Faith According to Pope Francis

It’s not a banana smoothie, but a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, here and now

Papa Francisco is full of surprises. You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth, but it often has something to do with what goes in. “Buon pranzo” (have a good lunch) has become his signature sign off. This summer, he shook things up in Rio by insisting that faith is not a banana smoothie. “Please, do not put your faith in Jesus Christ in a blender. You can have orange smoothies, apple smoothies, banana smoothies, but please, do not gulp down a ‘faith-shake.’ Faith is a whole; you can’t mix it up in a blender.”

So if faith is not a banana smoothie, what is it? September has provided plenty of answers.

Francis’s faith

Even though the 13th of September marked the sixth-month anniversary of Francis’s election to the papacy, it was not the most important anniversary of the month. That occurred on September 21st, the Feast of Saint Matthew, when Francis commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of his call to the priesthood. Francis recounted the events of that extraordinary day to young people in Cagliari this past Sunday. Those events took place after the seventeen-year-old Jorge made a confession and talked with a priest at the parish of San Jose in Buenos Aires. His episcopal and now papal motto – miserando atque eligendo – recalls the experience with words taken from the Venerable Bede and appearing in the Office of Readings on the Feast of Saint Matthew. Quoting from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, Bede writes: “‘For Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.’ Thus Jesus saw the tax collector, and since he saw him by having mercy and by choosing, he said to him, ‘follow me.’ But to follow means to imitate. ‘To follow’ does not mean so much by foot as by one’s way of life (executione morum).”

In the recent interview published in the Jesuit publication CiviltÀ Cattolica, Francis points out the difficulty in translating the Latin gerund miserando. Perhaps “pitying” is close in English, but even that fails to catch the import of the Lord’s infinite power to forgive and its inextricable connection with “calling.” Where language falls short, Francis uses an image. He explains that Jesus’ outstretched finger in Caravaggio’s The Call of Matthew points at him in the same way it points at Matthew. “I am a sinner upon whom the Lord has cast His gaze,” Francis says. The same sense of sinfulness overcame him the moment he was elected to succeed Benedict XVI. When the tally came in, he calmly whispered, “Peccator sum, sed super misericordia et infinita patientia Domini nostri Jesu Christi confisus et in spiritu penitentiae accepto” (I am a sinner, but relying on the mercy and infinite patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in a spirit of repentance, I accept).

Francis’s interview with fellow Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., gives us a unique insight into not only his rich theology of faith, but his personal experience of faith. Faith is a journey; it is a history. God did not reveal himself by dictating abstract truths but by acting in human history. The response of faith, in turn, is historical, meaning that it must be renewed and refreshed again and again. Francis even suggests that faith is not genuine unless it is tinged with a trace of doubt. “The great leaders of God’s people, like Moses, always left room for doubt. We must always leave room for the Lord and not for our own certainties. We must be humble. Every true discernment includes an element of uncertainty open to receiving spiritual consolation.”

That is the kind of faith Francis learned as a Jesuit. It is at the core of Ignatian spirituality. Discernment is not a life-phase we pass through once but a daily discipline. Of all the human faculties, memory, says Francis, is most central to his prayer. He remembers what the Lord has done for him, for the Church, and for others. Memory allows each of us to draw from the fount of God’s mercy again and again by placing ourselves in the presence of the Cross. The Pope explains that his approach to prayer gives rise to direct questions: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What must I do for Christ?” In uttering these words, he and we are ever mindful that the Lord “remembers” us. We may forget him, but we are absolutely certain he can never forget us. In short, “the memory of God’s works is the basis of the covenant between God and his people.”

This kind of faith alone prepares us to proclaim the Good News courageously. “The most important thing is the initial proclamation,” says Francis. “‘Jesus Christ has saved you!’” Individual points of doctrine are important, but the Church’s moral edifice risks “crumbling like a house of cards” if it is not balanced and contextualized within the basic message of salvation, forgiveness, and repentance. “The Gospel proposal must be simpler, deeper, and more radiant. Moral behavior will flow from this proposal.”

