [… are] the rules of the inner necessity […] of the soul.”:
“A large acute triangle divided into unequal segments, the narrowest one pointing upwards, is a schematically correct representation of spiritual life. The lower the segment the larger, wider, higher, and more embracing will be the other parts of the triangle. The entire triangle moves slowly, almost invisible, forward and upward and where the apex was “today,” the second segment is going to be “tomorrow,” that is to say, that which today can be understood only by the apex, and which to the rest of the triangle seems an incomprehensible gibberish, tomorrow forms the true and sensitive life of the second segment.

At the apex of the top segment, sometimes one man stands entirely alone. His joyous vision corresponds to a vast inner sorrow, and even those, who are closest to him, do not comprehend him. […] Artists are to be found in every segment of this imaginary triangle. Each one of these artists, who can see beyond the limits of his present stage, in this segment of spiritual evolution is a prophet to those surrounding him and helps to move forward the ever obstinate carload of humanity. However, one of those not possessed by such vision, or misusing it for base purposes and reasons, when he closes the triangle may be easily understood by his fellow men and even acclaimed. The larger the segment (that is, the lower it lies in the triangle), the greater is the number of people to comprehend the words of the artist. In spite of it and correspondingly every group consciously or unconsciously hungers for spiritual food.”
While the above is unquestionably elitist, there are several details to note, which, I believe, hint at a dichotomy with the universally-accessible. First, the interconnectedness of the entire universe of spiritual ascent and the impact of its protagonists on all (“where the apex was “today,” the second segment is going to be “tomorrow.””). Second, the positive view of everyone’s potential to comprehend advances in art, albeit with a delay (“[T]hat which today […] to the rest of the triangle seems an incomprehensible gibberish, tomorrow forms the true and sensitive life of the second segment.”). Third, the desire of all for genuine spiritual food, in spite of some contenting themselves with fakes. Added to the above pull towards democratization of the elite striving for spiritual/artistic progress is also his declaration that “[a]nyone, who absorbs the innermost hidden treasures of art, is an enviable partner in building the spiritual pyramid, which is meant to reach into heaven.”

This tension is further carried forward, when Kandinsky argues that there is only a single criterion for what makes eternal art - its “inner necessity” from the perspective of its author:
“The artist should be blind to the importance of “recognition” or “non-recognition” and deaf to the teachings and demands of the time. His eye should be directed to his inner life and his ear should harken to the words of the inner necessity. Then, he will resort with equal ease to every means and achieve his end. […] All means are sacred when called upon by innermost necessity.”

““[O]uter necessity” […] can never lead beyond the limits of the conventional, that is, traditional “beauty” only. The “inner necessity” does not know such limits and, for this reason, often creates results which are conventionally termed “ugly.” “Ugly” is, therefore, only a conventional term which continues to lead a sham life long after the inner necessity […] has been superseded. At that time, everything was considered ugly if it was not connected with the inner necessity of the time, and anything so connected was termed beautiful. Everything, which appeals to the inner necessity is already beautiful by its virtue, and will be recognized sooner or later.”

“As no “dissonant notes” exist in music, nor in painting “inharmony,” in these two art expressions every sound, whether harmony or discord, is beautiful (appropriate), if it results from inner need. The inner value of each and every movement will soon be felt, as the inner beauty replaces the sensuous aspect. Thus, “ugly” movements suddenly appear beautiful, from which an undreamed power and vital force will burst forth instantly.”
Rooting perfection in “inner necessity” also changes the criteria by which art is judged and the means that are justified for its pursuit:
“A “perfect drawing” is the one where nothing can be changed without destroying the essential inner life, quite irrespective of whether this drawing contradicts our conception of anatomy, botany, or other sciences.”

“Likewise, colours should be used not because they are true to nature but only because the colour harmony is required by the paintings individually. The artist is not only justified in using any form necessary for his purposes, but it is his very duty to do so. Neither anatomical correctness nor any basic overthrow of scientific statements are necessary, only the artist’s unlimited freedom in the selection of his means.”

“This unlimited freedom must be based on inner necessity (which is called honesty). This is not only the principle of art but of life. This principle is the great sword of the superman with which he fights the Philistines.”
More than anything, the above reminds me of St. Augustine’s most famous dictum: “Love and then what you will, do,” which we could put into Kandinsky’s mouth as “Be honest and then what you will, paint,” without incurring any contradiction with his own words.

I have to say that reading “On the spiritual in art” has made me feel even closer to Kandinsky and has armed me with new means, with which I can revisit his paintings (and those of others!) in an attempt to connect with the innermost necessity that lead to their creation.

1 This self-emptying - kenosis - is explicitly indicated in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-9) and beautifully explained also by Hans Urs von Balthasar: “The Father, in uttering and surrendering himself without reserve, does not lose himself. He does not extinguish himself by self-giving, just as he does not keep back anything of himself either. For in this self surrender he is the whole divine essence. Here we see both God’s infinite power and his powerlessness; he cannot be God in any other way but in this “kenosis” within the Godhead itself.” (Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: The Action Vol 4).

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Against against understanding

484px Trophime Bigot Singer Candle

You know the caricatures of religious people that Richard Dawkins battles like windmills? Well, I have just read a blog post by one of them. He even self-applied the label "Catholic" and had his missive published in the "National Catholic Register" … Richard, all is forgiven! I'm with you to un-delude this guy - you can even have him as an atheist at the end!
"The world burns because nobody is willing to burn for it."

"[We are not] to dialogue with over a billion people whose lives are dictated by a false religion and a false ideology, an ideology that threatens to burn the world. [We are not asked] to understand them better."

"God commissioned [us] to convert the world, not to dialogue with it."

"There is no antidote to error but truth."

"We should raise money to send missionaries and pray for their souls when they perish for the effort, and then send more missionaries."
No, these aren't the words of Abu Qatada, but those of a "Catholic" blogger.

Let me just be clear about one thing - the above are not the words of a Catholic. Being a Catholic is "not to have a ‘label’ but to live and testify to faith in prayer, in works of charity, in the promotion of justice, in doing good," as Pope Francis is quoted in another article, ironically on the same website. Calling for "conversion, not dialogue," a refraining from understanding and raising money to send missionaries to their death are not "works of charity, the promotion of justice, [or] doing good."

