A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francismy source: America
Before I switch on the voice-recorder we also talk about other things. Commenting on one of my own publications he tells me that the two contemporary French thinkers that he holds dear are Henri De Lubac, S.J., and Michel de Certeau, S.J. I also speak to him about more personal matters. He too speaks to me on a personal level, in particular about his election to the pontificate. He tells me that when he began to realize that he might be elected, on Wednesday, March 13, during lunch, he felt a deep and inexplicable peace and interior consolation come over him, along with a great darkness, a deep obscurity about everything else. And those feelings accompanied him until his election later that day.
Actually I would have liked to continue speaking with him in this very personal manner for much longer, but I take up my papers, filled with questions that I had written down before, and I turn on the voice-recorder. First of all I thank him on behalf of all the editors of the various Jesuit magazines that will publish this interview.
Just a bit before the audience that the pope granted on June 14 to the Jesuits of La Civiltà Cattolica, the pope had spoken to me about his great difficulty in giving interviews. He had told me that he prefers to think carefully rather than give quick responses to on-the-spot interviews. He feels that the right answers come to him after having already given his initial response. “I did not recognize myself when I responded to the journalists asking me questions on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro,” he tells me. But it’s true: many times in this interview the pope interrupted what he was saying in response to a question several times, in order to add something to an earlier response. Talking with Pope Francis is a kind of volcanic flow of ideas that are bound up with each other. Even taking notes gives me an uncomfortable feeling, as if I were trying to suppress a surging spring of dialogue. It is clear that Pope Francis is more used to having conversations than giving lectures.
Who Is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
I have the first question ready, but then I decide not to follow the script that I had prepared for myself, and I ask him point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask.... He nods that it is, and he tells me: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
"I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
The pope continues to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question, as if he were forced to reflect further. “Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And he repeats: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”
|"The Calling of Saint Matthew," by Caravaggio|
The motto is taken from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable, who writes in his comments on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The pope adds: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].
Pope Francis continues his reflection and tells me, in a change of topic that I do not immediately understand: “I do not know Rome well. I know a few things. These include the Basilica of St. Mary Major; I always used to go there.” I laugh and I tell him, “We all understood that very well, Holy Father!” “Right, yes”—the pope continues – “I know St. Mary Major, St. Peter’s...but when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew’ by Caravaggio.” I begin to intuit what the pope wants to tell me.
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
Why Did You Become a Jesuit?
I understand that this motto of acceptance is for Pope Francis also a badge of identity. There was nothing left to add. I continue with the first question that I was going to ask: “Holy Father, what made you choose to enter the Society of Jesus? What struck you about the Jesuit Order?”
“I wanted something more. But I did not know what. I entered the diocesan seminary. I liked the Dominicans and I had Dominican friends. But then I chose the Society of Jesus, which I knew well because the seminary was entrusted to the Jesuits. Three things in particular struck me about the Society: the missionary spirit, community and discipline. And this is strange, because I am a really, really undisciplined person. But their discipline, the way they manage their time—these things struck me so much.
“And then a thing that is really important for me: community. I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta. At the time of the conclave I lived in Room 207. (The rooms were assigned by drawing lots.) This room where we are now was a guest room. I chose to live here, in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”
While the pope speaks about mission and community I recall all of those documents of the Society of Jesus that talk about a “community for mission” and I find them among his words.
What Does It Mean for a Jesuit to Be Bishop of Rome?
I want to continue along this line and I ask the pope a question regarding the fact that he is the first Jesuit to be elected bishop of Rome: “How do you understand the role of service to the universal church that you have been called to play in the light of Ignatian spirituality? What does it mean for a Jesuit to be elected pope? What element of Ignatian spirituality helps you live your ministry?”
“The Society of Jesus is an institution in tension, always fundamentally in tension. A Jesuit is a person who is not centered in himself. The Society itself also looks to a center outside itself; its center is Christ and his church."
