Arts & Books

Book review: Pope Francis hauls Catholics out of their armchairs

Pope Francis sits in the back row of the chapel where he preaches his daily homilies (CNS)

Pope Francis: Encountering Truth,
edited by Antonio Spadaro, Image, £17.50

This volume comprises an edited version of the homilies of Pope Francis, preached from St Martha’s Chapel in the Vatican between March 2013 and March 2014 (from shortly after his election and throughout the first year of his pontificate). In his preface, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, director of the Holy See’s press office and the director-general of Vatican Radio, states that the homilies provide the key to the Pope’s Jesuit spirituality. That may be true for those acquainted with this spiritual formation.

Fr Lombardi adds that, according to Vatican Radio, the homilies are one of its most popular features. That is because, as the secular media instantly grasped, they are different from those of his predecessors – not in content but in style. In making his home at St Martha’s, rather than in the papal apartments, and in giving his morning homilies at the hostel in a spontaneous rather than a rehearsed fashion, the Pope has striven to demystify the papacy. Some might object, but in an age when the pastoral dimension of the Church is seen as more significant in a secular society, I think it does help to make the saving mission of the Church more apparent to modern man.

The same is true of the homilies. They are couched in homely language, with vivid images taken from daily life. They can be repetitive, as a conversation rather than a sermon will be, and they come back again and again to the question: how do we Christians step away from our comfortable, institutional “armchair” Catholic world and become reconverted to Christ in our own lives?

The Pope told Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, the editor of this volume: “If the homily does not create a language between God and his people that allows everyone to develop a personal relationship with God, then it is truly a waste of time.” Again, Francis emphasises that “the word must become flesh in the one who preaches.”

Thus, although the media happily seizes on a single phrase of the Pope’s speeches and interviews, either in order to be mischievous or to show how original and unstuffy he is, it is obvious if you read a collection of his homilies such as in this book, that Pope Francis has a consistent and serious theme and that, however much the homilies might seem artless or off the cuff, they are the result of a lifetime of pastoral practice in his own diocese in Buenos Aires.

Always referring to the scriptural text for the day, Francis extracts from it a meaning that bears on the daily lives of his congregation. Commenting on the passage in Holy Week when Judas “sells” Christ, he reminds them that malicious gossip “sells” those we defame. Indeed, this is one of the vices he constantly alludes to – because it is often a feature of a “closed” community like a parish and because it quickly poisons that community’s life. For Francis, gossip is simply a temptation of the Evil One. “Let’s not make deals with the Devil!” he exhorts us, when faced by the response that talking of the Devil is “old-fashioned.”

Pope Francis’s particular gift – his personal apostolate, you might say – is
this ability to include a traditional Christian concept such as the reality of the Devil, in fresh, unusual language. He refers to “melancholy Christians” who have faces “more like pickled peppers than those of joyful people with a beautiful life.” Talking about the forgiveness of God in the confessional, he reminds his listeners that “Jesus in the confessional is not a dry cleaner” and that a sacrament is not “a magical ritual” nor Jesus “a hypnotist”.

“Corruption” is a word he often uses in these homilies, to distinguish between sinners who are truly repentant and sinners who have become self-satisfied, like the Pharisees. “Peter was a sinner, but he was not corrupt. Sinners, yes, everyone; corrupt, no.” There are many exclamation marks in the Pope’s prose, following a statement over which he is clearly passionate, such as “God never sends us grace in the mail, never!” or “Following Jesus is not a career!”

It is impossible to read the homilies without hearing Pope Francis’s voice behind them: urgent, humorous, engaged, alive, filled with the desire to communicate his own conviction of the revolutionary nature of Christ’s message of salvation. They also seek to persuade his congregation that they must wake up to the momentous privilege of their baptism. “May the laity rediscover the responsibility of the baptised” is one of his appeals.

Thus, despite the attempt of the secular press to detach Pope Francis from the Catholic tradition in which he lives and which has formed him, reading these homilies, described on the book’s cover as “Meeting God in the Everyday”, makes it clear that he stands wholly within the pastoral dimension of the Church, longing to communicate the mercy of God, his love and forgiveness, rather than his justice. This is not to ignore the Church’s laws but to recognise that if modern man doesn’t first encounter the loving face of God, he will never find him.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15)

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