And if that weren't enough, the author of the above expletives disqualifies himself from the Catholic life by distancing himself from the Church's teaching: "Well, if we listen to many Church leaders, we hear that we should seek to understand them better. […] And of course, we should seek to dialogue with them. Dialogue, dialogue solves everything. Baloney." Well, not just any old church leader, but Pope Francis himself, who has been explicit about the Church's desire to understand and dialogue not only with Muslims, but also with members of other religions, Christian denominations, agnostics and atheists. Everyone!

Does that mean that the Catholic Church and its leaders are not interested in spreading the Good News and in bringing Jesus to all, or as the blog's author puts it in his closing paragraph:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Do we love the world enough to even tell them about Him?"
Now that's baloney (in the parlance of our times). Pope Francis is monomaniacally focused on Jesus and on pointing to him at every opportunity. Just look at his daily homilies, where the word Jesus is by far the most frequently used. And you don't need to look any further back than his last Angelus message, delivered only two days ago to see what he is all about:
“Jesus tells us that there is a door to enter into the family of God. This door is Jesus. Everyone is invited to enter this door, to go through the door of faith, to enter into his life and to allow Jesus into their lives, so that he may transform them, renew them and give them full and lasting joy.”
But it is an invitation, not a conquest, a desire for friendship, not a call to use force. The basis is understanding, compassion, friendship. To look at Jesus and infer from His words that He wants us to make others believe in Him is not having listened to Him at all. Just like Jesus didn't set out to kidnap the apostles with a cohort of hired muscle, so we too need to invite instead of "burn and perish."

Monday, 26 August 2013

LCWR "systems thinking" - the good, the bad and the ugly

Good bad ugly

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is an umbrella organization founded in 1956 by the Vatican and counting the leaders of 1500 congregations of women religious in the US as its members (spanning over 80% of all nuns and sisters in the country). Between April 2008 and July 2011 it has been under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which has found “serious doctrinal problems” and “a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.” In other words, the CDF are saying that the LCWR are taking Christ out of Christianity …

Among the multiple changes mandated by the CDF, the withdrawal of the LCWR’s “Systems Thinking Handbook” was one that particularly caught my eye, also because there are multiple references to it in the CDF’s doctrinal assessment and because its title alone makes me nervous. And as soon as I started reading it, my expectations were not only met but, sadly, exceeded and I very soon came to reading the text not with a question about whether the CDF were hounding the poor LCWR, but about why they haven’t enforced changes already. Roundabout the same point on my way through the “handbook,” I remembered my Aristotle professor and his admonition to apply the principle of charity when faced with another’s thoughts and it is that alone, which resulted in my take including a “the good” section.1

So, let me start with the slimmest slice from the pie that is this Handbook - the good. Here what I am taking away from having read the 26-page publication is that its motives are good and that the intention behind the methods and attitudes presented in it is to bring about change that goes to the root causes of suffering and injustice:
“This is why it is necessary not only to feed the hungry or house the homeless but also to address the systemic relationships that result in social ills like poverty, homelessness, and hunger.”
Next, let’s move on to the bad (yes, that was it as far as the good is concerned), where the text unfortunately offers far richer pickings.

First, there is a ideologization already of the basic concept of “system” that is at the heart of this Handbook (an odd fact by itself, given the prominence of this text in an organization with canonical status):
“A ‘system’ is an entity that maintains its existence and functions as a whole through the interaction of its parts. The behavior of a system depends on the total structure. The interrelationship among the parts of a system, therefore, must be continually sustained for the system to exist. Systems are purposeful, open, counterintuitive, multidimensional, and have emergent properties not found in any of the parts by themselves. … systems thinking will prevent us from unconsciously employing the same mental models that are causing the problems we want to solve.”
While the first three sentences are pretty vanilla, and essentially paraphrase the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia definition, there is an immediate investment of the term with adjectives like “open” (what about closed systems) and “counterintuitive” (what about a simple system, like that of tea brewing: tea leaves + boiling water --> tea). The paragraph then concludes with an oxymoronic flourish: “systems thinking will prevent us from unconsciously employing the same mental models that are causing the problems we want to solve,” which Freud would have had a lot of fun with.2

Second, there are frequent counterpositions of “Western thought” on the one hand and “Organic thought” on the other, where the former is introduced thus:
“The limits of a short article do not allow for an adequate overview of the development of Western thought. We can safely say, however, that for almost a thousand years, Western thought has interpreted reality from the perspective of a worldview characterized by dualism and hierarchy. […] The ultimate result was a learned inability to think in any other than linear, dualistic, and hierarchical ways when dealing with problems, organizing ideas or work, and in structuring society, church, or our religious congregations. […] This way of seeing reality thus became an unconscious filter for the Western mind, a filter that made it easy to judge immediately what fit or did not fit a particular situation […] The world was stable and sure, a machine-like structure of predetermined and fixed relationships. The human mind could comprehend the universe in its entirety.”
The fault for the above blinkered and recalcitrant nature of “Western thought” is laid at the feet of Plato and Aristotle and all who followed them until the 1960s. The solution put forward by the LCWR is “Organic thought”:
“Th[e] “Organic” mental model prefers to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. [… T]he “Organic” mental model values chaos, connectedness, process, inclusivity, relationship, and a non-linear expression of authority.”
Commenting on the above is quite a stress test for my desire to apply the principle of charity, as a result of which I’d like to suggest that it is dramatically ill-informed and epically naïve. To suggest that Plato (i.e., mostly Plato’s Socrates; not to mention over two millennia of thinkers following him) had a sense of certainty, of the universe being “machine-like” and of “comprehend[ing] the universe in its entirety” is a claim that can only be made in the absence of any direct experience of his and his successors’ thought. In his Apology, Plato’s Socrates famously says “I do not believe that I know anything,” and even the concept of “system,” so central to the LCWR handbook, is extensively dealt with already by Aristotle.3 This is not to mention the importance attributed to the whole and its interrelationships in Christian sources, starting from St. Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26), via St. Hildegard (“God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else.”) and St. Francis (who sings of fraternal relationships with creation) to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. To argue that pre-late-20th-century thought was linear, deterministic and endowed with a sense of its own omniscience is simply false and divorced from facts.