“Discernment,” he replies. “Discernment is one of the things that worked inside St. Ignatius. For him it is an instrument of struggle in order to know the Lord and follow him more closely. I was always struck by a saying that describes the vision of Ignatius: non coerceri a maximo, sed contineri a minimo divinum est (“not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest—this is the divine”). I thought a lot about this phrase in connection with the issue of different roles in the government of the church, about becoming the superior of somebody else: it is important not to be restricted by a larger space, and it is important to be able to stay in restricted spaces. This virtue of the large and small is magnanimity. Thanks to magnanimity, we can always look at the horizon from the position where we are. That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.
“This motto,” the pope continues, “offers parameters to assume a correct position for discernment, in order to hear the things of God from God’s ‘point of view.’ According to St. Ignatius, great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time and people. In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension. You can have large projects and implement them by means of a few of the smallest things. Or you can use weak means that are more effective than strong ones, as Paul also said in his First Letter to the Corinthians.
“This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change.And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months. Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor. My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing.
“But I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”
The Society of Jesus
Discernment is therefore a pillar of the spirituality of Pope Francis. It expresses in a particular manner his Jesuit identity. I ask him then how the Society of Jesus can be of service to the church today, and what characteristics set it apart. I also ask him to comment on the possible risks that the Society runs.
“The Society of Jesus is an institution in tension,” the pope replied, “always fundamentally in tension. A Jesuit is a person who is not centered in himself. The Society itself also looks to a center outside itself; its center is Christ and his church. So if the Society centers itself in Christ and the church, it has two fundamental points of reference for its balance and for being able to live on the margins, on the frontier. If it looks too much in upon itself, it puts itself at the center as a very solid, very well ‘armed’ structure, but then it runs the risk of feeling safe and self-sufficient. The Society must always have before itself the Deus semper maior, the always-greater God, and the pursuit of the ever greater glory of God, the church as true bride of Christ our Lord, Christ the king who conquers us and to whom we offer our whole person and all our hard work, even if we are clay pots, inadequate. This tension takes us out of ourselves continuously. The tool that makes the Society of Jesus not centered in itself, really strong, is, then, the account of conscience, which is at the same time paternal and fraternal, because it helps the Society to fulfill its mission better.”
The pope is referring to the requirement in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus that the Jesuit must “manifest his conscience,” that is, his inner spiritual situation, so that the superior can be more conscious and knowledgeable about sending a person on mission.
“But it is difficult to speak of the Society,” continues Pope Francis. “When you express too much, you run the risk of being misunderstood. The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process. The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. There have been periods in the Society in which Jesuits have lived in an environment of closed and rigid thought, more instructive-ascetic than mystical: this distortion of Jesuit life gave birth to the Epitome Instituti.”
The pope is referring to a compendium, formulated in the 20th century for practical purposes, that came to be seen as a replacement for the Constitutions. The formation of Jesuits for some time was shaped by this text, to the extent that some never read the Constitutions, the foundational text. During this period, in the pope’s view, the rules threatened to overwhelm the spirit, and the Society yielded to the temptation to explicate and define its charism too narrowly.
Pope Francis continues: “No, the Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking at the horizon toward which he must go, with Christ at the center. This is his real strength. And that pushes the Society to be searching, creative and generous. So now, more than ever, the Society of Jesus must be contemplative in action, must live a profound closeness to the whole church as both the ‘people of God’ and ‘holy mother the hierarchical church.’ This requires much humility, sacrifice and courage, especially when you are misunderstood or you are the subject of misunderstandings and slanders, but that is the most fruitful attitude. Let us think of the tensions of the past history, in the previous centuries, about the Chinese rites controversy, the Malabar rites and the Reductions in Paraguay.
“I am a witness myself to the misunderstandings and problems that the Society has recently experienced. Among those there were tough times, especially when it came to the issue of extending to all Jesuits the fourth vow of obedience to the pope. What gave me confidence at the time of Father Arrupe [superior general of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983] was the fact that he was a man of prayer, a man who spent much time in prayer. I remember him when he prayed sitting on the ground in the Japanese style. For this he had the right attitude and made the right decisions.”
