Beloved ones, do not have faith in every spirit, but test the spirits — whether they are from God — because many false prophets have gone out into the cosmos.  By this you know the Spirit of God:  every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Anointed has come in flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the one belonging to the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and which is now already in the cosmos.  You are from God, little children, and have vanquished them, because the one that is in you is greater than the one that is in the cosmos.  They are from the cosmos; therefore they speak from the cosmos and the cosmos listens to them.

1 John 4: 1-3

In certain ways, my personal experience of the First Letter of John has always been a contradictory one. On the one hand, its expressions of the encounter and knowledge of the presence of Jesus in and with us and the community that the experience of that love makes universally possible are among the most resonant in all of scripture for me. On the other, and here I remain something of a child of some reactive aspects of the immediate times after the Second Vatican Council, I experience resistance to its descriptions of the antichrist and the evil spirits. As we read today of those who are of God and “not from God,” I experience at least twinges of fear and discomfort. The truth of the presence of evil and the forces of evil in the cosmos is not one that I really want to admit, let alone deal with.

The section of the Letter of John that we read today reminds us that human life involves a conflict and contest between our confession of the Lordship of Jesus and the values of the evil one that abide “in the cosmos.” Thus, to live out the life in Christ we have been given requires of us that we “test the spirits,” in order to see if they are from God or from that which is not of God.  

On Saturday evening a few of us gathered and one of the topics of conversation was the letter of Pope Francis to the bishops of the United States as they gathered in retreat in an attempt to discern what God is saying in what is termed “the abuse crisis” in the Church, but which is also a crisis of power and credibility. At the time, I had not yet read the letter, but I found myself fascinated by some of what was shared about it. In particular, a brother made the point that Francis called on the bishops not only to consider programmatic change but, more significantly, paradigmatic change as well. He writes: “This requires not only a new approach to management, but also a change in our mind-set (metanoia), our way of praying, our handling of power and money, our exercise of authority and our way of relating to one another and to the world around us.” Francis says that true changes in the Church are always at the service of “encouraging a constant sate of missionary and pastoral conversion” that are “capable of opening up new ecclesial paths ever more in keeping with the Gospel and, as such, respectful of human dignity.

It seems as if Francis, good son of Ignatius that he is, is calling on the American hierarchy to listen and to learn (to discern) from the present state of affairs. This requires really honestly facing the work of the evil spirits in the current programs and even in the current ecclesial paradigm. Personally, I sometimes feel that the present situation calls on us all to come to grips with how how the evil spirits are always at work when some human beings are given power over others. Power and privilege are addictive to human beings. A way that the evil spirits sow abuse, discord, jealousy, envy, anger and on and on among us is by appealing to what Nietzsche termed our “will to power.” There is little question that one of the most powerful ways we give false form to our lives is through the mistaken sense of personal potency we gain by having power and control over others.

This is why, I believe, Pope Francis begins his letter with a spiritual reflection on the radical distinction between the gospel and “the world’s” definition of authority and influence. Authority in the gospel sense is the call to be the servant of all the others, not to lord it over them. It seems to me that Pope Francis is calling on the bishops to reconsider, at the most radical level, the nature of the operative paradigm of church that informs their lives and place in the church.

Over two years ago, our own congregation entered upon a shared endeavor which we termed “Graced Crossroads.” It seems to me that Pope Francis’ words are a great gift to us at this moment in that process of “hoped-for” transformation. A “religious community” is, by intention, a microcosm of the Church. It is intended as a serious, focal, and radical living out of the gospel counsels, in such a way that a community of hospitality and service to the world comes into being. What Pope Francis tells the bishops is, perhaps, the necessary heart of our process at this moment. It is to listen deeply to the truth of the situation, the crisis, in which we find ourselves. If we do so, we shall, as he says, begin to discover that the call of this situation is not a call merely to tinker programmatically with our life but to radically reconsider, in light of what reality is teaching us, the very paradigm within which we live.  

The impulse of the gospel is always so much more than any “way” we construct to incarnate it. Thus, every story we create, every structure that we build, every institutional mode of being to which we become habituated, will always eventually show its in limits and inadequacy. There is no indication in the gospels of a structure of Christ’s way that calls for the presence of “Lord Bishops” who are to control the lives of those they find worthy of admittance to the fold. There are indications of the need for shepherds, whose primary task is to seek and bring back the lost. And, as Pope Francis points out in his letter, there is a contraindication of the place in the community of any person or persons who are to lord it over others. Jesus well understands that any semblance of such a role is not only bad for the ecclesia at large but even for the person who holds it.  Because there is the working of the evil one in us and in the world, we, in our own way, will always be prone to abusing power we have over others.

Pope Francis, in the paragraph preceding those below points precisely to that foundational aspect of ecclesia that the will to power inhibits.  

The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it. This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person. It involves our ability to bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent. 