Third, there is an attempt to anchor the Hadbook’s approach to Vatican II and specifically to it’s Lumen Gentium, which - it is claimed - “consciously grounded ecclesiology in the holistic image of the “People of God,” rather than in the “top down” definitions of the past […] defined by dualism and hierarchy.” With the principle of charity at breaking point, I can at best see this statement as being an ultra-selective reading of Lumen Gentium that essentially omits its extensive third chapter (“On Hierarchical Structure”) and all of its numerous references to the role of the Church’s hierarchy not only in Lumen Gentium but also in all of the other Vatican II documents. No matter how hard I try, I cannot even chalk this up to the authors of the Handbook having missed some subtle in-between-the-lines content, as Lumen Gentium states quite directly that: “Bishops […] presid[e] in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. […] In the bishops, therefore [… Jesus], is present in the midst of those who believe.” Pretty hard to read this as a “holistic,” a-hierarchical twist versus the preceding 2000 years of the Church’s nature.

Finally, let’s turn to the “ugly,” where, I’m afraid, my threadbare principle–of–charity gloves may not be too effective anymore. While the above is confused and both theologically and philosophically lacking both in breadth and comprehension, the most serious issue with the Handbook is the following passage:
“[Sisters g]rounded in [“Western mind”] theology […] believe that the celebration of Eucharist is the summit of worship and at the core of what holds us together as a group. [… Sisters] situated within [an “Organic” mental model] believe that the celebration of Eucharist is so bound up with a church structure caught in negative aspects of the Western mind they can no longer participate with a sense of integrity [… and] believe that as long as men control women’s lives, there will be no justice. […]

Since so much of our identity is bound up with shared theological assumptions manifested in group behaviors and practices, who we are as a group can be called into question if we do not believe the same things. The function of ritual is to bring to visibility our deepest beliefs through symbolic word and action. Tension over which symbolic acts and words to use reveals differences at the level of belief. Such differences call into question our identity at the core of who we are. They push us to ask, “Is there something at the heart of who we are which is beyond a common Eucharistic theology and which holds us together?””
Err … No! For a Catholic to suggest that there may be something beyond the Eucharist as a means of bringing about unity is simply nonsensical. The Church is (as in identity) the Mystical Body of Christ and “[r]eally partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread”. In this way all of us are made members of His Body, “but severally members one of another”.” At least that is how Lumen Gentium (the only magisterial document referred to by the LCWR) puts it. And, no, it doesn’t then go on to say “or whatever else you might like to do instead” …

The above passage does another, worrying thing - i.e., it suggests that a problem with the Eucharist is that it is an instance of “men control[ling] women’s lives.” Would the authors of the Handbook have objected to receiving the Eucharist out of Jesus’ hands at the Last Supper? Would they have turned to him and said: “Sorry, mate, we won’t let you control us and deprive us of justice!” Maybe …

The ugly thing here, to my mind, is not so much that the LCWR leadership publishes a text like this Handbook, but that it considers their views to be consistent with “the Gospel of Jesus,” justified by Vatican II teaching and acceptable in the context of a Vatican-incorporated body. While their intentions are good, their reasoning is deeply flawed and their beliefs about the Eucharist are categorically not Catholic. This is unquestionably not a case of the CDF oppressing nuns, but instead a crystal clear case of an institution with canonical status having gone off the rails and placed their beliefs outside the Church (and done so with some margin). I sincerely hope that the women religious they claim to represent either leave the LCWR (if they don’t share its beliefs) or openly declare their loss of Catholic orthodoxy.

1 In what follows, I will only reflect on the content of this publication and I have no intention to make inferences about the work of women religious in the US, about the doctrinal positions of the congregations whose leaders are members of the LCWR or about how the CDF have managed their investigation.
2 The rest of the Handbook is peppered with plentiful displays of naïveté, such as a section entitled “The Need to See Things as They Really Are” or the list of the “Laws of Systems Thinking” of which I’d just pick out these three: “6. Faster is slower,” “9. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants,” and “10. There is no blame” :|.
3 E.g., see the following quote from his Politics: “the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that.”

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Let's be friends (even if we disagree)

Francis japanese

I know I keep talking about Pope Francis, but I can’t help telling you about his meeting with a group of Japanese school kids yesterday, since his words there were an even further crystalized and simplified exposition of the ideas he shared in the message to Muslims last month.

First, it’s worth noting a bit of the back story though. The 200 pupils - both Buddhist and Christian - of the Seibu Gakuen Bunri Junior High School from Tokyo had planned a trip to Rome long before the Vatican announced that Pope Francis wouldn’t be holding general audiences during the month of August. Not wanting to disappoint them, Francis instead met just with their small group yesterday in the courtyard of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

To begin with, Francis praised them for their visiting a foreign country, since:
“to meet other people, other cultures is always good for us, it helps us grow. And, why? Because if we are isolated in ourselves we only have what we have, we cannot grow culturally; instead, if we go in search of other people, other cultures, other ways of thinking, other religious, we come out of ourselves and begin that beautiful adventure that is called “dialogue”.”
Then, he moved on to the core of his short talk, where he proposes meekness as the method of dialogue - a subject he has spoken of at least a dozen timed during his morning homilies:
“And what is the most profound attitude that we should have in order to dialogue and not fight? Meekness, the ability to find people, to find culture, with peace; the ability to make intelligent questions: “Why do you think this way?” “Why does this culture does that?” To listen to others and then talk. First listen, then talk. All of this is meekness.”
His next words though are what really caught my attention since they embody the essence of how dialogue must be an activity among friends and how its purpose is mutual understanding rather than conquest or proselytizing:
“And if you do not think like me - well, you know ... I think in a different way, you do not convince me - but we are still friends, I have listened to how you think and you have listened to how I think.”
Having the head of the Catholic Church lay out his view of and expectations from dialogue in this simple way is a big deal. While these ideas are not new by any means, their plain exposition here leaves little room for misinterpretation and is a great contribution to the development of closer relationships not only between believers of different faiths but also none.

