Commentary: Reading Pope Francis in love

by J.D. Flynn

Denver, Colo., Apr 9, 2018 / 11:43 am (CNA).- In his first homily as pope, Francis quoted Leon Bloy, the French convert, author, and mystic who has influenced some of modernity’s most significant literary voices. Gaudete et exsultate, the pope’s newly released apostolic exhortation, again turns to Bloy, invoking the writer’s famous observation that “the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.”

Bloy was right, of course, and most of the pope’s readers are likely disposed to agree with him. But there is another Bloy quote that readers of Gaudete et exsultate would do well to keep in mind: “Love does not make you weak, because it is the source of all strength.”

Gaudete et exsultate was certainly written with love: whatever one thinks of Pope Francis, there is ample evidence that he loves the Church, and he loves her members. It ought to be read in love as well. But before the document was even released, a predictable fractioning of the Lord’s body foretold the way the exhortation would likely be read: through the lenses of suspicion and criticism that have characterized much of the debate about Pope Francis.

Unsurprisingly, early responses to the exhortation have followed a familiar pattern.

Those who are sometimes critical of the pope have noted that the text lacks any mention of chastity, and complained that it seems to have an antinomian or anti-intellectual bent: criticizing those with “a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige,” and taking special pains to condemn intellectual arrogance. Their response, in a few lamentable cases, has been the established refrain of Francis-bashing, which colors and discredits the legitimate questions being asked about many of the pope’s initiatives.

Some of the pope’s progressive defenders have snapped up those same passages, seeming to revel in certitude that the pope must be talking about their “conservative” counterparts, and brandishing his words like weapons. They’ve also found consolation, and claimed bragging rights, in the passages of the pope’s exhortation that call for solidarity with migrants, claiming penumbras of endorsement for the “seamless garment” approach to the Catholic social teaching.

Doubtless, on Twitter, Facebook, and in some blogs and journals, these two camps will volley fire with newfound ammunition in their battle over Francis, and their war for the Church.

But all of that misses the point. In fact, all of that defies the point. Francis’ exhortation proposes that charity is the heart of holiness- a proposal that echoes his recent predecessors, and more important, echoes the words of Jesus. If Catholic leaders and pundits can’t receive an exhortation in charity, and discuss it in charity, then the need for the document is more profound than most of us care to admit.

As with all of Francis’ documents, Gaudete et exsultate contains ambiguous passages, which lend themselves to misinterpretation and misappropriation. It paints with a broad brush, and it is not systematic. This is frustrating. And sometimes, it stings.

But the document is an exhortation. It is written to exhort us.

“What follows is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification,” Francis wrote. “My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love.’”

The document is meant to call us sinners to repentance and conversion. To call the lukewarm- most of us- to holiness. Not all parts are relevant to all Catholics; it fails to mention some patterns of sinfulness altogether. It is written by a fellow sinner, and the author’s humanity, foibles and all, show through the text. But it’s written in love. Which means that we should receive it by examining our own hearts, to find the places where the exhortation exhorts us.

An exhortation like this should be received in quiet and penitential humility. If we’re second-guessing it, armchair-quarterbacking the things it should have said, we’ve missed the point. If we’re using it to smite our enemies, we’ve missed the point. If it leads us away from love, the biggest problem is with us, and not with the text.

“Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort,” Francis writes.

Let’s receive Gaudete et exsultate as it’s written. Let’s be strengthened by love- from the pontiff, from one another, and from the Lord. Let’s put aside the arguments for the moment, and ask the Lord to help us be the saints he calls us to become.

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  1. I’ve just finished reading Gaudete et exsultate, and couldn’t agree more. Read in charity and with a Christian mind, it’s a beautiful and earnest call to holiness and evangelical fervor centered on Our Lord. Yes, yes, one can quibble with this or that phrase here and there (no more than two or three), but do yourself a favour and read this Exhortation for yourself, and in full. It is a splendid, simple (in the good sense) and quite fact profound work calling is all to fall in love again with Christ Our Lord.