The Model: Peter Faber, ‘Reformed Priest’
I am wondering if there are figures among the Jesuits, from the origins of the Society to the present date, that have affected him in a particular way, so I ask the pope who they are and why. He begins by mentioning Ignatius Loyola [founder of the Jesuits] and Francis Xavier, but then focuses on a figure that other Jesuits certainly know, but who is of course not as well known to the general public: Peter Faber (1506-46), from Savoy. He was one of the first companions of St. Ignatius, in fact the first, with whom he shared a room when the two were students at the University of Paris. The third roommate was Francis Xavier. Pius IX declared Faber blessed on Sept. 5, 1872, and the cause for his canonization is still open.
The pope cites an edition of Faber’s works, which he asked two Jesuit scholars, Miguel A. Fiorito and Jaime H. Amadeo, to edit and publish when he was provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. An edition that he particularly likes is the one by Michel de Certeau. I ask the pope why he is so impressed by Faber, and which of Faber’s traits he finds particularly moving.
“[His] dialogue with all,” the pope says, “even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”
"To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems."
As Pope Francis lists these personal characteristics of his favorite Jesuit I understand just how much this figure has truly been a model for his own life. Michel de Certeau, S.J., characterized Faber simply as “the reformed priest,” for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform are intimately inseparable. I begin to understand, therefore, that Pope Francis is inspired precisely by this kind of reform. At this point the pope continues with a reflection on the true face of the fundador of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola.
“Ignatius is a mystic, not an ascetic,” he says. “It irritates me when I hear that the Spiritual Exercises are ‘Ignatian’ only because they are done in silence. In fact, the Exercises can be perfectly Ignatian also in daily life and without the silence. An interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises that emphasizes asceticism, silence and penance is a distorted one that became widespread even in the Society, especially in the Society of Jesus in Spain. I am rather close to the mystical movement, that of Louis Lallement and Jean-Joseph Surin. And Faber was a mystic.”
Experience in Church Government
What kind of experience in church government, as a Jesuit superior and then as superior of a province of the Society of Jesus, helped to fully form Father Bergoglio? The style of governance of the Society of Jesus involves decisions made by the superior, but also extensive consultation with his official advisors. So I ask: “Do you think that your past government experience can serve you in governing the universal church?” After a brief pause for reflection, Pope Francis becomes very serious, but also very serene, and he responds:
“In my experience as superior in the Society, to be honest, I have not always behaved in that way—that is, I did not always do the necessary consultation. And this was not a good thing. My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. Yes, but I must add one thing: when I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person. He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person. But despite this, eventually people get tired of authoritarianism.
“My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.
"I do not want token consultations, but real consultations."
“I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins. So as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, I had a meeting with the six auxiliary bishops every two weeks, and several times a year with the council of priests. They asked questions and we opened the floor for discussion. This greatly helped me to make the best decisions. But now I hear some people tell me: ‘Do not consult too much, and decide by yourself.’ Instead, I believe that consultation is very important.
“The consistories [of cardinals], the synods [of bishops] are, for example, important places to make real and active this consultation. We must, however, give them a less rigid form. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations. The consultation group of eight cardinals, this ‘outsider’ advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.”
Thinking With the Church
I keep my questions focused on the theme of the church and I ask Pope Francis what it means exactly for him to “think with the church,” a notion St. Ignatius writes about in the Spiritual Exercises. He replies without hesitation and by using an image.
“The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.
“The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.
"We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
“This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people. In turn, Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people, as we read in the Magnificat. We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
After a brief pause, Pope Francis emphasizes in a very direct manner the following point, in order to avoid misunderstandings: “And, of course, we must be very careful not to think that this infallibilitas of all the faithful I am talking about in the light of Vatican II is a form of populism. No; it is the experience of ‘holy mother the hierarchical church,’ as St. Ignatius called it, the church as the people of God, pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God’s people.
“I see the sanctity of God’s people, this daily sanctity,” the pope continues. “There is a ‘holy middle class,’ which we can all be part of, the holiness Malègue wrote about.” The pope is referring to Joseph Malègue, a French writer (1876–1940), particularly to the unfinished trilogy Black Stones: The Middle Classes of Salvation. Some French literary critics have called Malègue the “Catholic Proust.”
