Personalism Is the Key to Understanding Pope Francis


(photo: CNA)

Pope Francis does not speak like an intellectual. He is not, like John Paul II, an original thinker, or, like Benedict XVI, a supreme scholar of the Tradition. He is a pope whose manner is simpler and more ordinary, and yet, when I hear him, I hear them.

Or, rather, I hear the same love song in glorious polyphony. His voice is individual and distinctive, but his concerns are their concerns; his themes are their themes. His words and gestures as Pope bespeak, like theirs, the essential personalism of the Church in the modern world.

To be a human person is to be made in the image and likeness of God. It is to be absolutely unique and unrepeatable. It is to exist from love and for love, with others and for others. It is to be embodied, incomplete and in need. It is to be called to a life-giving union and communion with God and others — or, with God through others.

This is the mystery that has been unfolding in a particular way over the course of the modern period of history. Its centrality to our faith was established at Vatican II, brilliantly expounded throughout the papacy of John Paul II and confirmed in its organic continuity with Tradition by Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis is challenging the Church — all of us — to take it to the next level of practical application.

To understand him better, it helps to recall the experience of Vatican II, which John Paul II called “a personalist Council” and which Benedict XVI made the focus of his last public address as pope. He spoke of it as a great “gift of the Holy Spirit” and the central achievement of the Church in our day — whose prime theme, he said, is communion, the essential mode of personal existence and of our salvation.

As with the recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, Vatican II’s aim was not to change Church teaching, but to “probe more profoundly” the inexhaustible mysteries of our faith, in light of the “signs of the times” and the particular sufferings, aspirations, needs and achievements of our age.

Under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the Council fathers set about finding a new disposition for the Church, a new mode of approach toward the world — one that was not aloof and condemnatory, but rich in mercy; not remote from the world’s concerns, but in close solidarity with them.

As the decades since have made clear, this new disposition had nothing to do with “going along to get along.” There was never a question of compromising truth or watering down doctrine.

The Church was not capitulating to the zeitgeist. Rather, she was listening more closely to the people of our day, opening her heart to them, becoming more attentive and responsive to their particular problems and concerns, so that she could devote herself more fully to them, in imitation of Christ, who came not to condemn the world but to offer himself as a sacrifice of love “while we were still sinners.”

Open your hearts — this is the essential message of Pope Francis. It is the message of Vatican II and of all the popes since.

“This is how the apostles’ adventure began, as an encounter of people who are open to one another,” said Pope Benedict XVI at his general audience on March 22, 2006.

An Oct. 23 Newsweek article made much of Pope Francis’ “new model of leadership, one which involved listening, participation and collegiality,” as opposed to the pope behaving like “a medieval monarch.”

But devotees of John Paul II and Pope Benedict know that this spirit of collegiality is not new to Francis. It is the post-conciliar way of being Church.

Recalling the ardent spirit that animated Vatican II, Pope Benedict, in February 2013, reminded the priests of Rome and all of us that, in times past, previous to Pope Paul VI, a synod would be gathered to rubber-stamp a document that had been prepared in advance. The Council would be different. Benedict said:

“The bishops said: ‘No, let’s not do that. We are bishops; we ourselves are the subject of the synod; we do not simply want to approve what has already been done, but we ourselves want to be the subject, the protagonists of the Council.’ ... And this was already an experience of the universality of the Church and of the concrete reality of the Church, which does not simply receive instructions from on high, but grows together and moves forward, always under the guidance — naturally — of the Successor of Peter.”

Then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla said the same about his experience of Vatican II: “Differences in points of view play an important role” in the Council, the archbishop wrote, but they should be understood in terms of the distinctive character of the Church, which was not, in its essence, a political community. The bishops constituted an “authentic plurality: a plurality of persons, a plurality of experiences and reflections, a plurality of interior lives, a plurality in the surroundings they represent, a plurality of life in different conditions.” What the Council was doing was turning that plurality into a unity, through diversity, contradiction and opposition (Witness to Hope, p. 172).

Nor is this a mere matter of “leadership style.” It springs from a deep conviction about the link between human dignity and personal agency and about the way truth emerges under grace through “a sincere, fraternal exchange,” to use Pope Francis’ words to the synod fathers.

Each of us is imperfect and incomplete; each perspective partial and limited. To reach fullness of understanding, then, we need to listen to each other, receive what each has to give and then trust the Holy Spirit to bring about unity.

Truth, like love, is conjugal — a self-giving, other-receiving, procreative exchange.

Newsweek got Francis wrong again when it said, “People before dogma” — as if the dogma were inessential. To conceive it that way is to fall into the “liberal temptation” Pope Francis warned against in his closing address to the synod — “a deceptive mercy [that] binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.”

Rather, in Christianity, in a way, the people are the dogma. Our faith is incarnational. We cannot be faithful Catholics and hold ourselves aloof from contact with sinners. This is not just because we have a “message” they need to hear; it’s because we are sinners too, and we need them. They are the way to salvation for us.

This is what John Paul might have called “a fragment of life’s deep logic.” The one who needs me is, objectively, the one I most need.

The “traditionalist temptation” is to avoid the effort and messiness and vulnerability of personal encounter, preferring “to close oneself within the written word” — as if religious and moral truth can be had abstracted from the acts of love that make them real in the world.

In essence, Pope Francis is urging the bishops and the clergy to realize that this “collegiality” — this listening, receptivity and openness — is to be extended not just to each other when considering new policy; it is to characterize their way of being among the faithful, their way of being priests. They are to approach the faithful spousally, with tender, responsive hearts — hearts that want to love and be loved. That is the way to new spiritual life for the Church..

The same essential personalism has implications for us, too. We should resist the temptation to interpret the Pope politically. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family was above all a religious event, calling for a response of faith. We should cultivate in ourselves a disposition of listening and receptivity, of love, gratitude, desire and joy. We should reject the hermeneutics of suspicion that cut us off from each other and from grace, and open our hearts to the Pope, to the bishops and to one another.

We should make a sincere gift of ourselves — our own experience and perspective, our personal strengths and our real concerns — and then trust the Holy Spirit to bring to fruition the good work he has begun in and among us. And then we can expect him to surprise us with joy.

Katie van Schaijik is a mother of five and co-founder

with her husband, Jules, of The Personalist Project.

She studied philosophy at the International Academy of Philosophy

in Liechtenstein.