Similarly, just as individual doctrines must be situated within the faith as a whole, so individual faith must be situated within a community. Francis’s favorite appellation for the Church appears in Lumen Gentium 12: the holy people of God. Through their “discernment in matters of faith,” the holy people of God “adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life” (Lumen Gentium, 12). Francis comments: “In the history of salvation, God saved a people. No one has complete identity apart from a people. No one is saved on his or her own, as an isolated individual; rather, God draws us to himself by considering the network of interpersonal relationships that form the human community. God enters into this ‘popular’ dynamic.” Francis suggests that the affective dimension of faith can only be developed within a community. “If you want to know who Mary is, ask the theologians. If you want to know how to love her, ask the people.”

Both the historical and interpersonal dimensions of faith underscore the importance of time. “The ‘concrete’ God,” Francis insists, “is today.” He explains that we must be willing to “enter into a process” if we wish to undertake the journey of faith. God reveals himself within and through time and is present in the unfolding of events. Faith requires patience and a willingness to wait. Only through time are we able to see how God is at work in each and every person and in each and every situation.

Scalfari’s doubts

Francis recently bore witness to all these aspects of faith in a remarkable article he published in the leftist La Repubblica, in which he responds to a series of questions posed by the newspaper’s cofounder Eugenio Scalfari. Scalfari, a self-professed atheist, admits that he has always been fascinated by faith insofar as it attempts to answer three important questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? He believes modernity has drastically changed the way we need to think and talk about these questions since we can no longer take for granted that the human mind knows “absolutes” and therefore “truth.”

The Pope’s response to Scalfari can be taken as a model of the New Evangelization. He engages the person rather than just individual questions. He gets right to the point and avoids peripheral details, even when Scalfari gets the facts wrong. Scalfari says, for example, that the Second Vatican Council neglected the topic of faith, when in fact the Council devoted an entire Apostolic Constitution to revelation and faith entitled Dei Verbum. But if Francis had pointed this out at the beginning of the dialogue, he may have derailed it from the start. Instead, he focuses on Scalfari’s main point, which is that if the Council had tried to engage the modern world by offering a catalogue of revealed truths – in other words, by presuming that men and women accept absolute truths unquestioningly – then the Council would have failed to confront precisely what modernity places into question: i.e., that there is such a thing as absolute truth.

One of the absolutes Scalfari places into question is the certainty with which we know historical truth. Francis seizes the opportunity to talk about a topic dear to him, but he frames it in terms of the historicity of a personal encounter with Christ. Scalfari laments that Lumen fidei relies heavily on the Gospel of John, which may not have been written by the Apostle at all. Francis could have utilized counterarguments in support of the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel, but that would have missed Scalfari’s main point, which is that the assertion “the Word was made flesh” introduces tricky theological issues precisely because of the historical character of the incarnation. That is what Francis pegs down as the real issue.

More specifically, Scalfari wishes to probe the connection between the uniqueness of the incarnation and the uniqueness of the Christian faith with respect to other religions. His first point is that if the incarnation is real, then God did not just put on a human disguise. He was not simply acting and talking like a man while remaining wholly transcendent. If Jesus really was God-made-flesh, then he fully took on human pains, joys, feelings, and desires. He even took on the temptation to self-love. If so, says Scalfari, then he must have wanted to tackle the enormous task of making his self-love disappear by focusing entirely on others and teaching his disciples to love others as themselves. Scalfari stresses the last two words: love for others does not abolish love for oneself but, at the very least, puts it on equal footing.

Scalfari uses passages from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew to argue for Jesus’ self-love. He says that if certain words and actions (see Mk 3:31-35, Mt 12:46-50, 10:37-39, and 8:22) were attributed to anyone other than the Son of God, he or she would be the archetypical narcissist. So the question is: are we really dealing with the Son of God or a “son of man” (by the “son of man” Scalfari seems to mean “non-divine”)? Besides, adds Scalfari, are the Gospels even to be trusted as accurate historical records? Accurate or not, Scalfari insists that they demand a response to the question, “Who do you say I am” (Mt 16:15)? Peter alone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God; a highly significant confession insofar as it creates the channels through which both Jesus’ contemporaries and we come to faith. Authority is absolutely crucial.