“I see the holiness,” the pope continues, “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity. I often associate sanctity with patience: not only patience as hypomoné [the New Testament Greek word], taking charge of the events and circumstances of life, but also as a constancy in going forward, day by day. This is the sanctity of the militant church also mentioned by St. Ignatius. This was the sanctity of my parents: my dad, my mom, my grandmother Rosa who loved me so much. In my breviary I have the last will of my grandmother Rosa, and I read it often. For me it is like a prayer. She is a saint who has suffered so much, also spiritually, and yet always went forward with courage.
“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the church is Mother; the church is fruitful. It must be. You see, when I perceive negative behavior in ministers of the church or in consecrated men or women, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Here’s an unfruitful bachelor’ or ‘Here’s a spinster.’ They are neither fathers nor mothers, in the sense that they have not been able to give spiritual life. Instead, for example, when I read the life of the Salesian missionaries who went to Patagonia, I read a story of the fullness of life, of fruitfulness.
“Another example from recent days that I saw got the attention of newspapers: the phone call I made to a young man who wrote me a letter. I called him because that letter was so beautiful, so simple. For me this was an act of generativity. I realized that he was a young man who is growing, that he saw in me a father, and that the letter tells something of his life to that father. The father cannot say, ‘I do not care.’ This type of fruitfulness is so good for me.”
Young Churches and Ancient Churches
Remaining with the subject of the church, I ask the pope a question in light of the recent World Youth Day. This great event has turned the spotlight on young people, but also on those “spiritual lungs” that are the Catholic churches founded in historically recent times. “What,” I ask, “are your hopes for the universal church that come from these churches?”
The pope replies: “The young Catholic churches, as they grow, develop a synthesis of faith, culture and life, and so it is a synthesis different from the one developed by the ancient churches. For me, the relationship between the ancient Catholic churches and the young ones is similar to the relationship between young and elderly people in a society. They build the future, the young ones with their strength and the others with their wisdom. You always run some risks, of course. The younger churches are likely to feel self-sufficient; the ancient ones are likely to want to impose on the younger churches their cultural models. But we build the future together.”
The Church as Field Hospital
Pope Benedict XVI, in announcing his resignation, said that the contemporary world is subject to rapid change and is grappling with issues of great importance for the life of faith. Dealing with these issues requires strength of body and soul, Pope Benedict said. I ask Pope Francis, in light of what he has just told me: “What does the church need most at this historic moment? Do we need reforms? What are your wishes for the church in the coming years? What kind of church do you dream of?”
"The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle."
Pope Francis, picking up on the introduction of my question, begins by showing great affection and immense respect for his predecessor: “Pope Benedict has done an act of holiness, greatness, humility. He is a man of God.”
“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.
“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
Father R. Barron on the above interview
THE CHURCH AS A HOSPITAL
Taken from “Gifts of the Desert”
Greek Orthodox Metropolis Of Boston
Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church
37 Lake Parkway, Webster, MA 01570
If we don’t have a clear understanding of what the Church really stands for, the consequences could be catastrophic. We could get scandalized very easily by the actions of individuals and become distracted or get to the point whereby we would be ready to reject the Church altogether. A misguided approach to the Church could lead us to a counterfeit relationship with God. And by extension it could also lead us to a false relationship with ourselves and with our environment.
There are two dominant perspectives on how to view the Church and its teachings. The first considers the Christian Church simply as a religion aiming at making people pious and well-behaved. The second perspective considers the teachings of the Church as some sort of a religious philosophy with the founders of the Church as religious philosophers and contemplatives. As such they are supposed to deal with philosophical systems, with ideas and values, very noble and worthwhile values. Fair enough. One can say that this is good.
But if we wish to seriously examine how the holy elders viewed the Church and continue to view it, we will recognize a different reality. We will see a surprising picture. We will notice that the Church has little to do with religion as commonly understood. Many holy elders understood religion to mean the way people try through various ceremonies and rituals to appease an all-powerful and fearsome God who created the universe and themselves. This attitude has been the trademark of the average person's understanding of what it means to be religious. The holy elders rejected this understanding and approach to God, as well as rejected rational philosophy as the key tool of the Church. That is, they rejected philosophy as the way to search for and get to know God.
