Pope Francis and the “Sad Life of Slumbering Christians”

Pope Francis receives a postcard with a photograph of himself as a gift at the end of his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 8. (CNS photo)

Pope Francis receives a postcard with a photograph of himself as a gift at the end of his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 8. (CNS photo)“The life of slumbering Christians is a sad life; it is not a happy life. Christians must be happy with the joy of Jesus. Let us not fall asleep!” — Pope Francis, General Audience, April 24, 2013.


To read Pope Francis, we must not be too literal. When he talked, in a recent General Audience, of “slumbering Christians,” he was not waging a war against “slumber parties.” When he told us “not to fall asleep,” he was not saying that we should never have a good night’s rest. And certainly when he told us that we “must be happy,” he did not deny either the acquiring of Aristotle’s virtues or the fact that we must take up our crosses and follow Christ. The analogy of the “slumbering Christian” refers to the Christian who does not make active in his own life what the Church teaches about Christ’s words and deeds. It is that vice the Greeks called acedia whereby we cannot arouse in ourselves the energy to ask what it is all about.  

Sometimes, I know, it is difficult to figure out just how to read Pope Francis. For instance, our most frequent contact with him at a distance is through his daily homilies in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae or other near-by Roman churches. The English edition of L’Osservatore Romano usually only gives us short summaries of what the Holy Father said. I take this to mean that he does not necessarily have a printed text ready to distribute ahead of time. That is not his way.

The headline of the pope’s homily on April 25 was: “Magnanimity and Humility.” The column begins with this sentence: “Magnanimity and Humility characterize the lifestyle of Christians who truly want to be witnesses to the Gospel in farthest reaches of the earth.” The homily itself, however, was mostly about going forth to evangelize the nations. Jesus, at the Ascension, did not tell the Apostles to stay in the local neighborhood as He did while He was still among the Apostles. The Apostles, and the Church, do not go by themselves but they are “with Jesus.” The Gospel is mainly preached with “witness,” not “words.”  Here is where Pope Francis added that the apostles are to be missionaries in “magnanimity and humility.”

On reading such words, one is left with some perplexity. A whole literature is devoted to the issue of the relation of the Greek virtue of magnanimity (Bk. 4, Aristotle, Ethics) to the Christian understanding of humility. Harry Jaffa’s well-known book, Thomism and Aristotelianism, is devoted to this very topic. Mary Keys deals with it in her study on Aristotle and Aquinas.

So one would hope that the pope might say something about these topics that do not easily fit together without some explanation. The magnanimous man is the man with all the great natural virtues. At first he strikes us as a very proud man, hence the perceived Christian problem with him. This was Jaffa’s impression. And yet, he was only being honest. Humility was not designed to justify not speaking or acknowledging the truth, even in one’s own case. Benedict probably would not have passed over this issue as an intellectual problem. Francis does not think it important for most people to worry about the complexities of philosophy. He would not deny that someone ought to worry about them. St. Thomas actually does.


What I found of particular interest was Francis’ General Audience of April 24. Pope Francis seems habitually to use the rhetoric device of dividing his talks into three parts. This may be an effort to relate the three readings of a Sunday Mass, but he is capable of bringing in his own texts from various sources to make his point.

In this audience, before 100,000 in St. Peter’s Square, the first point, perhaps surprisingly, had to do with the Last Judgment, the second with the foolish virgins, and the final point with the parables of the talents. The pope does not hesitate to refer to the devil or the Last Judgment. He begins by telling us that the human race stands between creation and the Last Judgment. Christ wants to draw all people to Himself. At the “end of history” (itself a phrase of much philosophic interest), the whole of reality is to be “consigned” to the Father.

But there is a time between the Ascension, when Christ brought our humanity that He had assumed to the Father, and the Final Judgment. That is the now in which we live. What is this now, this time for? It is, as it were, “for” the final judgment. That is, it is the time which we have freely to decide what we shall be, or better whether we choose to accept God’s gifts to us or not. The primary gift we are offered is to participate in the inner life of the Trinity. But that choice is made within time and during the ordinary life what we are given. 

At this point, Francis brought up the story of the ten virgins, the five wise and the five foolish ones. Most people, I think, feel that the Bridegroom is a bit too harsh with the five foolish virgins whose only fault was to forget to bring along enough oil for their lamps. But Francis sees it rather as a case of a refusal to use the time given to make the proper arrangements. In other words, to make oneself worthy of the invitation is central to the parable. Francis explains: “The Bridegroom is the Lord, and the time of waiting for his arrival is the time he gives to us, to all of us, before his Final Coming with mercy and patience…”  We do not know the day or hour, so it is a time to live “in accordance with God. We are asked to be prepared, not to be “slumbering” as if it made no difference what we did.

The pope makes the same point again by recalling the parable of the talents. How do we “use the gifts we have?” We are not to be concerned that others have more or other gifts than we do. This is the parable that I have called elsewhere “The Capitalist Parable” (The Catholic Thing, September 7, 2010). We are to make our talents and money productive, not just sit on them. The pope puts it this way: “A Christian who withdraws into himself, who hides everything that the Lord has given him is a Christian who is…not a Christian! He is a Christian who does not thank God for everything God has given to him!” 


Pope Francis next tells us that “the expectation of the Lord’s return is a time of action-we are in the time of action—the time in which we should bring God’s gifts to fruition, not for ourselves, but for him, for the Church, for others.” We should not turn to ourselves. Francis challenges the young before him to set out on the noble purpose of service to others.

Finally, Francis returns to the Last Judgment. Here the Second Coming is described. The words are familiar to everyone: When did we see you hungry? There is a temptation to think that we can do all this by ourselves, the temptation of the modern state.  “Of course, we must always have clearly in mind that  we are justified, we are saved by grace, through an act of freely-given love by God who always goes before us; on our own we can do nothing.” Faith is a gift, yet we must freely respond to it. Francis tells us that the Last Judgment should not frighten us but “impel us to live the present life better.” 

The pope’s own faith is lively and familiar. He speaks of ultimate things in ways that are very intelligible to us. His last words are these: “May the Lord, at the end of our life, and at the end of history, be able to recognize us as good and faithful servants.” The end of our lives and the end of history are rarely so put together. Both ends have the same purpose, that we be present with God according to His eternal plan that began with creation and ends with the Final Judgment. The end is not a cessation of all things but a completion of all things in which each being is what it is, and each free being is what in grace or in its rejection he has chosen to be, for himself, or for other. In other words, in Pope Francis’ mind, the “life of the slumbering Christian” will never do.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).