    • Is CWR located in San Francisco? The above piece by Flynn is indeed authentic San Franciscoan language, that is for sure.

    • “It is a splendid, simple (in the good sense) and quite fact profound work calling is all to fall in love again with Christ Our Lord.”

      Perhaps it’s for those who fell “out of love” with Him in the first place, then?

      And as far as loving Him, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” That’s the Lord Himself from John 14:15.

      That would, of course, include the sixth commandment prohibiting adultery and the Lord’s clarification of what constitutes adultery in Matthew 5:28. If you even look at a woman lustfully, you’ve violated the sixth commandment.

      Seems to me (and many others) that Amoris Laetitia puts this clear teaching, and therefore the sixth commandment aside. The Lord didn’t say if you love Him, abrogate His commandments.

      Pardon me if I dismiss anything Jorge Bergoglio has to say about loving Jesus. With Amoris he has abdicated his authority to teach on such a subject for anyone actually paying attention. His very actions are in opposition to what Jesus Himself has said is required of those who love Him.

  2. Bergoglo has nothing to say–especially does he have nothing new to say. Virtually every sentence or phrase in this tedious screed is a recycled Bergoglio platitude. Even the usual insults (of Catholics) are recycled.

    This papacy is running on fumes.

  3. If only those neo-pelagian bead counters would get with Vatican II, the only general council in history which proclaimed no dogmas and condemned no heresies, and get it through their heads that the Pope is totally infallible in everything he says or does, things would be so groovy…

    If what this document says is about love, I don’t even want to know what hatred is.

  4. “whatever one thinks of Pope Francis, there is ample evidence that he loves the Church, and he loves her members.”
    At this I stopped reading……

    • Exactly. What a stupefying bit of virtue signaling. “Whatever one thinks…”???

      What if what one thinks is that Bergoglio hates Catholicism and wants to shatter the Church? There is ample evidence for that. There is NO evidence that he loves the Church.

  5. A document written in “love” does not insult, call names, make false characterizations, address straw men, attribute incorrect motives to others, and generally project one’s own moral failings (scolding, calumny, uncharitable views) on others. It doesn’t matter how much “feel good” sentiment is in there if the document contains toxic detritus as well.

  6. If Pope Francis really loved the Church, he wouldn’t let the enormous problems of Amoris Laetitia ch. 8 go unanswered, and he wouldn’t say what he does against traditionalists, among so many other things. Going to Francis for advice on holiness is like going to Benedict for advice on retirement strategies, or to John Paul II for advice on interreligious dialogue, or to Paul VI for advice on how to do liturgical reform.

  7. Nice try by J.D. Flynn, but his article is largely premised on the assertion it makes that Francis loves all members of the Church.

    Unfortunately, no. On the contrary, he has repeatedly attacked and insulted, sometimes in quite vitriolic terms, certain members of the Church.

    And he does it again with this Apostolic Exhortation, albeit in the coded language he favors for use in documents like this one.

    Since Francis is the Pope, and it’s painful for faithful Catholics to take issue with the Pope, believe me, I’d love to sincerely believe some of the things J.D. Flynn writes above.

    But this would require me to suspend my powers of reason and ignore the mountain of facts that has accumulated over the last five years. I will not do that.

  8. Interesting that Pope Francis emphasizes the Eighth Commandment but doesn’t mention the Sixth – which is rather central to the disposition to holiness, one would assume, and clearly defying it is the greatest threat to holiness in our own age.

    • No doubt his Committee of Experts on the Sixth Commandment (Ricca, Inzoli, Barros, Danneels, Capozzi, Euro, Paglia, Coccopalmerio, Gustavo Vera, etc.) helped set the priorities to be addressed.

  9. OK, we are all supposed to take unpleasant caricatures and read them “in love.” But it would be nice if the leader of the global church and the pastor of all Catholics would seem to exercise a little more “love” when describing faithful conservative members of the church. For the moment that seems like a futile expectation. Instead the boat seems intent on demonstrating that he can give as good as he gets. Not especially inspiring.

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