Wednesday 29 May 2013

Pope Francis Strikes Again

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

Pope Francis continues his juggernaut of simple speeches that strike home and make headlines. Earlier this week, in a homily in the Domus Sanctae Marthae where he lives, he said that if we want to follow Jesus we have to get rid of a culture based on economic well-being and lose our attraction to the “provisional.” These two points strike home prophetically and poignantly, as they seem to be precisely what we prize more and more.

The remarks were based on the well-known Gospel story of the young man who goes away sad after Jesus asks him to give away his possessions and follow him. “Riches are an impediment,” the Pope said, that “do not facilitate our journey towards the Kingdom of God”. He did not let us off pointing fingers at the materially rich: “Each and every one of us has riches,” he said, something that “stops us from getting close to Jesus”. We must identify these by name by thorough and rigorous examination of conscience.

Yes, yes, we know all this, one might be tempted to say. But what does Pope Francis single out for our attention? He focuses on two unusual “cultural riches”: the first, a “culture of economic well-being that causes us to be lacking in courage, makes us lazy, makes us selfish”. Well-being, he said, “anaesthetizes us, it’s an anaesthetic”. The other is our attachment to the temporary.

Well-being (the Italian word is benessere) is a popular word, but it is not a Gospel word. This may throw us for a loop, since from birth we are trained to pursue our own “well-being.” It may result in an ersatz Christianity, a spiritual religion that closely resembles the real thing, but which is really just spiritual therapy, a “what works for me.” Jesus offers us peace, joy and consolation, to be sure, but it is only as an aftereffect of other commitments that include acts of faith, renouncing sin and even being a folly to the world.

Jesus asks us to be ready to give the whole sorry game up, and embrace a following that is, quite frankly, absolute. It is the one thing necessary. And so the uncompromising directness of his words still strike us today: it is simpler for camel to go through the eye of needle than for a “rich man” to enter the kingdom (whether he meant a literal needle or the portico in Jerusalem is not important). The apostles gasped in astonishment. Who then, can be saved? Since not everyone was rich, they must have understood whom the message was about: those who pursue the goal of economic well-being over … what?

Giving it away to the poor and following me.

How do these attachments take place today?
No, no, not more than one child, because otherwise we will not be able to go on holiday, we will not be able to go out, we will not be able to buy a house. It’s all very well to follow the Lord, but only up to a certain point. This is what economic well-being does to us: we all know what well-being is, but it deprives us of courage, of the courage we need to get close to Jesus. This is the first richness of the culture of today, the culture of economic well-being.
The second riches of our culture, Pope Francis pointed out, is our attachment to the “provisional”, that is, “our fascination with the temporary”. We don’t like Jesus’s “definitive proposals” because we are afraid of God’s time, which is definitive:
He is the Lord of time; we are the masters of the moment. Why? Because we are in command of the moment: I will follow the Lord up to this point, and then I will see … I heard of a man who wanted to become a priest – but only for ten years, not any longer … Attraction to the provisional: this is a richness. We want to become masters of time, we live for the moment.
We are often afraid – and I count myself in this number – to follow beyond what is comfortable and controllable. Yet the fleshy, non-spiritualized reality of Christianity does not permit such half-steps. As one Jesuit colleague of mine remarked in his review of the Malick film To the Wonder, “any substantive talk about the Holy Spirit must be grounded in carnal experience, if it is to be authentic to the full breath of the tradition and relevant to the world.” We must incarnate our love and following of Christ with deeds of sacrifice and action.

This is indeed a challenging part of the Gospel. Yet its truth is underscored by the evidence of history. As the late historian Warren Carroll wrote in his masterful A History of Christendom, times of wealth – “economic wellbeing” – do not produce great cultures of the faith:
One of the greatest paradoxes of the spiritual condition of humanity – and an essential element in the mystery of the Cross – is that prosperity of any kind tends to draw men away from God. The poor keep the Faith when the rich apostatize. The dark ages are ages of faith, while progress brings doubt and even scorn toward the truth which is God’s and the God who is Truth. Martyrdom builds the Faith, oppression strengthens it, while to be “at ease in Zion” opens the gates to every kind of temptation …”
One consolation in our increasingly rich and commitment-allergic age is that such times may see the arrival, like lightening bolts from heaven, of the great witnesses. Carroll adds: “It may well be that the greatest saints of all are those sent in times of progress and prosperity, to recall men from sloth and greed and moral corruption, and call them back to their duty as children of God.”

What kind of saint is needed today? Who does the world await to remind it of its own calling?


  1. Excellent post, John. Inner echos evoked:
    - Our Lord's words came to mind as I was reading yours, "My kingdom is not of this world" ... reminding us that there are riches more worthy of seeking than economic and provisional ones.
    - words that made an impression and have not since left my mind just surfaced too ... "the qualities of a Pope may be those that are least desirable in a human political leader ..." (I think these are your words from somewhere before)
    - I gather that the "thunderbolts" that strike us in our lives act to shake us out of our comfort zone. The make us learn to become more compassionate human beings. And these words from the reading of last Trinity Sunday have been proven true time and again " ...that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope ... " (Romans 5. 1-5)
    - Love the little LEGO guys in the comic - so funny ... cute!... don't push or prod any more or it's going to all fall apart! Perhaps the devil was there to ever trick us into doing ridiculous and foolish things - contradicting ourselves - making it difficult to achieve a fine balance ... it can sometimes be a sorry game, can't it?

  2. Thanks, R.D. And the lego guys trying to push a camel through the eye of a needle: an exercise in futility to be sure! Now, what personal riches do I need to get rid of....? - John