Brothers and sisters: Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Cor. 3: 4-6
One of the reasons that Pope Francis seems to have so caught the imagination and respect of so much of the world is the quality of his presence to others. As he mingles with a crowd and approaches, speaks to, and touches individuals, he appears to be totally present to the other, without a taint of self-consciousness. His radiance and joy make for a great picture precisely because he is not posing or performing. His smile and the beauty that it reflects come from a place deep within him. He moves toward others, especially those who seem most to cry out for his touch, without hesitancy and apparently without the hesitation and fear that would limit the outreach and presence of most of us.
St. Paul today speaks of the “confidence . . . [he has] through Christ toward God.” He says that confidence comes from realizing that when he is truly serving as an instrument of Christ he acts not out of his qualifications but rather from the love and power of God within and through him.
One way to look at our own life formation is through the metaphor of “tuning the instrument that we are.” Early in life we give form to our lives by attempting to conform ourselves to the directives of our families, cultures, and friends. I remember many years ago standing in the kitchen with a friend and watching as his very young son attempted to stand in the very same manner as his father was. Throughout life we continue to live our formation to some degree or other in the mode of conformation. We even speak of the formation of our hearts and souls in this way, imitating those we respect and revere on the spiritual path, and ultimately even speaking of the imitation of Christ himself. To the degree, however, that our formation stops at conformation we shall always experience a deep lack of the confidence of which St. Paul speaks. Our imitation of another will always fall short of the mark, for, obviously, in our personal uniqueness we shall always be different in very substantial ways from them.
Thus, our formation must move beyond conformation to self-formation and then, finally, to inter-formation. As we dare, by trial and error, to incarnate in our lives what is most truly unique in us, first through self-assertion of what we think is unique in us and then allowing our selves to emerge through receiving and giving form in relationship to others, we come to develop a confidence that we, in our strengths and in our limits, are a unique expression of Christ in the world.
As the Xaverian Fundamental Principles express it:
If you allow yourself
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will gradually experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
One of the many great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that it is only from that place that is truly unique in us that we can come to the dying to self that allows Christ to live in us. Pope Francis can move so uninhibitedly and expressively toward others because of a lived confidence that he is but an instrument, albeit a unique one, of the Lord’s peace and love. This is a confidence (“a liberation and a freedom”) available to all of us if we “allow ourselves” to be formed not in conformity “to the present age” but to God’s loving will for us.
Practical experience has now convinced me of this: the concept of holiness which I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken. In every one of my actions, and in the little failings of which I was immediately aware, I used to call to mind the image of some saint whom I had set myself to imitate down to the smallest particular, as a painter makes an exact copy of a picture of Raphael . I used to say to myself: in this case St. Aloysius would have done so and so, or: he would not do this or that. However, it turned out that I was never able to achieve what I had thought I could do, and this worried me. The method was wrong. From the saints I must take the substance, not the [accidentals], of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysius , nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life- blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.
Pope John XXIII, Journal of a Soul , pp. 106–7.