An encyclical on faith, Scalfari suggests, ought to address these questions of historicity and authority. Such an encyclical ought to examine critically the claims Jesus makes about himself, the claims the characters in the Gospels make about him, and the claims the authors of the Gospels make about him. It would be too naïve to begin with the premise that faith is a gift, but Scalfari thinks Lumen fidei falls precisely into that trap. And if faith is a gift, who is the giver? God the Father or God the Son? The encyclical uses scripture to designate the Son: “No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Lk 10:22). The Father, concludes Scalfari, is known only through the Son, and the Son only through the successors of the Apostles, and especially the Bishop of Rome as the highest representative of the Apostolic Magisterium. Hence the crucial confession of Peter and its significance for faith today.

This brings Scalfari to the main question of the connection between the distinctiveness of the incarnation and the Christian faith. Other religions, including Judaism and Islam, do not have an incarnation. They have no incarnate God or only-Begotten Son. Paganism offers a plurality of “incarnate” gods, but these are merely deities disguised as men and women. Hence “faith” does not seem to be a specific consequence of the incarnation. Faith in Allah seems no less strong for Muslims than faith in God the Father and God the Son for Christians. In fact, Scalfari argues, it may even be stronger for Muslims. Images of Allah are not permitted and, in many cases, altar and throne are inextricably linked to each other. All this seems to indicate not just faith, but the epitome of faith. Therefore, by comparing Christianity with other religions, Scalfari concludes that the absence of an incarnate God does not impede faith. He then gives an ulterior, albeit convoluted, reason for this. He writes:

“And why is this? There is an answer – a political answer – and it is called ‘limitation.’ Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Christianity was born in conjunction with the Empire and continued to interact with the imperial – and therefore civil – authorities for centuries. It rejected (or needed to reject) the temptation to theocracy. The incarnate God stated clearly: my kingdom is not of this world. When Pilate heard this response he was about to thank Jesus but the mob in Jerusalem preferred Barabbas.” It is unclear from Scalfari’s reasoning how the Christian distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world demonstrates that a lack of belief in an incarnate God does not impede faith, but, as we will see, Francis tactically circumvents the confusion.

The last point Scalfari makes in his open letter of July 7th concerns Judaism. He notes that God promised Abraham prosperity and happiness for him and his descendents. Yet the well-being the Jews were promised seems to have been short-lived. They were enslaved by the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, and finally by the Romans, only to be scattered in the Diaspora, persecuted, and in the end executed during the Shoah. Clearly, the God of Abraham did not keep his word.

Scalfari’s second letter, published on August 7th, poses more pointed questions. He prefaces them with an additional comment about Lumen fidei, noting that the encyclical does not treat the relationship between faith and reason with the same rigor as previous encyclicals. It rather emphasizes faith as God’s gift without delving into the epistemological and historical questions Sclafari raised in his first letter. His questions are the following:

1) If someone does not have faith and is not looking for faith but commits what the Church considers a sin, will he or she be pardoned by the Christian God?

2) The believer believes in revealed truth and the non-believer thinks there are no absolutes and therefore no absolute truth. Is this way of thinking an error or a sin in the Church’s mind?

3) Pope Francis has said that this world is destined to end one day. Scalfari agrees. But he thinks the end of the world will entail the disappearance of the human species, which, in turn, will entail a disappearance of “God,” since there will be nobody to think about God. “God,” he says flatly, “is a soothing invention and a curious figment of man’s imagination.”

Francis’s response

Consistent with his style, Francis places Jesus at the center of his response. He relies more on personal testimony than on abstract reasoning. Francis suggests that a direct witness to Christ is the only way to overcome the impasse between the Gospel and the Enlightenment.

