Month: January 2015

What Francis is all about

One of the more insightful articles I’ve read on the phenomenon that is Pope Francis: Eamon Duffy in the NYRB. I’m quoting some of the insights that place  the Pope’s approaches and  style of leadership in a clear but nuanced way.


The conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in March 2013 was beset by a sense of scandal and dysfunction at the heart of the church. The cardinals met in the wake of the startling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and under a rain of revelations about corruption and money laundering in the Vatican bank, clerical sexual abuse, and the failure of the church authorities to confront it—all given lurid coloring by the “Vatileaks scandal,” the leaking to the press by Pope Benedict’s own butler of hundreds of confidential documents revealing corruption, maladministration, and internecine feuding within the Curia itself.

In the run-up to the conclave, cardinal after cardinal demanded a pope who would purge the church of these ills, starting with the reform of the Curia. Francis was elected largely because he was perceived as someone who would deliver this. His pastoral emphasis on the missionary proclamation of the mercy of God to fallible people in difficult situations seemed to point away from sterile preoccupation with ritual and doctrinal niceties, bureaucratic obstructionism, and the ignoble protection of the church’s institutional interests.

One of Francis’s first major acts was the establishment of a commission of eight (subsequently nine) cardinals charged with the radical overhaul of the church’s central structures, starting with the Vatican bank. His very choice of name signaled a turn away from the doctrinal and institutional concerns of his immediate predecessors, and pointed instead to his passionate insistence on the church’s loving engagement with the poor who make up most of the world’s population.



But above all, Francis is the first pope to embrace wholeheartedly the Second Vatican Council’s aspiration for a church in which authority is shared among the whole episcopate, rather than monolithically focused in the papacy.


The exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates undoubtedly contributed to a resurgent clericalism (and interest in ecclesiastical millinery) among many of those trained for the priesthood since the late 1970s. It has been notably absent from Francis’s utterances: he has abolished honorific titles and dress for the younger clergy working in the Curia, since for him priesthood is essentially about service to the poor and vulnerable, rather than a symbolic status or the exercise of sacramental power.


There was a sense in Benedict’s pontificate that the best response to the crisis of secularization might be a strong repudiation of secular culture and consolidation within a smaller, purer, and more assertive church. By contrast, Francis believes that the church

is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

The church must be “capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy” in “a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.” It must never retreat into itself, never opt for “rigidity and defensiveness.” It works with people as they are, not as they ought to be, taking pastoral risks to meet human need, even if in the process “its shoes get soiled by the mud of the streets.”



Salvifici doloris

From Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on suffering, Salvifici Doloris:


Suffering, in fact, is always a trial—at times a very hard one—to which humanity is subjected. The gospel paradox of weakness and strength often speaks to us from the pages of the Letters of Saint Paul, a paradox particularly experienced by the Apostle himself and together with him experienced by all who share Christ’s sufferings. Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me”(72). In the Second Letter to Timothy we read: “And therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed”(73). And in the Letter to the Philippians he will even say: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”(74).

Those who share in Christ’s sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. This also explains the exhortation in the First Letter of Peter: “Yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God”



Towards Lent: Pope Francis’ message

From the Lenten Message of Pope Francis, 2015.


As a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions to self-sufficiency, I would invite everyone to live this Lent as an opportunity for engaging in what Benedict XVI called a formation of the heart (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 31). A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart. Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God. A heart which lets itself be pierced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters. And, ultimately, a poor heart, one which realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others.

During this Lent, then, brothers and sisters, let us all ask the Lord: “Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum”: Make our hearts like yours (Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference.


Pope in Philippines

Aquinas’ gift to the world

From the English Jesuit Fr Martindale who wrote on Catholic theology and issues through the 1930s to the 1950s:


Aquinas made a new gift to the world, which has assisted human thought ever since and could assist in the present moment far more even than it does, were it better used. The great Greek thinker Aristotle had reached our thirteenth century in small fragments only of his works, ill-translated, and mostly by way of Arab and Jewish authors, who had made current very distorted versions of Aristotle’s meaning, so much so, that the very name of that philosopher was suspected and disliked. St. Thomas, practically singlehandedly, turned the whole of this situation once and for all upside down. He caused, with the help of the Holy See, a complete and proper translation to be made; he explained the whole system of Aristotle more perfectly than ever yet it had been set forth; and he displayed that, far from being of necessity, or at all, hostile to the Christian Faith, the tremendous treasures of antiquity could be brought into glad and free cooperation with the teachings of Christ. This in itself is an enormous benefit, because it can preserve religion from the miasma of sentimentalism that infects so much of it today. Do not imagine it is easy to think properly. It is far harder than learning about airplanes, or hunting, or making films. It is an art. And, it is very tiring. People seize every chance of not thinking, and end by half arguing you ought not to think, anyway in religion, but just to feel or be what they dub “mystical.”

Angelic Doctor and Dumb Ox

Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, known at different times as Doctor Angelicus; Doctor Communis; Great Synthesizer; The Dumb Ox; The Universal Teacher.


His most important and enduring works are the “Summa Theologica”, in which he expounds his systematic theology of the “quinquae viae” (the five proofs of the existence of God), and the “Summa Contra Gentiles”. He studied under Albertus Magnus who defended him: “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!” Aquinas later  synthesised Aristotle and  empirical Christian teachings.

On the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273, Aquinas was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work the Summa Theologiae unfinished. He reportedly heard a voice coming from a crucifix that said, “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” to which St. Thomas Aquinas replied, “None other than thyself, Lord.”

To Brother Reginald’s (his secretary and friend) expostulations he replied, “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”


Detail from an altarpiece portrait of Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli.



Remembering Fr Louis

Thomas Merton, of course, my first glimpse of contemplative possibilities when I was a convert.


“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture”



– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain.

Francis de Sales on humility

The Feast Day yesterday, 24 January, of St Francis de Sales, a great writer on devotions.


“One of the best exercises in meekness we can perform is when the subject Is in ourselves. We must not fret over our own imperfections. Although reason requires that we must be displeased and sorry whenever we commit a fault we must refrain from bitter, gloomy,spiteful, and emotional displeasure. Many people are greatly at fault in this way. When overcome by anger they become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed and vexed at being vexed. By such means they keep their hearts drenched and steeped in passion.”