A second topic in the papal letter concerns the temptation to strive only for a "reform of structures, organizations and administration", constituting "a kind of new Pelagianism" (5), of which Pope Francis had already warned the German bishops during their ad limina visit in 2015. Pelagianism, rejected by the Church in the fifth century, claimed that there was no need for salvation from sins through Christ, and that man was sufficiently strong and good by himself.
In 2015 the Pope in this context already pointed out the temptation of "putting our trust in administration, in the perfect apparatus". In his letter Francis warns against "secularization and a secularized attitude of mind" (5). "May God free us from a secular Church under spiritual or pastoral drapery! This suffocating worldliness is healed by tasting the pure air of the Holy Spirit, who frees us from revolving around ourselves, concealed underneath a semblance of religiosity, above a godless void" (5). (Note 13)
Rather, a "theologal perspective" is what is required: "The Gospel of Grace (...) should be the beacon and guide. Whenever an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems by itself, (...) it ended up multiplying the evils it wanted to overcome" (6). "Without 'faithfulness of the Church to her own vocation', any new structure will perish within a short period of time". (ibid.) Therefore the Church should not simply respond to "external facts and needs", "isolated from the mystery of the Church" (ibid.).
Much of what has been happening in Germany in recent times probably looks to the Pope like the activist undertakings of a quasi-political association, a "pious non-governmental organization", as he has often described it in other contexts. And indeed, some things uttered on behalf of the Church time and again appear to demand just that - without consideration of preconditions of Faith and in contradiction to freely receiving the faithful gift of becoming.
Tensions and imbalances instead of adaption
Pope Francis speaks in his letter several times of "tension" and "adaptation". He warns of "adapting [the life of the Church] to the currently prevailing logic or to that of a particular group" (5), and of establishing an "order which then puts an end to the very tensions that are inherent in our humanity and which the Gospel seeks to provoke" (ibid.). "We must not forget that there are tensions and imbalances which have the taste of the Gospel, which must be maintained because they promise new life" (ibid.). Evangelization is "not a 'retouching' which adapts the Church to the spirit of the times but makes her lose her originality and her prophetic mission" (7). Rather, it is a matter of "recognizing the signs of the times, which is not synonymous with mere adaptation to the spirit of the times (cf. Rom 12:2)" (8).
Much of what was said before the synodal process is predicated on an anxious need to not lose touch with the world's plurality and the intention of closing the gap between the Church and the reality of life. Pope Francis dismisses this argument decisively.
Reclaiming the primacy of evangelization
Instead, "it is necessary to regain the primacy of evangelization (...) because the Church, the bearer of evangelization, begins by evangelizing herself" (7). It should be "our main concern to encounter our brothers and sisters, especially those who can be found on the thresholds of our church doors, on the streets, in prisons, in hospitals, in public squares and cities. The Lord expressed himself clearly: 'But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well' (Mt 6:33)". (8). "It is the holiness 'from next door' (…) that protects and has always guarded the Church against every ideological, pseudo-scientific and manipulative reduction." (ibid.)
For this the Pope demands a basic attitude of "vigilance and conversion" (12), an "attitude of withdrawal" (ibid.), and he refers to "true spiritual remedies (prayer, penance and adoration)" (ibid.). Joy should be the defining factor: "Evangelization leads us to regain the joy of the Gospel, the joy of being Christians". (7)
Have we abandoned the primacy of evangelization in Germany, and lost, through obstinacy and defiance, the joy of Faith? Pope Francis spells out clearly what he means by evangelization and encountering the poor, and he criticizes any reduction thereof to mere adaptations, administrative reforms, and tendencies to isolation. He thus calls us to think bigger, to step outside of our own homes and to spread the Good News in word and deed.
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Do not downplay conflicts by way of polls
In his letter, the Pope does not comment on formal technical details of the synodal process (such as its regulation, voting rules, etc.), but the following words are thought provoking: "The synodal view does not remove contradictions or confusion, nor does it subordinate conflicts to decisions of 'good consensus' that compromise faith as a result of censuses or surveys on this or that subject." Rather, it is about the "centrality of evangelization and the Sensus Ecclesiae as determining elements of our ecclesial DNA" (11).
Incidentally, Francis uses the term "Sensus Ecclesiae" five times in the letter, which he deploys in a universal sense, and he avoids the term "Sensus fidelium" which is theologically and ecclesiastically founded, but is sometimes misunderstood as "groupthink" or mere majority opinion.
A synodal togetherness and the Sensus Ecclesiae obviously mean more to Pope Francis than to suppress conflicts, so to speak, technically, by votes or by polls or relying on false compromises "which subvert the faith".
Is the contents of the letter surprising?
Not for those who have followed the Pope's statements on the topics that the synodal process is to work on and decide. And not for those who listen to the Pope on fundamental questions of renewal and evangelization.