Monday, May 16, 2016

Waiting on a Bonaventure

"The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church
also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion....
Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful,
complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach."

Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, n. 32

When both Democratic and Republican politicians cite Pope Francis as one of the most influential people in their lives--and when they concur that he is the most respected leader on the face of the earth--is it a sign of the end times?

In confused and confusing times, the Bishop of Rome seems to be simultaneously a polarizing and a unifying force.  His unwavering commitment to the basic truths of the Gospel and his restless desire to stretch people out of their comfort zones continue to move forward, like intricately intertwined forces for transformation.

From his call for a pastoral and missionary conversion of the Church at the start of his papacy (see the sample passage above), through his expansive environmental encyclical; from his wide-ranging document on "Love in the Family," through the recent announcement of a commission to explore the question of female deacons, questions abound regarding where Pope Francis is leading the Church and the world.

No recent pope has spoken more frequently and more earnestly about the real spiritual challenges posed by the Devil.  Pope Francis is not naive about the Father of Lies, that master of disunity and disharmony and disintegration.  But Pope Francis' response has not been a defensive hunkering down; rather, he has gone on the offensive in an effort to stretch the Both/And of Catholicism.  For example: 
  • Both permanent and unbreakable marriage bonds, and pastoral outreach to those whose marriages have come undone.
  • Both an all male priesthood and episcopacy, and increased leadership roles and ministerial voice for females.
  • Both a clear recognition of the human person's unique place in God's plan of creation, and a boundless commitment to care of the environment.
  • Both a relentless rejection of gender ideology and the redefinition of the human person, and a sincere invitation to all who are open to lifelong conversion as disciples of Jesus.

Such creative fidelity requires a commitment to both continuity and change; it enables ancient truths to speak anew.  However, creative fidelity can look like reckless infidelity to some (going too far?), even as it can appear to be stifled creativity to others (not going far enough...yet?).

Perhaps we are witnessing a phenomenon not seen since the Second Vatican Council.  The creative fidelity of the Council was easy to misunderstand and hard for some to see, the closer they were to the event.  Indeed, the deepest meaning of the Council came to light in and through the subsequent papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  
A better analogy might be Pope Francis' namesake.  After all, during his own lifetime and immediately after his death, St. Francis of Assisi was too easily mistaken as a rupture from the faith which he enfleshed.  It took St. Bonaventure's creative fidelity to help both the Church and the world understand St. Francis as "another Christ," that is, one who had completely identified with the crucified and risen Lord, rather than as a "new Christ", a founder of a new sect.

Given the pace of change underway, perhaps we must simply wait for a twenty-first century Bonaventure to arrive.  Bonaventure was endowed with his own creative fidelity, and he understood that no branch can survive apart from the true Vine.

Let's continue to trust in the abiding presence of the Spirit, promised by the Lord, to guide us to all truth (Jn 16:13).