Pope Francis, Romans 8, and the theme of theosis

"All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God…"

Pope Francis exchanges skull caps with a young girl after arriving for his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 8. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani

Pope Francis exchanges skull caps with a young girl after arriving for his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 8. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo) (May 8, 2013)Pope Francis made some waves today when he spoke to the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) about “men and women of the Church who are careerists and social climbers, who ‘use’ people, the Church, their brothers and sisters—whom they should be serving—as a springboard for their own personal interests and ambitions.” It was another example of how the Holy Father—pick a cliché—pulls no punches and wastes no words.

We’ll have more about that particular address and related matters soon, but I want to reflect a moment on Francis’s general audience today, which focused on the work of the Holy Spirit, the gift of divine life, and the mystery of divine sonship. These are topics and themes that he has touched on several times already in the first weeks of his pontificate. A month ago, in his April 10th general audience, Francis asked, “What does the Resurrection mean for our life?” His answer, in part, is that the Resurrection (as the Apostle Paul explained) is not just freedom from, but freedom for: “we are set free from the slavery of sin and become children of God; that is, we are born to new life.” This freedom is received in and through the sacrament of Baptism. Having received the sacrament,

the baptized person emerged from the basin and put on a new robe, the white one; in other words, by immersing himself in the death and Resurrection of Christ he was born to new life. He had become a son of God. In his Letter to the Romans St Paul wrote: “you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry ‘Abba! Father! it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16).

It is the Spirit himself whom we received in Baptism who teaches us, who spurs us to say to God: “Father” or, rather, “Abba!”, which means “papa” or [“dad”]. Our God is like this: he is a dad to us. The Holy Spirit creates within us this new condition as children of God. And this is the greatest gift we have received from the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. Moreover God treats us as children, he understands us, he forgives us, he embraces us, he loves us even when we err. In the Old Testament, the Prophet Isaiah was already affirming that even if a mother could forget her child, God never forgets us at any moment (cf. 49:15). And this is beautiful!

This gift of supernatural filiation goes by many names, including divinization, deification, and theosis, as it is widely known in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. It is a teaching that has long interested me. It was a key reason for becoming Catholic many years ago, and it is the focus of a book I am co-editing with Fr. David Meconi, SJ, editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review and assistant professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University, whose doctoral dissertation was on St. Augustine’s use of deification. The book has fifteen chapters by fourteen contributors (as well as a Foreword by Dr. Scott Hahn) and it covers two thousand years of Catholic teaching on the topic of theosis, beginning with Scripture and concluding with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and recent papal documents. This week, I am finishing up the final section of the opening chapter, co-authored with Fr. Meconi, on theosis in Sacred Scripture.

And so today’s audience by Francis caught my attention, as he returns to the same themes as he highlighted a month ago. For example:

But I would like to focus on the fact that the Holy Spirit is the inexhaustible source of God’s life in us. In all times and in all places man has yearned for a full and beautiful life, a just and good one, a life that is not threatened by death, but that can mature and grow to its fullest. Man is like a traveler who, crossing the deserts of life, has a thirst for living water, gushing and fresh, capable of quenching his deep desire for light, love, beauty and peace. We all feel this desire! And Jesus gives us this living water: it is the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and who Jesus pours into our hearts. Jesus tells us that “I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10, 10).

The Holy Father touches on a couple of passages in the Fourth Gospel, which is rich with the theme of mankind being called to share in God’s divine life; the same can be said of 1 John. Speaking of the “living water” spoken of by Jesus to the Samaritan woman by the well, Francis remarks:

The ‘”living water,” the Holy Spirit, the Gift of the Risen One who comes to dwell in us, cleanses us, enlightens us, renews us, transforms us because rendering us partakers of the very life of God who is Love. This is why the Apostle Paul says that the Christian’s life is animated by the Spirit and by its fruits, which are “love, joy, peace, generosity, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22 -23). The Holy Spirit leads us to divine life as “children of the Only Son.” In another passage from the Letter to the Romans, which we have mentioned several times, St. Paul sums it up in these words: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. And you… have you received the Spirit who renders us adoptive children, and thanks to whom we cry out, “Abba! Father. “The Spirit itself, together with our own spirit, attests that we are children of God. And if we are His children, we are also His heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we take part in his suffering so we can participate in his glory “(8, 14-17). This is the precious gift that the Holy Spirit brings into our hearts: the very life of God, the life of true children, a relationship of familiarity, freedom and trust in the love and mercy of God, which as an effect has also a new vision of others, near and far, seen always as brothers and sisters in Jesus to be respected and loved.

It is readily evident that Romans 8:15-17 is a passage with great significance for Francis, as he himself notes that he has mentioned it “several times.” He does not, of course, use the term “theosis“, but explicates the doctrine using language that is largely keeping with the Western way of referring to it. In fact, a quick search of the Vatican site turns up just a few uses of it among the documents accessible there, two of which are notable. First, Pope Benedict XVI made mention of it in a 2009 audience about John Scotus, and in the 2011, document, “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria”, the International Theological Commission articulated a succinct and helpful definition:

The Mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is a mystery of ekstasis, love, communion and mutual indwelling among the three divine persons; a mystery of kenosis, the relinquishing of the form of God by Jesus in his incarnation, so as to take the form of a slave (cf. Phil 2:5-11); and a mystery of theosis, human beings are called to participate in the life of God and to share in ‘the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4) through Christ, in the Spirit. (par 98)

The term “divinization” appears over thirty times in English texts on the site; it was used often by Bl. John Paul II, for whom the theme was of great importance, as I’ve shown elsewhere. Especially interesting is how Benedict XVI emphasized the connection between divinization, conversion, and spiritual growth, both individual and communal. In the October 2010 homily at the papal Mass for the opening of the special assembly for the Middle East, Benedict stated:

Without communion there can be no witness: the life of communion is truly the great witness. Jesus said it clearly: “It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples” (Jn 13: 35). This communion is the life of God itself which is communicated in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ. It is thus a gift, not something which we ourselves must build through our own efforts. And it is precisely because of this that it calls upon our freedom and waits for our response: communion always requires conversion, just as a gift is better if it is welcomed and utilized.

Benedict pointed back to this remark in the opening paragraphs of of his September 2012 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, writing:

In the context of the Christian faith, “communion is the very life of God which is communicated in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ”. It is a gift of God which brings our freedom into play and calls for our response. It is precisely because it is divine in origin that communion has a universal extension. While it clearly engages Christians by virtue of their shared apostolic faith, it remains no less open to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, and to all those ordered in various ways to the People of God. The Catholic Church in the Middle East is aware that she will not be able fully to manifest this communion at the ecumenical and interreligious level unless she has first revived it in herself, within each of her Churches and among all her members: Patriarchs, Bishops, priests, religious, consecrated persons and lay persons. Growth by individuals in the life of faith and spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church will lead to the fullness of the life of grace and theosis (divinization). In this way, the Church’s witness will become all the more convincing. (par 3)

In other words, if I might try to summarize, we must grow in divine life so that the Church can be renewed, so we might better proclaim the Gospel, and we might give better witness to the Catholic Faith, the heart of which is the supernatural sonship granted in baptism, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is already a focus of the pontificate of Francis, and it seems to me that one reason is that he wants to emphasize that real, substantial renewal comes from becoming—as John Paul II liked to say—what we are: children of God. And in this way, both are reiterating what the Apostle John wrote nearly two thousand years ago: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1).

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.