The outbreak of mercy

This article formed part of the paper The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and the Second Vatican Council: Francis’ Framework for Communion and Dialogue in the Church and with the World. The paper was presented at Villanova University in Pennsylvania on the fifth anniversary of Francis’ accession to the papacy.

When Pope Francis first took occupancy of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome in 2013, he spoke about the fundamental beauty and the depth of the Christian faith. He recognised “the mercy of God” in the face of Jesus Christ that took “us by the hand and [supported] us, [lifted] us up, and [led] us on.” Francis affirmed how “God’s patience” ignites “in us the courage to return to [God], however many mistakes and sins there may be in our life”. Three weeks prior to this event, Francis had preached a message of mercy. “…this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy. He said, “I did not come for the righteous…I came for sinners” (Mk 2:17).

But the narrative was not just sound bite. It was also performative. The day after Francis’ election, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, presided over the diocesan thanksgiving Mass for Francis’ election. In his homily, Nichols recognised in Francis a sensitive pastor who was “willing to listen, walk with people and understand our weakness”. He recalled Francis wrote that “[only] someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord”.

For Francis, the performative message of mercy is both personal and transformative. In the fundamental and personal experience of the caress of Christ’s mercy, Christians go beyond the borders to minister to others. He challenged the World Youth Day participants in Rio de Janeiro towards this vision and pastoral approach. Having experienced God’s mercy, Francis reminded them to move towards the frontiers in the service of everyone. “There are no borders, no limits,” Francis asserted, “The Gospel is for everyone….not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone.”

In Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation to all the faithful, he renewed and reaffirmed this challenge. He wrote that the “Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. …I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelisation marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

However, Francis has been staunchly criticised for his audacity in preaching a compassionate and merciful God. Francis’ pastoral vision and pastoral strategy, The Tablet’s Christopher Lamb observed, face “opposition from those in Church who are uneasy about the reforms of the [Second Vatican] Council, or prefer a more cautious reading of what the Council called for”.

In the past year alone, his papacy has been accused of compromising and undermining the Church’s teachings. In September 2016, four prelates penned and signed a private letter to Francis seeking clarification on some of the key portions of Amoris Laetitia. They claimed that Francis’ Amoris Laetitia brought about “dubia” and “grave disorientation and great confusion on many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the Church”. Richard Gaillardetz noted that “[their] questions were posed as humble requests but in fact the authors seemed bent on testing the Pope’s doctrinal orthodoxy”.

In an interview with La Croix’s Bruno Bouvet and Isabelle de Gaulmyn, retired Archbishop of Paris, André Cardinal Vingt-Trois, remarked that Francis “looks at reality with the dynamism of [the] spiritual conversion found in the exercises of St Ignatius.” Vingt-Trois added that “[to] understand the pope, we need to place ourselves in the field of spiritual discernment. The issue for him is that the greatest number of people make progress in following Christ and that each one makes their own decision. No one can avoid this issue of spiritual conversion.” Vingt-Trois added that “[we] may have canonical provisions and rules but the freedom of people is important in their conversion.”

Moreover, Nichols’ immediate predecessor, the recently deceased Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, remarked to Christopher Lamb that Francis was simply “implementing the Second Vatican Council.” Prior to Francis’ election to the papacy, Murphy-O’Connor “was one of those who became convinced that if the opportunity arose, Jorge Mario Bergoglio would be the man to breathe life back into the stalled reforms of Vatican II”.

The mercy outbreak wrought by Francis may easily be conceived as a form of rupture, divergence from the Church's fundamental teachings. However, looking more deeply at Francis' pastoral direction, one recognises the fruits of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and the renewed vision of the Second Vatican Council operative in Francis' words and deeds. It is the convergence of the consolation of the personal encounter with the “Word made flesh” nurtured in the Spiritual Exercises and the engagement with humanity’s "joys and [their] hopes, [their] griefs and [their] anxieties" articulated in the Second Vatican Council that shaped the paradigm of Francis' pastoral direction for the Church in the world.




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