Connections: A subtle message in Pope’s words

Posted: October 1, 2013

For many Catholics, the recent statements by Pope Francis about the proper context for church teachings on hot button social issues like homosexuality, contraception and abortion were like a balm on a sore wound.

Francis talked about the need for the church to find a “new balance” in which divisive moral issues are not the main message, and that constant articulation of these themes “do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

Immediately the cry went up that the new emphasis on mercy and acceptance means the church is changing course, that the words are indication of a new direction that will soon be evident.

A close reading of the entire article published in the Jesuit journal America suggests a more subtle and moderate message, but one that is more profound.

In the article, Francis, himself a Jesuit priest, makes a point of discussing the principle of “discernment,” an earmark of Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, reflected on the point of view from which a spiritual person sees the world. In his view, the believer moves constantly between the perspective of the details and the bigger picture.

This strikes me as a process akin to a parent who needs to constantly shift focus between the myriad small tasks at hand in child-rearing and the formation of character that is the ultimate goal.

This is not to say the details are not relevant and that some of them are not, indeed, microcosms of the whole. But, in themselves, they are not the entire picture and failure on some of them is not at all illustrative of the worth of the individual, which is always priceless, or how the child will turn out.

If taken alone and blown out of proportion, small examples can obscure the horizon. And yet, if the details are not carefully and lovingly addressed, the horizon becomes a meaningless blur.

Francis describes this constant pivot and assimilation of two perspectives as “magnanimity.”

“Thanks to magnanimity, we can always look at the horizon from the position where we are. That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.”

Discernment, Francis notes, takes time. “Many think changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he said. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment.”

Similarly, parents who criticize their children constantly raise children who may function well in society, but do not have a personal locus of control or a sense of inner peace.

When I was raising what seemed like a herd of boys (though it was, in reality, only three), I had a saying posted on the refrigerator that I glanced at often and tried to reflect upon when my temper was frayed.

“If a child lives with criticism, he learns to criticize,” the saying goes.

And, so it is with constant restatements of moral imperatives. The horizon becomes obscured by the trees.

“Those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent,” Francis said. “The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects...”

If Francis’ words are a breath of fresh air, they are a very quiet breath to which one needs to listen with all the senses to understand.