Unsurprisingly, Francis begins with historicity. Lumen fidei makes it clear that we must fix our attention on what Jesus said and did and especially on who he was then and who he is now. The Letters of Paul and the Gospel of John are built on the conviction that the messianic ministry of Jesus reached its zenith in the Paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. So rather than wrestle with the accuracy of the Gospels as historical records – a highly technical though not unimportant question – Francis focuses on another kind of historicity: the historicity of his personal encounter with Jesus, a personal encounter “that touched my heart and gave new direction and meaning to my existence.”

Notice the first-person narrative. It crystallizes the faith Francis described to Fr. Spadaro: a personal, concrete, “actualizing” faith. At the same time, it is not the faith of a single, isolated individual, but of a community. The encounter with Christ was “made possible by the community of faith in which I lived and thanks to which I found a way to understand Sacred Scripture, to partake in the new life which, like a refreshing spring, wells up from Jesus via the sacraments.” In short, “without the Church, I would never have been able to encounter Jesus, ever aware that the immense gift of faith is contained in the fragile, clay vessel of our humanity.”

A further principle of Francis’s faith illustrated by the dialogue with Scalfari is that God is at work in each and every human being at each and every moment. Francis is therefore convinced that Scalfari and he share something in common and can travel together on the path of inquiry. The path itself is historical. We must meet Jesus in the concreteness and difficulty of what He himself was about. Scandal surrounded the words and actions of Jesus because he spoke and acted with such extraordinary “authority.” The Greek word is exousia, meaning “that which comes from the being of what one is.” So Jesus’ authority is not something exterior or affected but emanates from within. What is most radical and unprecedented about Jesus is his unique relationship to God whom he calls “Daddy” and who gives him “authority” to use for our good, not his own.

The purpose of Jesus’ authority presented in the Gospels is therefore to assure us who he is so that our faith may not be misplaced or disappointed. Jesus does not exercise his authority out of vainglory but out of a burning desire for us to know who he is and why he has come into the world. He heals, calls his disciples, forgives, and does other things proper to God and God alone. By speaking prophetically and performing the prophetic gestures of the Old Testament, Jesus gives his listeners reason to believe. Faced with these words and gestures, they, and we, are forced to answer the question, “Who do you say I am?” How we answer the question reveals what we think about Jesus’ entire identity (i.e., personal historicity), not simply what he did or what he said (i.e., scriptural historicity).

If we truly recognize his authority, we see that it is utterly different from worldly authority and not the maximal expression of it. It is an authority oriented toward serving others, not in wielding power over them. This is precisely why the cross is revelatory: it shows that the authority Jesus exercised through his words and deeds extends to his power to hand over his life for our sake. While manifesting this authority, he also manifests a capacity to undergo misunderstanding, betrayal, rejection, condemnation, and death. Most importantly, the perfect union of Jesus’ authority with his ability to experience all these things converges in his ultimate act of fidelity on the cross. He remains faithful to the Father until the very end.

Francis concludes that it is precisely at that moment when Jesus paradoxically reveals who the Son of God is. He is the Son of a God who is love and who desires, with his whole being, that we discover what it means to be and to live like true sons of God. This resurrection is the guarantee of this. Jesus is raised from the dead not to bring vindication to those who rejected him, but to show that the love of God is stronger than death, that the mercy of God is stronger than sin, and that it is worth spending one’s entire life witnessing to this immense gift.

This, according to Francis, is an apt summary of what Christians believe: Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world and gave his life to open the floodgates of love to everyone. Francis therefore agrees with Scalfari that the incarnation is indeed the fulcrum on which the Christian faith turns. By coming in our flesh and sharing our joys and pains, our victories and defeats, and enduring the cross, by living everything in love and fidelity to Abba, Jesus testifies to the incredible love that God has for each person, the inestimable value he sees in everyone. Each of us, in turn, is called to adopt Jesus’ way of seeing and choosing in love, to enter into his way of being, thinking and acting. This, according to Francis, is faith.