Finally, Francis wraps up his address by pointing to the ultimate end of dialogue, which is peace: “This dialogue is what makes peace. You cannot have peace without dialogue. All wars, all struggles, all problems that are not resolved, with which we face, are due to a lack of dialogue. When there is a problem, dialogue: this makes peace.”

Monday, 19 August 2013

It's only pastoral ...

Shepherd boy a19029819

Pope Francis has unquestionably introduced a dramatic change in what the pope does or does not do. He travelled back from the conclave on the bus with the cardinals who elected him, he asked the crowd in St. Peter’s square to bless him during his first moments as pope, the next day he went to pay his bill in the hotel where he stayed before the conclave, he phoned his newsagent back in Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper subscription, he skipped a concert organized in his honor, he has been inviting vatican staff to join him for daily morning mass, he has had summaries and excerpts from his impromptu homilies published shortly after he delivers them and he even gave an almost hour and a half long interview in which he answered unscripted questions. None of this is news and one could begin to take it for granted, since Francis has been behaving in this immediate, open way from the get go and with complete consistency. Nonetheless, I would like to dwell on his behavior for a moment to talk about a particularly persistent throw-away label that keeps being applied to Francis’ words, in an attempt to contain, limit and at least implicitly make light of them and suggest that they ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

That label is “pastoral.”

You’ll come across statements like: “up until now he has only shown the pastoral and – some would concede – populist aspects of his personality” (Andrea Gagliarducci), “The homilies are pastoral in nature, often using homespun language to make his points.” (John L. Allen Jr.), “[Pope Francis’ first,] pastoral-sounding message was another indication of how different a style [he] is approaching his papacy” (Natalie Baker) or “Pope Francis seems to be taking a more pastoral and conversational tone” (Bob Shine).

And the implication is invariably that Francis’ words are a bit of hand-waving, populist simplification for the great unwashed and that what he really means cannot be inferred from them and has to wait for a proper, systematically-theological, logically-rigorous1 and magisterially-triplicated exposition, delivered under precisely prescribed conditions. His “pastoral” words are just a bit of fun for the punters, but nothing that serious minds need concern themselves about. Their “meat” will appear in encyclical form in due course.

To be honest, I find this tremendously misguided and divorced from the Christian faith, which is nothing other than an attempt to imitate, relate to and share with others the person of Jesus. The above attitudes are akin to their owners turning up at the Sermon on the Mount and knowingly whispering (whilst winking and nudging [they do deserve credit for multitasking]) to one of its listeners (let’s say a cheese-maker, to pick a random occupation): “Don’t worry about all that meekness or righteousness jazz … What the fella really means is more like Heidegger’s “in-der-Welt-sein” and it only applies to you in substance and not form anyway.” I can also see them tutting at Jesus’ simile about the eye of the needle (“Since several angels can be in the same place, this hardly represents any constraint at all.”), or his speaking about virgins running out of oil (“He doesn’t mean oil per se, but any of a plurality of incendiary fuels, including, but not limited to, oil.”)

All of Jesus’ teaching was pastoral, a lot of it was private and none of it was peer-reviewed, double-checked or nihil-obstat-ed. If anything, the pope’s pastoral teaching is of the highest importance, with later systematized, structured and cross-referenced expositions being of subordinate nature. Just like no theologian would dream of pooh-poohing the Gospel and preferring even the most sublime systematic theology to it, so the spontaneous, impromptu ad-libbing of Pope Francis too should receive preferential status over other forms of expressing the faith.

1 Please, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing whatsoever against the systematically-theological and logically-rigorous. On the contrary, you could say that I consider it the worst form of thought, except for all others.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Francis: let’s share the joys of Muslims

Francis sultan

A while ago now, Pope Francis wrote a, to my mind, very important message to Muslims at the end of Ramadan (on the feast of Eid al-Fitr), and, I believe, I, as a Christian, need to read it too, as if it were addressed to me personally. Aside from the gesture of Francis himself1 sending the message “as an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims,” his choice of theme itself is of great importance, as is the way in which he introduces himself.

First, he ties himself closely to St. Francis, who had very close links with the Muslim world of his day and who - with Jesus and Mary - is revered also among Muslims and who, after speaking with Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamel (the Sultan of Egypt) told his followers: “[You] are not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.” Then, Francis underlines a number of themes close to the hearts of Muslims: alms giving, a reverence for creation and the family:
“[W]hen the Cardinals elected me as Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor of the Catholic Church, I chose the name of “Francis”, a very famous saint who loved God and every human being deeply, to the point of being called “universal brother”. He loved, helped and served the needy, the sick and the poor; he also cared greatly for creation. I am aware that family and social dimensions enjoy a particular prominence for Muslims during this period, and it is worth noting that there are certain parallels in each of these areas with Christian faith and practice.”
Next we arrive at the theme chosen for this year’s Ramadan message: “Promoting Mutual Respect through Education,” which Francis lays out as follows:
““Respect” means an attitude of kindness towards people for whom we have consideration and esteem. “Mutual” means that this is not a one-way process, but something shared by both sides. What we are called to respect in each person is first of all his life, his physical integrity, his dignity and the rights deriving from that dignity, his reputation, his property, his ethnic and cultural identity, his ideas and his political choices. We are therefore called to think, speak and write respectfully of the other, not only in his presence, but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation.”
So far Francis’ message is universal and, I believe, applies to all human relationships and not only those between Christians and Muslims. Kindness, esteem, reciprocity, respect and refraining from gossip are all basics that prepare the ground for the “sincere and lasting friendship” that Francis speaks about later.

Then, Francis’ focus shifts to the aspect of religious belief in this context of human relationships:
“Turning to mutual respect in interreligious relations, especially between Christians and Muslims, we are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values. Particular respect is due to religious leaders and to places of worship. How painful are attacks on one or other of these! It is clear that, when we show respect for the religion of our neighbours or when we offer them our good wishes on the occasion of a religious celebration, we simply seek to share their joy, without making reference to the content of their religious convictions.”
I believe the above is a key move by Francis, in that it explicitly calls for mutual respect of the religious expressions of others while placing the emphasis on the joy and wishing for the good of others that accompany them and that are universally human. No buy-in with regard to the content of religious expression is inferred from being kind and participating in the other’s joy. There is neither proselytizing or attempting to convert the other here nor the suggestion of syncretism.

