Seven lessons from Pope Francis on how to pass on the Faith

 


  juanmamora   Juan Manuel Mora, Comunications Vice-Rector, University of Navarra |


From the day he was elected, March 13, 2013, Pope Francis has gained people’s trust, and even attracted the attention of people in important positions with responsibilities for tackling poverty, immigration and the marginalized. He has recovered the authority of the best years of John Paul II – when he defended freedom in the face of communism – and Benedict XVI – when he made clear the separation between religion and violence. He has made many Catholics once again proud to be Catholics, and is attracting people who have felt distant from the Church until now. This phenomenon has been christened the “Francis Effect”, and it is reflected in a favorable change in public opinion.

The causes of this effect are twofold. This Pope’s level of influence may not have been possible without the resignation of Pope Benedict, which was a huge act of humility. In February 2013, when he retired, the Church had been weighed down with serious problems for several years, especially because of the pedophile crisis which caused so much harm to many people. Even one case of an abusive priest is one too many. The crisis had an additional effect; it robbed the Church of her credibility, because people thought: “The Church doesn’t practice what she preaches, so I’m not going to listen to her any more.”

Over the four years since the election of Pope Francis the atmosphere has changed. A new page has been turned and the Church is looked to as a reference-point. As well as the working of Holy Spirit in the Church, what other factors have brought about this change? What is the Pope doing? What can we learn from him about passing on the Faith? There are seven lessons that can be learned from his words and actions in terms of communication.


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A CHURCH THAT GOES OUT

Pope Francis has used this expression repeatedly from the day he was elected and before. He says that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 49), or a Church that waits at home for the faithful to arrive. Today it is not even a matter of going out to find one lost sheep while the other 99 wait in the fold. The Pope says, “We have one sheep. We have lost the other 99! We must go out, we must go out to them! (Speech to the Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome, June 17, 2013).

For Pope Francis, the Church is not an establishment that dispatches a product for the public to collect, but a group of people who go out to meet others, with good news to give them. The Pope is proposing a new culture of encounter. Catholic institutions, and each believer, have to be people who “go out”, who do not barricade themselves behind their convictions, and who do not surround themselves exclusively with like-minded people, but go out to encounter others, no matter how bad the weather.


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St John Paul II said that our faith matures when we pass it on to others. Similarly, we ourselves mature when we engage in dialogue with people who have not received the gift of the Faith. This is something all teachers know about: it is only when you can explain something to others, that you have really learned it.

What Pope Francis wants most of all for the Church is that Catholics go out to the peripheries. In other words, that we “go out” without excluding anyone, and reach those who are furthest away, who seem least capable of hearing the message. This confirms and strengthens one of the principle features of the Church: her universality. Rodney Stark said that throughout history the Church has kept her capacity to evangelize to the degree that she has kept her capacity to contact outsiders: barbarians, pagans, atheists. And whenever she has shut herself into ghettoes, she has lost that capacity.

This readiness to go out has a lot to do with communication. When people want to communicate they are not merely passive, defensive or reactive. They take the initiative, they make themselves known, they explain what they mean. A Church that goes out is a Church that is ready to communicate.

 

BACK TO THE BASIC MESSAGE

If we examine the things that have brought the Church into the media over the last decades, we find certain recurrent topics like homosexuality, contraception, Communion for the divorced, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy, and perhaps a few other similar ones. All of them have meant that the Church is involved in controversy or polemics. Proclaiming the Faith very often takes the form of argument, frequently mixing religious questions with ideological and political ones. And the tone of these arguments is often negative, defensive or reductive.

Paradoxically, the topics listed above, although certainly important, do not belong in the articles of the Creed, nor are they mentioned in the Beatitudes. In other words, conversions to Catholicism do not depend on what the Church says about contraceptives or celibacy.


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For this reason Pope Francis declares in Evangelii Gaudium (no. 35) that “the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” In other words, on Jesus Christ our Saviour. People do not become Christians because of a great idea or as the result of an argument. Pope Benedict XVI often recalled that Catholics follow not just a doctrine or a moral code but Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, the love of our lives, who redeems us and brings us freedom and happiness. From Christ, little by little, we come to understand the doctrine and learn to live according to the morality, but in that order, in a positive way, and with patience.

