Together in Spirit

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Thoughts and Challenges from Pope Francis' "Gaudete et Exsultate"

May 7, 2018

In his Apostolic Exhortation: “Gaudete et exsultate” Pope Francis writes about the call to holiness in today’s world.  In his second chapter he writes about the two subtle enemies of holiness; contemporary gnosticism and contemporary pelagianism. These are profound thoughts and challenges so for the next two weeks I will be quoting him.

36.  Gnosticism presumes “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings”.

37.  Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. “Gnostics” do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopedia of abstractions. In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people”. Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking. A healthy and humble use of reason in order to reflect on the theological and moral teaching of the Gospel is one thing. It is another to reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.

40.  Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect. Thus, perhaps without even realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic. It can become all the more illusory when it masks itself as a disembodied spirituality. For gnosticism “by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery”, whether the mystery of God and his grace, or the mystery of others’ lives.

41. When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road. (my emphasis not the Pope’s) They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.

42.  Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that He himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control.

43.  It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives. Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately exists different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they “help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word”. It is true that “for those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”. Indeed, some currents of gnosticism scorned the concrete simplicity of the Gospel and attempted to replace the trinitarian and incarnate God with a superior Unity, wherein the rich diversity of our history disappeared.

45.  A dangerous confusion can arise. We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the “ignorant masses”. Saint John Paul II warned of the temptation on the part of those in the Church who are more highly educated “to feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful”. In point of fact, what we think we know should always motivate us to respond more fully to God’s love. Indeed, “you learn so as to live: theology and holiness are inseparable”.

46.  When Saint Francis of Assisi saw that some of his disciples were engaged in teaching, he wanted to avoid the temptation to gnosticism. He wrote to Saint Anthony of Padua: “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, provided that… you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion during study of this kind”. Francis recognized the temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel. Saint Bonaventure, on the other hand, pointed out that true Christian wisdom can never be separated from mercy towards our neighbor: “The greatest possible wisdom is to share fruitfully what we have to give… Even as mercy is the companion of wisdom, avarice is its enemy”. “There are activities that, united to contemplation, do not prevent the latter, but rather facilitate it, such as works of mercy and devotion”.

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