All of the above is very consistent with what I have heard from Francis so far - we have to realize that we are all brothers and sisters before anything else can happen. In the context of speaking about the poor, his emphasis is always on “touch[ing] the flesh of Christ,” on looking into the eyes of those in need when they are being helped. Just like helping the poor is about building human relationships with them and not only about material assistance, so interreligious dialogue too - and the very essence of the Christian life - is about the exact same thing.

How is this to be achieved though? While the answer here is pretty obvious (education), it is nonetheless worth seeing how Francis puts it:
“Regarding the education of Muslim and Christian youth, we have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices.”
It is impossible to respect and esteem caricatures - if that is how we get used to referring to others (whether they be of a different religion, or none, or of other convictions to our own) we are putting up barriers that prevent us from ever discovering what lives in the hearts and minds of our neighbors.

To conclude, Francis puts his own teaching into practice and concludes his message a follows: “Finally, I send you my prayerful good wishes, that your lives may glorify the Almighty and give joy to those around you. Happy Feast to you all!”

No pomp and circumstance, just sincere simplicity.

1 Instead of having the message sent by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who normally do so.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Married priests: a hermeneutic of choice

That the Catholic Church should allow for married men to become priests (or for priests to marry) is frequently put forward as a must and as a sure-fire way to address the current dearth of priests in many parts of the world. Celibacy, it is argued, is an outmoded idea and one that presents an obstacle to otherwise great candidates for the priesthood. And, it is suggested that having married priests would both make them better understand their parishioners and avoid crimes like pedophilia, which are laid at the feet of celibacy. The hope then is that a “modern” pope, e. g., like Francis, would finally see sense and do the right thing.

As should be obvious from the tone of the above, I have never seen these as being good grounds for changing the practice of requiring Roman Catholic priests to be celibate (for that is all it is - practice, not dogma, and the desire for its change is furthermore directed primarily at the Roman rite and not, e. g., the Eastern Catholic ones, where married priests have always been an alternative to celibate ones).

First, I don't believe having married priests would lead to more priests (the low numbers today deriving from what Pope Francis has called a “fascination with the temporary”, equally affecting the sacrament of marriage). Second, I consider celibacy to be a treasure - different from, yet equal to marriage in its potential for sanctification. Third, I have my suspicions about those who today would opt for the priesthood in the Roman rite if only it allowed for marriage too (note the specific wording of this point). Fourth, I don't believe that shared experience is a necessary prerequisite for understanding - it can help, but it is not what is essential (otherwise - via reductio ad absurdum - understanding would be impossible - see Nagel's bats). Fifth, linking pedophilia to celibacy is a red herring, and, sixth, you can bet your bottom dollar that Francis will do the right thing - it's only its level of "modernity" that remains to be seen.

And then there is probably the most serious reservation I have about married priests - that it is just too hard! Being married asks for 100% of one's capacity and, I am sure, so does being a priest. Even with the above I wouldn't have said that I am against married priests though, as I have seen great ones both in the Catholic Church an the Anglican Communion. It undoubtedly is challenging, but I wouldn't exclude its being an option just on those grounds.

A couple of weeks ago I read a book chapter about this subject (in the book “La grande meretrice”) and it changed my mind. Its author, Prof. Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian from Rome's La Sapienza University, presents the history of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church and has the following to say about the reasons for allowing priests to marry that were put forward in the Church's early days:
“The problem of clerical celibacy, and its eventual imposition, clashed with another point that was one of the principal innovations of Christian culture: the value of free choice, especially in the context of spiritual life. [...] The high regard enjoyed by chastity meant that, since the first centuries, many clerics spontaneously practiced celibacy, especially in the West, where it was particularly valued. But the Church has not declared a norm with regard to it. The married state too, in fact, had a religious and spiritual value, which made it difficult to exclude clerics from it without provoking its devaluation.”
What struck me about the above was that the argument pivoted around an insistence on the fundamental value of choice and therefore on freedom. It was an argument that decidedly was not pitting celibacy against marriage but presented this important choice as being both orthogonal to that of the priesthood and as having great importance, which in turn placed equal value on the two choices: celibacy and marriage. How strongly this was believed is exemplified by the following canons of the Synod of Gangra in 340 AD:
“Canon 1: If any one shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven] let him be anathema.

Canon 4: If any one shall maintain, concerning a married presbyter, that is not lawful to partake of the oblation when he offers it, let him be anathema.

Canon 9: If any one shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema.

Canon 10: If any one of those who are living a virgin life for the Lord's sake shall treat arrogantly the married, let him be anathema.”
Not only were married priests to be treated as the equals of celibate ones and marriage be afforded with reverence, but anyone who acted contrary to this teaching was anathema and therefore subject to excommunication.

While the above is a strong argument already, what really clinched it for me is the realisation that Jesus himself called married men to the priesthood, while he could have just as easily chosen only unmarried ones. St. Peter was certainly married (the Gospel referring to his mother-in-law, cf. Matthew 8:14-15) and in all likelihood so were more of the apostles. Even being sure only of St. Peter's married state is sufficient for knowing that Jesus called married men to go out in His name and proclaim the Good News. St. Peter having been the first pope further underlines the deliberate character of Jesus' choice and it can't be argued that only some peripheral apostle was married and that this was some anomaly (and even that would be a weak argument). As it stands though, we have Jesus call a married man to be not only a priest and bishop but also the first pope.