Philosophy is based on intellectual contemplation, on hypothesizing, on building theorems. As far as philosophy goes, that is ok. But it does not cease to be a human creation, a product of the human mind and imagination. The Church must be properly seen as being part of medicine. In reality it is a spiritual hospital. Do you understand what I am saying? A hundred and fifty years ago, when the University of Athens was created, those in charge, following Western European models, placed theology under the school of philosophy and law. That was a terrible mistake. The holy elders would have placed subjects like theology, and the subject matter of the Church within the medical school, not philosophy or law. Do you understand?
I will explain. The Church is preoccupied essentially with the ultimate fate of human beings. It teaches that human beings are God's creation and came out of their Creator's hands absolutely healthy. All their powers functioned perfectly. This state was characterized by the total love of human beings toward God, toward one another, and toward Creation. The holy elders teach that human beings in that state were in constant contemplation and memory of God. According to the Holy Scriptures humanity fell from that state of grace through Adam and Eve. From that point on, human beings have been characterized by confusion, destructive passions, and sinfulness. This is an abnormal state of existence.
Humanity has been marching on this road of passions, confusion, and sin since the Fall. God has been sending his emissaries and prophets, however, to help humanity and prepare the way for the appearance of Christ himself. We Christians believe that with Christ's Incarnation we are offered the opportunity to see a different human being, a God-man. So, according to the teachings of the Church there are three categories of human beings. First, there is the original Adam, which means human beings as they came out of their Creator's hands. Then there is the fallen Adam, meaning human beings after the Fall, as they live in this world. And third there is the birth of the New Adam, meaning Christ as the ultimate archetype of what we may become.
It would have been a tragic error to assume that Christ came into the world in order to give us a set of good teachings or a book called the New Testament. Had it been so he could have given it to us in many other ways. But he did come into the world himself so that we may be able to participate in his own perfect presence and see in the flesh, in a concrete way, our own archetype. As Saint Athanasios said, 'God became man so that man may become God.
The Church was created for purely therapeutic purposes, for healing the split between us and God. The Church takes fallen, sick, and confused human beings, who suffer from all sorts of destructive passions and sins, and with its very tangible therapeutic methods helps them attain real health – spiritual health. That's the ultimate form of healing. The body sooner or later will die, decompose. Spiritual health is eternal and, therefore, more real.
The therapy that the Church offers to human beings is not metaphysical. As with good medicine, therapy for the Church must take place now, in this present physical life, not after death. We must not forget that this healing has distinct and identifiable attributes in the same way that a therapy for bodily illness has distinct and identifiable characteristics. Do you remember Paul's epistle to the Galatians? Like the good doctor of the soul that he was, he identifies what the symptoms of sin and spiritual illness are: hostility, jealousy, anger, idolatry, murder, drunkenness, debauchery, adultery, and so on.
He then points out that the therapy from such illnesses is not something abstract and vague but something concrete and clearly recognizable. He goes on to enumerate the tangible fruits of spiritual healing: love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, gentleness, faith, and the like [Gal 5:22]. In other words, the Apostle Paul shows us that the Church’s therapeutic interventions have real and tangible results. That means we can identify and test for ourselves whether we have been spiritually healed from the illnesses that haunted us. Such therapy has practical consequences in our lives.
When we raise the question 'What is a human being?' we must also ask 'What is God?' Since God is our archetype and we are created in his image, understanding ourselves presupposes understanding our archetype. It's like trying to determine how authentic the portrait of a person is on canvas. We must see the person in real life and then compare the two. We need to contrast the painting with the person in the flesh. If we have never seen the person then we cannot judge one way or another.
So the archetype is real and concrete and human beings are images of the archetype. The Gospels tell us clearly what God is. John the Apostle says, 'God is love.' Since God is love then we as human beings, created in his image, are also love. And God gave us the medical prescriptions for how to heal our split from him, how to repair the damage that made us unrecognizable in terms of our divine archetype.