To recognize aspects of Church culture and structure that have dominated for the lifetimes of the oldest of us, and I suspect much longer, is to see that the words of Francis quoted above are not a merely typically churchy and so anodyne expression. He does not flinch by calling us all to face “the painful questions about the way we relate to one another.” In the Church at large, or in our community’s very small reflection of that Church, there is truly much pain in the way we relate to one another, at least if our reference is the call of the gospel. That pain reflects our inability or unwillingness “to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature, and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person.” An inevitable result of malformed and mistaken forms of hierarchy is the lack of respect for each other that leads to an inevitable infantilization of the members by the hierarchs. The members themselves then internalize this infantilization in the form of irresponsibility for their own lives and the lives of each other.  

This happens often unwittingly on the part of those in the hierarchy. They actual come to believe that the lives of others are their responsibility. They act as they do to preserve a surface form of unity and harmony. This is what leads to the coverups in the abuse crisis. They can feel that they cannot let the people know that their priests and bishops are as conflicted and sinful as all other people. For, that truth would, in itself, require a change in paradigm.  And, for those ‘in authority” the paradigm is the reality.

This infantilization of those “under authority” inhibits, Francis says, our bringing people together and so “getting them enthused and confident about a broad shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober, and transparent.” Francis describes a new, which is really an old, ecclesial paradigm. Jesus does not use the metaphor for sheep because those he calls are stupid and infantile, and so need one who is superior to them to tell them what to do. Rather, we are sheep of one fold with one shepherd. As such, we are to come to know the enthusiasm and confidence that comes with knowing that shepherd in our own unique way and then becoming a community as we share that “knowledge” with each other. The Church or the congregation does not burn with fire and enthusiasm in good part because it fails to come together around its “broad, shared project.” In such a coming together we ignite that flame in each other.  

Our congregational experience thus far reminds us how difficult it is to face honestly and openly the reality of the present and then to listen and listen deeper to hear the call to transformation, not merely programmatic but paradigmatic transformation, that the reality contains. We must listen with the courage to recognize the good and evil spirits at work in us and in how we live and manage our daily lives and mission. We must then “come together” to share the deepest desire each of us has to carry out the “broad, shared project” of evangelization, of the summons of the gospel to life to the full for every human person. It is terribly frightening to do this, for we, no less than the American bishops, are largely trapped in our current paradigms. We take the story we have always known about ourselves and the Church to encompass the truth. But the evil as well as the good spirits have always played a part in what we do and create. Personally, I find it very difficult to face this truth. This is why, I suspect, I have largely avoided the talk of the evil one or the antichrist in the letter of John.  

Conversion or metanoia is impossible without first facing the reality of evil, in ourselves and in the world, and so in the paradigms and programs we create. Yet, creation is always evolving, in a spirit of forgiveness. We know that the Lord is always seeking those who have strayed. We can dare to face the ways we have sinned because of the mercy and forgiveness of God. As amazing as it may seem, there is mercy and forgiveness built into the very fabric of the universe and creation. Pope Francis has told the bishops of the United States that they are to face the truth that something is terribly wrong in the very thing they have sinned in trying to preserve. True repentance consists in both recognizing that evil and repenting it by changing it, not in a superficial way but at its roots. So too with us personally and in our communities. We are to face in humility and courage the evil we have done and are doing, the very paradigms by which we live that do not foster but rather inhibit life. And then, we are to repent by actively and responsibly listening until God tells us what to change and how to change it.

The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it. This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person. It involves our ability to bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent. This requires not only a new approach to management, but also a change in our mind-set (metanoia), our way of praying, our handling of power and money, our exercise of authority and our way of relating to one another and to the world around us. Changes in the Church are always aimed at encouraging a constant state of missionary and pastoral conversion capable of opening up new ecclesial paths ever more in keeping with the Gospel and, as such, respectful of human dignity. The programmatic aspect of our activity should be joined to a paradigmatic aspect that brings out its underlying spirit and meaning. The two are necessarily linked. Without this clear and decisive focus, everything we do risks being tainted by self-referentiality, self­-preservation and defensiveness, and thus doomed from the start. Our efforts may be well-structured and organized, but will lack evangelical power, for they will not help us to be a Church that bears credible witness, but instead “a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13: 1). 

In a word, a new ecclesial season needs bishops who can teach others how to discern God’s presence in the history of his people, and not mere administrators. Ideas can be discussed but vital situations have to be discerned. Consequently, amid the upset and confusion experienced by our communities, our primary duty is to foster a shared spirit of discernment, rather than to seek the relative calm resulting from compromise or from a democratic vote where some emerge as “winners” and others not. No! It is about finding a collegial and paternal way of embracing the present situation, one that, most importantly, can protect those in our care from losing hope and feeling spiritually abandoned. This will enable us to be fully immersed in reality, seeking to appreciate and hear it from within, without being held hostage to it. 

Pope Francis, Letter to the Bishops of the United States of America

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