There are certainly challenges with opening up the choice between celibacy and marriage to priests (both practical and psychological), but I am left with standing on the side of those in favor of it, predominantly because Jesus himself chose to stand among them too (as he chose to stand among those in favor of celibacy (e.g., cf. Matthew 19:12). In no way is this in opposition to celibacy though, which I consider to be a great good when chosen for the sake of giving one's life to God. Neither is this a call to disobedience with the Church's norms or a demand for a change. Instead, it is a (albeit minuscule) contribution to a discussion of the topic and, I believe wholly consonant with the magisterium of the Church. For example, the Vatican II decree Presbyterorum Ordinis clearly states that celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches” (§16). Pope Francis too has spoken on this subject in a way that is open to discussion, while being clear about the norm in force today, when he said that priestly celibacy “is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change, [but] for the moment, I am in favor of maintaining [it], with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures” (On Heaven and Earth). Even though I don't dispute at all that priestly celibacy is working well “for the moment,” an understanding of the reasons for having it co-exist with priestly marriage in the Early Church has made me understand that this co-existence was a "discipline" practiced for profound, and to my mind, very strong reasons of choice and freedom.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Francis in Rio: we’re ALL brothers and sisters

Francis favela

[Warning: Long read! :) The following are my favorite bits from the many talks and homilies Pope Francis gave last week in Brazil. The originals span 30K words, while the following comes in at just above 3K. As you will see, it is more of a collection of gems than an attempt to comment on them, which I am sure I’ll get to in due course. For now I just wanted to give you my “best of” of Francis’ spectacular week in Brazil.]

Last week saw the 28th World Youth Day take place in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where as many as 3.7 million young people participated in a variety of events and during which time Pope Francis went on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Aparecida, met with local bishops as well as the leadership of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) and visited one of Rio’s favelas. Instead of giving you a run-through of the week’s proceedings, let me instead just pick out my favorite bits.

Before digging into Francis’ 30K words spoken publicly last week, it might again be interesting to see the ones he used most frequently, with the top 50 being the following:


Even just from the above, it is clear both that his emphasis, as ever, is on Jesus, but it can also be seen that he had a particular concern for emphasizing our communion among ourselves and with Him - the Church. Looking at the other words, there is a high frequency of active verbs: make, work, come, love, hope, see, ask, know, encounter - and his frequent use of the word “Aparecida” also stands out. Here, the references are not so much to the place of pilgrimage as to the document written there in 2007 by the Latin American bishops, under the leadership of the then-cardinal Bergoglio. A document that Francis has referred to several times already and with even greater frequency during his visit to Brazil.

Already the day before his departure for Rio, Francis set out his expectations by saying: “All those who come to Rio want to hear Jesus’ voice, to listen to Jesus: ‘Lord, what should I do with my life? What path I should take?’” During the flight from Rome he then spoke briefly to the journalists on his plane, starting by saying that he doesn’t give interviews (a point worth remembering once we’ll come to the spectacular interview he gave during the flight back :) and going on to outline his intentions for the trip, where his aim is:
“to reach out to young people, not in isolation but rather within the larger fabric of society. When we isolate them, we do them an injustice because young people already belong in several ways ... they belong to a family, a country, a culture and a faith. […] It’s true, of course, that youth are the future of a people. They’re the future because they have the strength, as young people, to move forward. But those at the other extremity of life, the elderly, are also the future of a people. A people has a future if it moves forward with both these ends - young people with their strength to go forward and the elderly because they’re the ones who offer us the wisdom of life.”
Upon arrival in Rio, Francis heads to the Guanabara Palace for an official welcome, where he starts his speech by saying: “I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ!,” which again underlines the constant focus on Jesus and a preference for the poor.

Two days later, Francis travels to the Marian shrine of Aparecida, where he starts off by emphasizing the role of Mary: “When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks: "Show us Jesus”. It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship. That is why the Church always goes out on mission in the footsteps of Mary.” Francis then proceeds to talk about “three simple attitudes: hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy” and has the following to say about the last one:
“Christians are joyful, they are never gloomy. God is at our side. We have a Mother who always intercedes for the life of her children, for us […]. Jesus has shown us that the face of God is that of a loving Father. Sin and death have been defeated. Christians cannot be pessimists! They do not look like someone in constant mourning. If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will “light up” with a joy that spreads to everyone around us.”
The next morning Francis headed to the Varginha which is part of the Manguinhos Favela in Rio and said the following to the community assembled in a football field:
“From the start, my wish in planning this visit to Brazil was to be able to visit every district throughout the nation. I would have liked to knock on every door, to say “good morning”, to ask for a glass of cold water, to take a cafezinho, to speak as one would to family friends, to listen to each person pouring out his or her heart – parents, children, grandparents. […]

I am well aware that when someone needing food knocks at your door, you always find a way of sharing food; as the proverb says, one can always “add more water to the beans”! And you do so with love, demonstrating that true riches consist not in material things, but in the heart![…]

No amount of “peace-building” will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself. A society of that kind simply impoverishes itself, it loses something essential. Let us always remember this: only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied! The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!”
From the favela, Francis headed for an unscheduled meeting with Argentinian youth in Rio’s cathedral, where he indicated his expectations for when they return home from the World Youth Day:
“I would like us to make noise, I would like those inside the Dioceses to go out into the open; I want the Church to be in the streets; I want us to defend ourselves against all that is worldliness, comfort, being closed and turned within – Parishes, colleges and institutions must get out otherwise they risk becoming NGOs, and the Church is not a Non-Governmental Organization. […] Young people and old people in this moment of history are condemned to the same destiny: exclusion. Don’t let yourselves be excluded!”
Next, Francis headed to the St Francis of Assisi hospital, located in the run-down Tijuca district of northern Rio de Janeiro, where young Franciscan friars and sisters care for the poorest and most marginalized slum dwellers. His message was again about brotherhood and he returned to the image of the “flesh of Christ” that he spoke of on previous occasions:
“[W]hen Francis embraced a leper, this brother, suffering and an outcast, [he] was the “mediator of light ... for Saint Francis of Assisi” (Lumen Fidei, 57), because in every suffering brother and sister that we embrace, we embrace the suffering Body of Christ. Today, in this place where people struggle with drug addiction, I wish to embrace each and every one of you, who are the flesh of Christ, and to ask God to renew your journey, and also mine, with purpose and steadfast hope. […] We all need to look upon one another with the loving eyes of Christ, and to learn to embrace those in need, in order to show our closeness, affection and love.”
This same Thursday, that Francis started in Aparecida, continued in the favelas, the cathedral of Rio and finally the hospital caring for drug addicts, concluded with a prayer service on Copacabana beach with the World Youth Day pilgrims, whom he addressed as follows:
“[T]oday you are all here, or better yet, we are all here together as one, in order to share the faith and the joy of an encounter with Christ, of being his disciples. […] Today Christ asks each of us again: Do you want to be my disciple? Do you want to be my friend? Do you want to be a witness to my Gospel? […] I think the answer is yes, because here today, it is good for all of us to be gathered together around Jesus! It is he who welcomes us and who is present in our midst here in Rio. […] Certainly, possessions, money and power can give a momentary thrill, the illusion of being happy, but they end up possessing us and making us always want to have more, never satisfied. “Put on Christ” in your life, place your trust in him and you will never be disappointed!”
On Saturday, Francis first met with Brazil’s political, cultural and business leaders, whom he addressed by touching on on “cultural tradition, joint responsibility for building the future, and constructive dialogue in facing the present moment”:
“Memory of the past and utopian vision of the future meet in the present. […]

