Commentary: Reading Pope Francis in love

Pope Francis smiling Credit Daniel Ibanez CNA Pope Francis. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

In his first homily as pope, Francis quoted Leon Bloy, the French convert, author, and mystic who has influenced some of modernity's most significant literary voices. Gaudete et exsultate, the pope's newly released apostolic exhortation, again turns to Bloy, invoking the writer's famous observation that "the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint."

Bloy was right, of course, and most of the pope's readers are likely disposed to agree with him. But there is another Bloy quote that readers of Gaudete et exsultate would do well to keep in mind: "Love does not make you weak, because it is the source of all strength."

Gaudete et exsultate was certainly written with love: whatever one thinks of Pope Francis, there is ample evidence that he loves the Church, and he loves her members. It ought to be read in love as well. But before the document was even released, a predictable fractioning of the Lord's body foretold the way the exhortation would likely be read: through the lenses of suspicion and criticism that have characterized much of the debate about Pope Francis.

Unsurprisingly, early responses to the exhortation have followed a familiar pattern.

Those who are sometimes critical of the pope have noted that the text lacks any mention of chastity, and complained that it seems to have an antinomian or anti-intellectual bent: criticizing those with "a punctilious concern for the Church's liturgy, doctrine and prestige," and taking special pains to condemn intellectual arrogance. Their response, in a few lamentable cases, has been the established refrain of Francis-bashing, which colors and discredits the legitimate questions being asked about many of the pope's initiatives.   

Some of the pope's progressive defenders have snapped up those same passages, seeming to revel in certitude that the pope must be talking about their "conservative" counterparts, and brandishing his words like weapons. They've also found consolation, and claimed bragging rights, in the passages of the pope's exhortation that call for solidarity with migrants, claiming penumbras of endorsement for the "seamless garment" approach to the Catholic social teaching.

Doubtless, on Twitter, Facebook, and in some blogs and journals, these two camps will volley fire with newfound ammunition in their battle over Francis, and their war for the Church.

But all of that misses the point. In fact, all of that defies the point. Francis' exhortation proposes that charity is the heart of holiness- a proposal that echoes his recent predecessors, and more important, echoes the words of Jesus. If Catholic leaders and pundits can't receive an exhortation in charity, and discuss it in charity, then the need for the document is more profound than most of us care to admit.

As with all of Francis' documents, Gaudete et exsultate contains ambiguous passages, which lend themselves to misinterpretation and misappropriation. It paints with a broad brush, and it is not systematic. This is frustrating. And sometimes, it stings.

But the document is an exhortation. It is written to exhort us.

"What follows is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification," Francis wrote. "My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us 'to be holy and blameless before him in love.'"

The document is meant to call us sinners to repentance and conversion. To call the lukewarm- most of us- to holiness. Not all parts are relevant to all Catholics; it fails to mention some patterns of sinfulness altogether. It is written by a fellow sinner, and the author's humanity, foibles and all, show through the text. But it's written in love. Which means that we should receive it by examining our own hearts, to find the places where the exhortation exhorts us.

An exhortation like this should be received in quiet and penitential humility. If we're second-guessing it, armchair-quarterbacking the things it should have said, we've missed the point. If we're using it to smite our enemies, we've missed the point. If it leads us away from love, the biggest problem is with us, and not with the text.

"Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God's greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort," Francis writes.

Let's receive Gaudete et exsultate as it's written. Let's be strengthened by love- from the pontiff, from one another, and from the Lord. Let's put aside the arguments for the moment, and ask the Lord to help us be the saints he calls us to become.  

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