He now must address the originality and uniqueness of the Christian faith, for this was the kernel of Scalfari’s inquiry. Christianity is different from other faiths in that it allows us to participate in the relation that Christ has with God the Father and, in turn, in the relationship he has with all human beings, including our enemies. In other words, the sonship of Jesus is not revealed to show us that there is an insurmountable separation between him and us, but to tell us that, in him, we are called to be children of the one Father and brothers and sisters among ourselves. In other words, the singularity and utterly unique authority of Jesus is for the sake of communion, not for exclusion.

This leads Francis to address Scalfari’s objection that God failed to maintain his promise to the Jews. He joins Saint Paul in the conviction that God’s fidelity to His covenant with Israel has never fallen short and that, after the horror of the Shoah, the Jews kept their faith. Christians and all of humanity can never thank them enough. By persevering in their faith, trusting God, and observing the covenant, they draw attention to the fact that we are pilgrims in this world waiting for the Lord’s return and that we must always be open to Him and never wrapped up in what we have already attained. This is a brilliant illustration of the tinge of doubt Francis believes is present in all genuine faith, the centrality of time and history in the interpersonal dynamic of faith, and the fundamental importance of the community for receiving, keeping, and handing on the faith.

As for Scalfari’s three specific questions, here are Francis’s answers:

1) He lumps together the first two since they both have to do with what the Church thinks about those who do not share faith in Jesus. Does the God of the Christians forgive those who do not believe and are not searching for faith? Francis begins with the premise that the mercy of God has no limits if we turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart. For those who do not believe in God, their task is to obey their conscience. Even those who do not believe, Francis says, “sin” whenever they go against their conscience. Everyone, without exclusion, is held to the obligation of listening to and obeying their conscience so that they can decide what to do in the face of a perceived good or evil. The goodness or badness of our actions hinges upon this decision.

2) Francis responds to the second question in a shocking way. He agrees with Scalfari that it is nearly impossible to speak of absolute truths. But he immediately explains what he means by this: we cannot speak of “absolute truth” in the sense that truth is untied from everything else and deprived of any relation. Truth, according to the Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. Therefore, truth is first and foremost a relation: a relation between God the Father and God the Son. Christian truth is intrinsically “relative” in that I must accept the Gospel for myself and express it in my own language, history, and culture. It cannot be lived out abstractly but only in the concrete situations of my life. This does not mean, of course, that the truth is subjective and variable – to the contrary. What it means is that the truth of Christianity is always and only given to us as a journey and in the context of an evolving story (like the story of Francis’s call to the priesthood). Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth, because it is inseparable from love, requires humility and openness to be sought, embraced, and expressed. We need, therefore, to break out of the habit of thinking that “absolute” and “relative” and diametrically opposed. We have to reframe the question at its very root. Francis states that this is absolutely necessary if a serene and constructive dialogue between Christians and atheists is to take place.

3) Will God disappear if mankind perishes from the face of the earth? The ability to think God certainly reveals man’s grandeur. To think God, Francis says, implies that it is within our power to live in a conscientious and responsible relationship with Him. But this relationship is between two really existing entities, and it is a reality that comes to full light only when experienced interpersonally (e.g., one can never know what it’s like to be married until he or she is actually married). God, Francis asserts, is not an idea, nor even the highest idea, that springs from our thinking. God is a reality with a capital “R.” Jesus has revealed God to us. He lives in relation to Him as the Father of goodness and infinite mercy. God does not depend on my thoughts. Even when the world comes to an end – and Christian faith believes it will – neither man nor the rest of creation will cease to exist. Scripture speaks of new heavens and a new earth. The human spirit inevitably distends toward the end time when God will be “all in all.”

As for the Church, Francis says that she has no purpose other than to live and bear witness to Christ as the one sent by Abba “to preach good news to the poor,” to “proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19).

Who would dare put that in a blender?

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About Daniel B. Gallagher 3 Articles
Daniel B. Gallagher is a Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy at Ralston College.