Perhaps this can be applied to ordinary Catholic faithful. When talking about the Faith, we can ask ourselves how much time we spend talking about polemical matters, and how much about the essentials. We need to show the beauty and attractiveness of what is essential. We need to aim for a first real conversion, even though there may still be many things that need clarifying. This is the only way to change from an attitude of resistance to one of influence. In the field of communication, this principle of going back to what is essential and leaving arguments aside, means maintaining our focus on presenting the message, and also recovering a calm tone in conversations. As Austen Ivereigh puts it, in discussions about the Church what is needed is more light and less heat.

 

CHURCH OF THE POOR, CHURCH FOR THE POOR

Among the essential subjects, Pope Francis repeatedly gives priority to helping the poor, to whom Christ speaks in special terms and to whom we also need to give material help. Pope Francis’ highlighting of this need comes straight from the Gospel. It is a radical way of leaving arguments about secondary matters and putting into practice Jesus Christ’s instructions to his disciples.

As already stated, the pedophile crisis seriously damaged the Church’s credibility. Now, for the Christian approach to be acceptable, we need to recover that credibility because it is a prerequisite for communication. If people don’t believe in the person who communicates, then they won’t believe what that person says. Pope Francis’ insistence on helping the poorest of the poor can point up a way to restore the Church’s credibility. By looking after the poor, Catholics show their honesty, fairness, and generosity. There is a link between purity and poverty that we need to rediscover.


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The Gospel command is enough motivation for us to maintain this priority. Caring for the poor is good in itself and is good for the people we help. But it also has very many other positive effects, including on those who do the caring. A quotation attributed to Stefan Zweig runs, “The sight of other people’s sufferings makes our gaze wiser and more penetrating.”

Those who practice mercy become merciful. By focusing on the poor, Pope Francis is showing Catholics how to be more merciful. Pope Paul VI said in a in a famous speech after Vatican II that he saw the Church as the “servant of the world” – not as its judge or its policeman, but its servant, which is a powerfully evocative job. Maybe we still need to explore this self-understanding more deeply.

In short, with this prioritizing of service to the poor, Pope Francis is steering us towards actions that are good in themselves, and that help Catholics to recover credibility in communication and convert their own hearts.

 

TRANSPARENT LANGUAGE

The Pope has drawn up a new list of priorities, and is using a different style of speaking. He has employed very many expressions that have shattered the molds, such as the “fifteen sicknesses” of the Roman Curia and his urging of politicians not to let the Mediterranean become “the cemetery of Europe”; in Mexico he recommended treatment by “affection therapy”.

The Pope customarily makes a speech to the whole Curia once a year, wishing them a happy Christmas and New Year. In his 2014 speech, he recommended that they should be able to laugh at themselves and have a sense of humor. And he advised them to pray the prayer by St Thomas More which begins “Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it. … Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress because of that obstructing thing called ‘I’.”


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Pope Benedict XVI used to say that the Christian lexicon is studded with words and expressions holding great depth and historical value, which have passed into common speech but whose real meaning is unknown to most people. He spoke specifically about the word “tabernacle”, but the same could be said of the words “Calvary”, “Trinity” and “Eucharist”. Catholics use these words, but very few people understand them. There has been a generalized loss of collective memory.

There are plenty of people who vaguely know these words and imagine they know what they mean – they don’t know that they don’t know, so they don’t try to find out. And so, Pope Benedict concluded, our mission is to “create a new curiosity”, to arouse people’s interest. To do so we need to use transparent language. When we are talking about our experience as Christians, we need to speak simply and clearly, in our own words, and speak from the heart, instead of repeating what other people have thought or said. We need to leave behind well-worn, ready-made phrases. We will find the right words when we ourselves are transparent, simple, sincere and humble – then we can express these things in our words.

So as well as “going back to the basic message”, we also need to get back to the basic Christian attitudes, awakening them from their long enchanted sleep if need be. Clear language and a straightforward approach are the prerequisites for all good communication, especially when passing on the Faith.

 

VIEW EVANGELIZATION FROM THE STANDPOINT OF MISSION

Pope Francis links the work of evangelization to the problems of the Church and the world – migrants, wars, the conflict in Palestine, ecological disasters, persecuted Christians, the situation of Cuba. All these mentions remind us that we should not see passing on the Faith merely from an individual or subjective standpoint, nor see the Christian experience simply in terms of our efforts to surpass ourselves.