[A]n integral humanism and the culture of encounter and relationship: this is the Christian way of promoting the common good, the joy of living. Here, faith and reason unite, the religious dimension and the various aspects of human culture – art, science, labour, literature... Christianity combines transcendence and incarnation; it has the capacity to bring ever new vitality to thought and life, in the face of the threat of frustration and disillusionment which can creep into hearts and spread in the streets.

No one should be denied what is necessary and everyone should be guaranteed dignity, fraternity and solidarity: this is the road that is proposed. In the days of the prophet Amos, God’s frequent warning was already being heard: “They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they ... trample down the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). The outcry, the call for justice, continues to be heard even today.

Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option: that of dialogue. Dialogue between generations, dialogue within the people, because we are all that people, the capacity to give and receive, while remaining open to the truth. […] Others always have something to give me, if we know how to approach them in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. This open spirit, without prejudice, I would describe as “social humility”, which is what favours dialogue. Only in this way can understanding grow between cultures and religions, mutual esteem without needless preconceptions, in a climate that is respectful of the rights of everyone. Today,either we take the risk of dialogue, we risk the culture of encounter, or we all fall; this is the path that will bear fruit.”
From the encounter with secular society, Francis proceeds to celebrating mass with priests, religious and seminarian in Rio’s cathedral and speaks to them about the call by God, to proclaim the Gospel and to “promote the culture of encounter”:
“It is not pastoral creativity, or meetings or planning that ensure our fruitfulness, but our being faithful to Jesus, who says insistently: “Abide in me and I in you” (John 15:4). And we know well what that means: to contemplate him, to worship him, to embrace him, especially through our faithfulness to a life of prayer, and in our daily encounter with him, present in the Eucharist and in those most in need. “Being with” Christ does not isolate us from others. Rather, it is a “being with” in order to go forth and encounter others.

We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people! Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They are the V.I.P.s invited to the table of the Lord... go and look for them in the nooks and crannies of the streets.”
After lunch with the Brazilian bishops and cardinals, Francis addresses the following words to them:
“[H]umility is one of God’s essential features, part of God’s DNA.

Let us read once again […] the story of Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-15). The two disciples have left Jerusalem. They are leaving behind the “nakedness” of God. They are scandalized by the failure of the Messiah in whom they had hoped and who now appeared utterly vanquished, humiliated, even after the third day (vv. 17-21). Here we have to face the difficult mystery of those people who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think that the Church – their Jerusalem – can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important. […] Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age. It is a fact that nowadays there are many people like the two disciples of Emmaus; not only those looking for answers in the new religious groups that are sprouting up, but also those who already seem godless, both in theory and in practice.

Faced with this situation, what are we to do?

We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.”
In the evening Francis was back with the young people on Copacabana beach, talking to them about being a disciple and a missionary, by analogy with three different uses of a field: as a place for sowing, as a training ground and as a construction site:
“Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup! He offers us the possibility of a fulfilled and fruitful life; he also offers us a future with him, an endless future, eternal life. But he asks us to train, “to get in shape”, so that we can face every situation in life undaunted, bearing witness to our faith. How do we get in shape? By talking with him: by prayer, which is our daily conversation with God, who always listens to us. By the sacraments, which make his life grow within us and conform us to Christ. By loving one another, learning to listen, to understand, to forgive, to be accepting and to help others, everybody, with no one excluded or ostracized.”
On Sunday Francis returned to say mass on Copacabana beach, to a crowd of 3 million, and continued with the theme of mission:
“Jesus did not say: “go, if you would like to, if you have the time”, but he said: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Sharing the experience of faith, bearing witness to the faith, proclaiming the Gospel: this is a command that the Lord entrusts to the whole Church, and that includes you; but it is a command that is born not from a desire for domination, from the desire for power, but from the force of love, from the fact that Jesus first came into our midst and did not give us just a part of himself, but he gave us the whole of himself, he gave his life in order to save us and to show us the love and mercy of God. Jesus does not treat us as slaves, but as people who are free, as friends, as brothers and sisters; and he not only sends us, he accompanies us, he is always beside us in our mission of love.

Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits: he sends us to everyone. The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some. It is not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone. Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent. The Lord seeks all, he wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and his love.”
After lunch, Francis addressed the leadership of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean, CELAM, with a rich speech, from which I’d just like to pick out a couple of points:
“Christ’s followers are not individuals caught up in a privatized spirituality, but persons in community, devoting themselves to others.

Is pastoral discernment a habitual criterion, through the use of Diocesan Councils? Do such Councils and Parish Councils, whether pastoral or financial, provide real opportunities for lay people to participate in pastoral consultation, organization and planning? The good functioning of these Councils is critical. I believe that on this score, we are far behind. […] As pastors, bishops and priests, are we conscious and convinced of the mission of the lay faithful and do we give them the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?

Responding to the existential issues of people today, especially the young, listening to the language they speak, can lead to a fruitful change, which must take place with the help of the Gospel, the magisterium, and the Church’s social doctrine. The scenarios and the areopagi involved are quite varied. For example, a single city can contain various collective imaginations which create “different cities”. If we remain within the parameters of our “traditional culture”, which was essentially rural, we will end up nullifying the power of the Holy Spirit. God is everywhere: we have to know how to find him in order to be able to proclaim him in the language of each and every culture; every reality, every language, has its own rhythm.

