On Friday of last week Pope Francis addressed the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Communities (CFCC) and Fellowship at its sixteenth annual international conference in Rome. The focus on the new evangelization gave the Holy Father the opportunity to speak of a dual theme that is proving to be central to his papacythat is, unity in diversity, and mission.
In speaking of unity in diversity, the pope invoked the image of a polyhedron to ground unity in the convergence of the distinct sides of the church’s life. For Francis, the Spirit dispenses sanctifying gifts that enable the members of the Church to contribute to her life in distinctive ways. In short, the path to unity is the path of spirituality and the cultivation of habits of behavior that allow for the sensus fidei to grow. This is the heart of his decentralizing vision both in terms of mission and ecclesial renewal.
The Holy Father drew on this idea in his closing remarks to the synod, where he suggested that the church could not err when she allows the variety of charisms to flourish in her midst as the path to the sensus fidei. Pope Francis does not merely acknowledge the messiness of this spiritual pathhe seems to revel in it.
Uniformity, conversely, is when one succumbs to a spirit of hostile inflexibility. Addressing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this past January, Pope Francis described this spirit as the temptation “to understand doctrine in an ideological sense or to reduce it to a set of abstract and static theories.” The pope seems to resist a bureaucratizing impulse in Christianity, which is a tendency to equate concern for doctrine with excessive concern for procedure, or for procedure as the means of securing doctrine. He seeks to preserve the deposit of the faith while openly dismissing protocol. While this may be a cause to rejoice by some and a cause for alarm among others, it corresponds to his desire to live in the thicket of human relationality despite the challenge of discerning a common way forward.
The other theme central to the Holy Father’s address to the CFCCand indeed to his entire pontificatewas that of mission, which he sees in terms of spirituality and spiritual formation. One of the reasons why he supports the Catholic Charismatic renewal is that it embodies in certain ways his own vision of an ecumenism from below through the shared spiritual life of Christians. He explicitly connected this spiritual ecumenism to persecution and martyrdom of Christians when addressing the CFCC. From the perspective of the persecutor, all Christians are already one in their common declaration of Christ as Lord.
Integral to Francis’s concept of mission is an understanding of what he has called a “throw-away culture”that is, the prevailing cultural mentality that the Church must address. Euthanasia, abortion, involuntary poverty, human trafficking, and abuse of the elderly are all part of this insidious mentality that privileges profits over the dignity of the human person. In his Evangelii Gaudium, Francis stated, “In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.” Indeed, his statements about the poor and a new idolatry of money attempt to identify this cultural mentality and how it functions.
Francis sees the most effective way of addressing this “throw-away culture” through lives that embody the teaching of the church. He wants models of the Christian life on display for the world to see. This is what holds together his understanding of mission, his focus on spirituality, and the role of the family.
As a center of love, the family promotes a culture of encounter and dialogue and an openness to solidarity and transcendence. This is what he said to the Latin American Congress on the Pastoral Care of the Family. In family, human beings learn neighbor love through their care of the young and older members. They cultivate an openness to life and to the dignity of other persons. As he stated in another address, “In the family one learns that the loss of health is not a reason for discriminating against human life; the family teaches us not to fall into individualism and to balance the ‘I’ with the ‘we’.”
Unity in diversity and mission have been mutually informing themes in Pope Francis’s papacy up to this point. His desire, as expressed to the CFCC, is to hold them together in tension. It is this vision that we see unfolding before us, and it means enlarging the number of voices in the conversation.