Taking the subjective view can lead us to voluntarism – relying on our own will-power to get results, and becoming totally self-referential. And it can end up exhausting us, because our faults and failings really are exhausting. Pope Francis invites us to see things from the viewpoint of our merciful God, because it is he who always takes the initiative, makes the first move, and converts hearts. And we should also see things from the other person’s viewpoint. Above all from that of the person who needs our material or spiritual help; that is what will move us most powerfully to overcome our love of comfort, our laziness and human respects.


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In order to change the world, we need to change ourselves. However, the goal of building a better world is a much more powerful motivation than that of becoming a better person. Seeing communication from the other person’s standpoint has further consequences. If we want to get someone else to become a Catholic who “goes out”, we have to infect them with our own enthusiasm for the project – the enthralling mission of the Church. And they will get enthusiastic about the goal, not the method; the aim, not the effort.

This same idea has been expressed in many ways. Someone can point at the moon, but we can either look at the moon or merely at the finger. In Citadelle, section 75, Saint-Exupéry said that if you want to get people to build a boat, you don’t start by giving them classes in the different skills involved in boat-building; you have to start by giving them a love for the sea. Communication is not so much what we say, but what the other person understands. Communicating the message of the Faith needs to be about what interests the listener rather than what interests the speaker. And that happens when we get to communication from the starting-point of mission, as Pope Francis encourages us to do.

 

CONSISTENCY

The Pope’s use of language is different, but above all, we see that he takes decisions and acts on them. Pope Francis acts first and speaks afterwards. People see him using an ordinary car, hugging a sick person whose appearance is repulsive, carrying his own bag onto an airplane. People hear his words, see his actions, and realize that they match each other.

There is a famous book about communication entitled: “You are the message”. Others have said, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.” In other words, the match between being, doing and speaking is essential to good communication. If we want to pass on the Faith, we ourselves have to be friendlier, more sociable, able to dialogue, merciful, and helpful. That is how Christians need to be known in the world, as people who are really good at listening, understanding and holding a conversation.

This idea has another application too: the best way of passing on the Christian message is by sharing it, encouraging people to put it into practice in their lives. Confucius summed up ancestral wisdom in the famous saying, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”


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We also need to be consistent over time. There are people whose practice of their faith gets worn down as the years go by; they cool off, lose their affection for it, their vigor and joy in practicing it. Others notice this and start to feel doubtful. I was much struck by something I came across recently: “Old age should be spent in praying, smiling, giving glory to God, sharing joy with others, keeping the capacity for wonder and the love of life.” These ideas can apply not only to old age but to full maturity and youth – to every stage in life.

If it is spent in this way, our Christian vocation makes the passing of time not into an experience of becoming worn out but into a path towards the fullness of life. The more years go by, the closer we come to fullness. The more the body deteriorates, the more the spirit matures. This can be applied to the decades of a person’s life and equally to the centuries of the history of the Church. The longer the Church has been in a place, the more fruit she harvests. This consistency over time, this maturity, this fullness, is what attracts and is true communication, passing on the Faith.

 

PASS ON OUR JOY

“The joy of the Gospel” is the title Pope Francis has given to the document that sets out the program for his pontificate. In it, he invites Christians to “a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy”. He says that when Christians pass on the Gospel, “instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy” (no. 14).

These words recall some words attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to the effect that we may not have much to give, but we can always give the joy of a heart that loves God. St Josemaria used to tell how when Opus Dei was just starting up, some people said that the young men who joined it took a vow of cheerfulness – because they always looked so happy.

One of my favorite books is called “Why cheerfulness?” At one point it quotes Nietzsche, who wrote bitterly, “For me to believe in their Saviour, his disciples would have to look more redeemed” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra). This is the negative way of expressing the same thing.


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It has been said that Christianity is passed on by envy. People who look at the Church should be able to see how happy Catholics are and think, “I want to be part of that.” This is key to passing on the Faith. Catholics experience God, we touch God, and trust God: this is the source of our joy and cheerfulness. We are not optimistic as a result of statistics, our personal virtues, or the situation of the world. Our joy comes from knowing that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

To sum up, then, following these lessons we get from Pope Francis, what should the Church be like? It should be a welcoming and joyful community of people who celebrate their Faith, are content to live with the minimum of possessions, practice charity, look after the poor, and have an enthralling game-plan, a positive outlook on mankind and the world; an outlook that is born of faith and hope.

 

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