What caught my attention, however, was nothing dogmatic but rather this anecdote:
“It is said that the residents of Ephesus used to gather at the gates of the basilica where the bishops were meeting and shout, 'Mother of God!' The faithful, by asking them to officially define this title of Our Lady, showed that they acknowledged her divine motherhood. Theirs was the spontaneous and sincere reaction of children who know their Mother well, for they love her with immense tenderness. But it is more: it is the sensus fidei of the holy People of God which, in its unity, never errs.”
What a great story! In Acts 19, St. Paul is greeted in Ephesus by pagan protesters shouting, "Great is Diana!" I’m charmed by the idea that the Ephesians got a "do-over" of sorts, albeit a few centuries late.
More importantly, I notice that Pope Francis puts great stock in this sensus fidei, or “sense of the Faithful.” In Joy of the Gospel #119 he describes what it is:
“As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God. The presence of the Spirit gives Christians certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression.”
In this context, the Holy Father calls attention quite often to the Japanese laity who preserved the faith intact for 200 years during a brutal persecution that drove every priest from the land. Missionaries who returned found a thriving Catholic community with the fullness of faith intact, even though all catechists were lay and the only sacrament they had available was Baptism.
He also continually highlights popular piety – one of his first acts as Pope was a visit to Our Lady, for example. He loves to punctuate his homilies with things he learned from simple people. When he invokes his grandmother as an exemplar of how to pass on faith, or talks about what he learned about Confession from a woman in his parish back home, he's not just being sentimental or folksy, however. He is appealing to this sensus fidei – the deposit of faith as it is preserved and lived by the entire People of God. He’s asking us –each member of the People of God – to contemplate the power for doing good and spreading the faith that we each have in virtue of our Baptism, and cease waiting passively for “someone” to do something. As Jesus said to his disciples before the feeding of the 5000, “You yourselves give them something to eat.” Of course it was ultimately Christ’s grace that worked a miracle and fed the multitude, but Jesus chose to work through the loaves and fish offered first. The Pope wants us to remember that.
Naturally “sensus fidei” doesn’t mean “majority rule.” The pope speaks of the faithful being “in union” with one another and with their bishops and the Pope, and laity’s power to understand the faith is exercised only in this unity.
Nevertheless, I think the “sensus fidei” holds a great key for understanding many of the supposedly controversial things Pope Francis has said. He’s often complained for example that we have a terribly clericalized understanding of "Church." We’ve reduced it to the teaching office of clergy and forgotten we are called to be what Sherry Weddell calls “intentional disciples.”
What could better prove he is right than our collectively clericalized response to his saying in an interview that the Church shouldn't lead with abortion and gay marriage? Everyone’s mind went immediately to bishops and priests, as if he were saying our clergy shouldn't boldly and prophetically proclaim the dignity of the person (with some cheering and others left distressed).
Wrong! Why did we all deflect his comment away from ourselves and analyze only what it might mean for the Church hierarchy? Why didn’t we understand he was talking about US – in our workplaces and on our Facebook pages?
I believe almost always when this Holy Father says “Church,” he means Church in the broad sense of all of us living as disciples. He wants us to cease deflecting the Gospel away from ourselves. He wants the entire people of God to be gentle, to welcome sinners into the place where they can find medicine – but also, like those Japanese catechists, to understand our own responsibility and power to live and spread the Gospel.
Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.