Francis’ way of dealing with greatest problem of our time
ANY LEADER worth his salt should have a plan. And any follower of this leader should know that plan, if he intends to follow. And Pope Francis, acknowledged as the world’s moral leader even by the most secular of media, can’t have less than a plan.
What’s his plan? To answer the question, we have to look at the three elements of any plan. First, the goal, then the current reality, then the strategy by which the plan takes us to the goal.
Since Christianity’s goal is quite known—and per the Christian belief, this goal is “unchanging” having been established by its Founder more than two millennia ago—the key to understanding Pope Francis’ plan is his view of our current reality.
Recall that for Pope Benedict XVI, the darling of conservatives whose main concern was passing on the objective truth, the “greatest problem of our age” is “the Dictatorship of Relativism.” Francis does not dispute that this continues to be a problem; he talks about relativism more than any other pope, and gives one of the best summaries of why it is a problem: “There are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”
But, in his analysis, the solution to this root problem does not rely mainly in a philosophical or theological debunking, although he does continue to attack relativism with these means.
In his view, the current reality that needs to be addressed is this: The world is a field hospital.
Everyone is wounded, everyone needs to be accompanied. To the joy of liberals and the chagrin of conservatives, he says that “before all else comes the individual person.” He emphasizes this principle, especially in the context of homosexual persons, the lightning rod of the culture wars. Thus his famous liberal sounding phrase: “Who am I to judge if he seeks the Lord and has good will?” No one who knows Christianity should be scandalized by this statement, for Jesus gave an unqualified command: “Do not judge.” Period. And the simple reason I love to repeat this is that we can never see the interior of a person.
In his first book published a few weeks ago, “The Name of God is Mercy,” Francis gives a detailed diagnosis: “Humanity is deeply wounded. Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them.” He quotes Pius XII who said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin. A striking example he gives is that of a regular churchgoer who nonchalantly tells of having relations with his maid, justifying it as “entirely normal.” Francis calls this arrogance.
Here is where humanity gets stuck. Where our country gets stuck. When citizens say our traffic is a “carmageddon,” and our leaders say it’s a sign of progress. When a leader is faced with an avalanche of evidence of corruption, and he says it is all black propaganda. When someone shoots his own campaign in the foot by cursing the Pope, and he says that’s me. When the Supreme Court declares abortifacient contraceptives as unconstitutional and the Pope comes to tell us that contraceptives destroy the family, feed us to the wolves and to an ideological colonization of the likes of the Hitler Youth, what do our “law-abiding” and “Catholic” citizens do? They cry foul when Congress slashes our contraceptive budget, knowing well that the majority of contraceptives kill our youngest babies.
If this is our current reality, how does Francis intend to lead us to the goal? The strategy, he reveals, was born little by little, but a key place where he found it is the same place where he found his vocation. In the confessional.
The strategy is simple but most profound. Proclaim the centrality of mercy, for it is Jesus’ most important message. Thus we have a Year of Mercy. To be radical (“radice” = root) in solving our problem, go to the root message. Through Jesus’ core message, Francis bridges the conservative-liberal divide. He not only reaches out to the subjective individual with a warm, loving message. The message he passes on is the very central, objective truth about God, the organizing principle of all the Church’s teaching, of all truth, of all reality. Everything is mercy. Because God’s identity is mercy. As if to reach out to conservatives suspicious of this strategy, he says: Mercy is truth.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t feel like a sinner? Francis replies: “I would advise him to ask for the grace of feeling like one!… It means standing in front of God, who is our everything, and presenting him with our selves, which are our nothing.”
How about the people whose sin has become a mental habit, a system, those who pretend to be Christians but lead a double life, a situation that Francis calls with the general term “corruption”? Since they are trapped by their self-sufficiency, their incapacity to ask for help, Francis asks everyone to pray “so that God can find his way into the hearts of the corrupt and grant them the grace of shame.” It is the grace to give even the slightest opening, the slightest desire, for the mercy that is infinitely greater than sin.
The stakes are high. Francis knows of Sister Faustina’s prophetic vision that divine mercy addresses the unprecedented evil of our time, and that mankind will only reach peace when it trusts God’s mercy.
This Lent, for Francis, is “a privileged moment” within a privileged time, the Jubilee Year, which by definition is a special time of forgiveness. Thus, he asks that we “place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more.”
And it is through this strategy that we attain the goal. If we receive mercy, we become merciful, then we are like God.
Raul Nidoy works at the Parents for Education Foundation and University of Asia and the Pacific.
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