Every utopian (future-oriented) or restorationist (past-oriented) impulse is spiritually unhealthy. God is real and he shows himself in the “today”. With regard to the past, his presence is given to us as “memory” of his saving work, both in his people and in each of us as individuals; with regard to the future, he gives himself to us as “promise” and hope. In the past God was present and left his mark: memory helps us to encounter him; in the future is promise alone... […] The “today” is closest to eternity; even more: the “today” is a flash of eternity. In the “today”, eternal life is in play.”
Before embarking on the journey back to Rome, Francis met with the volunteers who had helped out with the World Youth Day and addressed the following words to them on the subject of vocations:
“God calls you to make definitive choices, and he has a plan for each of you […]. God calls each of us to be holy, to live his life, but he has a particular path for each one of us. Some are called to holiness through family life in the sacrament of Marriage. Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion; in a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of “enjoying” the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life- long commitment, making a definitive decision, “for ever”, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes that you are incapable of responsibility, that you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage “to swim against the tide”. Have the courage to be happy.”
Finally, the return flight itself was one of the highlights of this trip, as Francis spent an hour and twenty minutes answering unvetted questions from the journalist on board his plane. I wonder what brought about this change of attitude in Francis, who on the outbound flight declared that he doesn’t do interviews, but I am glad he changed his mind :). Of the many interesting, and masterfully answered questions, let me just pick out the following few:1
“[In response to a question asking Francis why he didn’t address the topics of abortion and same sex marriage:]

Francis: The Church has already expressed itself clearly about this. There was no need to return to it, like there was no need to talk about fraud, or lying, or other topics about which the Church has a clear doctrine.

Patricia Zorzan: But this is a question that interests young people …

Francis: Yes, but there was no need to speak about this, but rather about positive things that open the way ahead for kids. Isn’t that true? Furthermore, young people know perfectly well what the position of the Church is!

Patricia Zorzan: What is the position of Your Holiness, could you tell us?

Francis: That of the Church. I am a son of the Church!

[Asked about the role of women in the Church, Francis responded:]

A Church without women is like the college of apostles without Mary. The role of the woman in the Church is not only maternity, being the mum of a family, it is stronger: she is the icon of the Virgin, of the Madonna; her who helps to grow the Church! Think that the Madonna is more important than the Apostles! She is more important! The Church is female: she is Church, she is a spouse, she is a mother. But the role of the woman in the Church mustn’t end up being just that of a mum, a worker, limited … No! It is something else! […] It is impossible to think of a Church without women, but women who are active in the Church. […] In the Church one has to think of a woman from this perspective: making risky choices, but as women. This has to be explained better. I believe that we haven’t done a deep theology of the woman in the Church yet. She can only do this or that, now she is an altar server, now she reads a reading, she is the president of Caritas … But, there is more! There is a need for a profound theology of the woman. This is what I think.

[In response to another journalist’s question Francis returns to this topic:]

I would like to explain a bit what I have said about the participation of women in the Church: it mustn’t be limited to them being an altar server, president of the Caritas, a catechist … No! It has to be more, but profoundly more, also mystically more, with regard to what I have said about the theology of the woman. And, as far as the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and says: “No.” John Paul II said it with a definitive formulation. That one is closed, that door, but I would like to tell you one thing about it. I have already said it, but I’ll repeat it. The Madonna, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops, that deacons and than priests. The woman, in the Church, is more important than bishops and than priests; how, is what we need to try and explain better, because I believe that we are missing a theological explanation of this. Thank you.

[Finally, the answer that most stirred the media (for, I believe, good reasons), was in response to a two-part question, whose second part was about the “gay lobby”]

[…] You mention the gay lobby. Uff! [Mah! in Italian :)] A lot is being written about the gay lobby. So far I have not met anyone who’d give me their Vatican ID card with “gay” on it. They say that there are some of them. I believe that when one meets a person like that, it is necessary to distinguish between the fact of it being a gay person and the fact of lobbying, because lobbying is never good. That is bad. If a person is gay and they seek the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a very beautiful way. It says: “these persons mustn’t be marginalized for this, they need to be integrated in society.” The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers, because this is one, but there are others and others. The problem is lobbying: a lobby of misers, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of masons, many lobbies. This is the most serious problem for me. I thank you very much for having asked me this question. Thank you very much!”
In spite of this being a long post, the passages I picked here are just a skimming of the surface of Francis’ spectacular week in Brazil and there will be a lot to think about and internalize in the coming weeks and months. From everything I have read, and from the videos I have seen of Francis speak, by far the most consistent message that I have heard is the emphasis on us all - Christians or not - being brothers and sisters and the need for dialogue, encounter and love. Every person must be loved first, before anything else can be said or done. It is this profound conviction that, I believe, drives Francis to reaching out to all who are in any way marginalized: the poor, the young and elderly, women, gays. It is not some politicking, demagoguery or a giving–in to external pressures that are at play, but a consistent and universal reading of brotherhood and sisterhood.

A final comment I’d like to make regards the frequent insistence over the last days that Francis is not changing Church teaching and that he couldn’t even if he wanted to. While it remains to be seen what changes to Church teaching will result from his unquestionable change of tone and emphasis, I believe that the signs are very strong already: the admission that the theology of the woman is lacking, the outreach to gays (and even the use of the word “gay”!), and his response to a question about the divorced and re-married (that I didn’t quote above) are all pointers that have an unmistakeable direction. To claim that Francis, the head and supreme legislator of the Catholic Church, successor of Peter to whom Jesus said: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19), cannot change Church teaching is astonishingly naïve and historically uninformed. Francis insists that he is a “son of the Church,” but let’s not be blind to the fact that it is a Church where, as Francis said, “[t]he “today” is closest to eternity.”

1 For the full, official Italian transcript see here, and for notes from one of the journalists in English, go here. The English in this post is my own, crude, strepidotious, but close, translation from the Italian (and where available, Spanish).