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Pope Francis: A Voice Crying Out in the World, Villanova University, 12-15 April 2018


Villanova University is an Augustinian campus near Philadelphia. It is in the top ten of Catholic universities in the United States and recently won the nationwide college basketball championship for the third time. The Office for Mission and Ministry at the university hosted a conference, 12-15 April, to commemorate the first five years of Pope Francis’s papacy and to assess its impact. This timely event, the first of its kind at an American Catholic university, is significant, as there is considerable opposition to Pope Francis among conservative Catholics in the US.

One of the aims of the conference, therefore, was to explain Pope Francis to his critics and to call for dialogue between them and his supporters. Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, using a vivid African proverb, put it well when he said, ‘people who eat together do not eat one another’. As the American Church becomes more polarised over the papacy of Pope Francis, evidenced by the proliferation of negative websites and blogs, a conversation about his leadership of the Church is badly needed. Encouragement for the conference was supplied by the presence of the Papal Nuncio, Cardinals Joseph Tobin and Oscar Maradiaga, and the eminent sociologist, Margaret Archer, President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences.

Among the impressive line-up of speakers were John O’Malley SJ, of Georgetown University, regarded as the dean of American Jesuit historians; Jeffrey Sachs, one of the most influential economists in the world and a critic of unbridled capitalism; Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civilta’ Cattolica, who is close to the Pope and a media specialist; and Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University, theologian and world-renowned specialist on Vatican II.

More than one speaker made the point that Pope Francis has been profoundly shaped by his Jesuit formation. As Fr Spadaro put it, ‘He is putting the Church through the Spiritual Exercises’. That may not please everyone, of course, but it goes a long way to explain the Christocentric nature of his papacy and the extent to which the habit of spiritual discernment in the light of Jesus in the gospels informs both the words and, perhaps more importantly, the actions and gestures of this Jesuit pope. Anyone with any familiarity with Ignatian spirituality knows that its focus is ultimately a practical one: action in the light of contemplation. Cardinal Maradiaga, who knows him well, pointed out that Pope Francis speaks more eloquently with his deeds than his words, like his namesake from Assisi.

The Pope’s critics accuse him of having some sort of programme of liberal transformation of the Church. As was pointed out, there is no such ‘programme’. Pope Francis makes his decisions in the chapel, not in his office, as Spadaro pointed out. Christ is his guide, not some predetermined progressive ideology. Fr Orobator in an engagingly titled talk, ‘A hunter who advances too far ahead of his fellow hunters ends up with an arrow in his behind’, quoted St Ignatius of Loyola who said that true Christian leadership means to be promoted to the cross and humiliation. If Francis has a programme, it is to follow Christ onto the Cross, regardless of the consequences.

From a historical perspective, Fr O’Malley situated the current papacy in continuity with Vatican II, regarded by him as a ‘single corpus’ whose coherence is found in its pastoral nature. For the first time in an ecumenical council, he pointed out, its function was not church order. Rather, Pope John XXIII wanted to encourage the faithful and send out a hopeful message to the world. And ‘pastoral’, as O’Malley emphasized, does not mean ‘second rate’, nor does it mean of no significance doctrinally. Indeed, he pointed out that not even the Council of Trent issued any new doctrinal definitions. Francis is in tune with this focus and is far from being a ‘Pope lite’, he said. Massimo Faggioli, in his keynote speech, felt that Pope Francis is ‘not afraid to push Vatican ll a little further’, influenced by his experience of trying to implement it in his native Argentina.

Jeffrey Sachs, dubbed by The Economist as among the world’s three most influential economists of the past decade, gave a resounding endorsement of Catholic Social Teaching and of Laudato Si’ , Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, which he dubbed a ‘most remarkable document’. Sachs said the the market economy of the world does not contain within itself any moral framework and does not promote the common good. Such a framework needs to come from outside, and he believes the Catholic Church with its worldwide reach and moral credibility is best positioned to do this. As a voice for the common good, he described Pope Francis as ‘unique in the world’.

From a sociological perspective, Margaret Archer of Warwick University and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, mentioned that while the two previous popes were very supportive of the Academy, only Pope Francis gave it a specific directive: to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery - written on the back of an envelope. As a result, the Santa Marta group was established, made up, as she said with a twinkle in her eye, of ‘policemen and bishops’ (in which Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster plays a leading role). For those who are interested, the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (PASS for short) has launched a website: www.endslavery.va. Archer mentioned in passing that had Pope Francis not become a priest, he would have made a very good sociologist!

As well as the keynote presenters, a host of other speakers gave short papers in small groups under a variety of different themes, like The Roots of Francis’s Theology, Amoris Laetitia and Sexual Ethics, Francis and the Media, Francis and Ecclesiology, and so on.

The wind-up session on the final day endorsed the need for a conversation between the supporters of Pope Francis and his critics, especially in the US, where the critical voice is most strident. The presence of the Papal Nuncio at the conference was evidence of the Vatican’s concern about this. The hope was expressed that Villanova University having taken the initiative, other major Catholic universities and colleges will open up this badly-needed dialogue. Finally, it was noted that the participants were mainly lay people, with relatively few priests and seminarians who, as Fr O’Malley pointed out, are ‘not getting a good education these days’. The conference ended with a call from its organiser, Barbara Wall, who did an excellent job, to go out and share its insights.

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