The Church indeed is a hospital. As in the case of an ordinary hospital, in the Church we can meet doctors, nurses, recovering patients, sick people, and very sick people. Sometimes we can even find corpses. In whatever category we may belong within this spiritual hospital, we always have the hope and the possibility to achieve our own resurrection and the restoration of our spiritual health.
It is extremely important that we never abandon this role and outlook on the Church as a spiritual hospital. If we give up on it then the Church becomes nothing other than a worldly institution.
The Church: A Hospital For Our Souls. Session 1 with Fr Iakovos of Simonopetra.
The Church: A Hospital For Our Souls. Session 2 with Fr Iakovos of Simonopetra.
MARCH 25th: Annunciation of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the earliest Christian feasts, and was already being celebrated in the fourth century. There is a painting of the Annunciation in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome dating from the second century. The Council of Toledo in 656 mentions the Feast, and the Council in Trullo in 692 says that the Annunciation was celebrated during Great Lent.
The Greek and Slavonic names for the Feast may be translated as “good tidings.” This, of course, refers to the Incarnation of the Son of God and the salvation He brings. The background of the Annunciation is found in the Gospel of Saint Luke (1:26-38). The troparion describes this as the “beginning of our salvation, and the revelation of the eternal mystery,” for on this day the Son of God became the Son of Man.
There are two main components to the Annunciation: the message itself, and the response of the Virgin. The message fulfills God’s promise to send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15): “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel.” The Fathers of the Church understand “her seed” to refer to Christ. The prophets hinted at His coming, which they saw dimly, but the Archangel Gabriel now proclaims that the promise is about to be fulfilled.
We see this echoed in the Liturgy of Saint Basil, as well: “When man disobeyed Thee, the only true God who had created him, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death by his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from Paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself.”
The Archangel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth in Galilee. There he spoke to the undefiled Virgin who was betrothed to Saint Joseph: “Hail, thou who art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
In contrast to Eve, who was readily deceived by the serpent, the Virgin did not immediately accept the Angel’s message. In her humility, she did not think she was deserving of such words, but was actually troubled by them. The fact that she asked for an explanation reveals her sobriety and prudence. She did not disbelieve the words of the angel, but could not understand how they would be fulfilled, for they spoke of something which was beyond nature.
Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34).
“And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: therefore also that which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1: 35-38)
In his Sermon 23 on the day of the Annunciation, Saint Philaret of Moscow boldly stated that “the word of the creature brought the Creator down into the world.” He explains that salvation is not merely an act of God’s will, but also involves the Virgin’s free will. She could have refused, but she accepted God’s will and chose to cooperate without complaint or further questions.
The icon of the Feast shows the Archangel with a staff in his left hand, indicating his role as a messenger. Sometimes one wing is upraised, as if to show his swift descent from heaven. His right hand is stretched toward the holy Virgin as he delivers his message.
The Virgin is depicted either standing or sitting, usually holding yarn in her left hand. Sometimes she is shown holding a scroll. Her right hand may be raised to indicate her surprise at the message she is hearing. Her head is bowed, showing her consent and obedience. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon her is depicted by a ray of light issuing from a small sphere at the top of the icon, which symbolizes heaven. In a famous icon from Sinai, a white dove is shown in the ray of light.
There are several famous icons of the Annunciation. One is in the Moscow Kremlin in the church of the Annunciation. This icon appeared in connection with the rescue of a prisoner by the Mother of God during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Another is to be found in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow (July 8). It was originally located in Ustiug, and was the icon before which Saint Procopius the fool (July 8) prayed to save the city from destruction in 1290. One of the most highly revered icons in Greece is the Tinos icon of the Annunciation (January 30).
The Annunciation falls during Lent, but it is always celebrated with great joy. The Liturgy of Saint Basil or Saint John Chrysostom is served, even on the weekdays of Lent. It is one of the two days of Great Lent on which the fast is relaxed and fish is permitted (Palm Sunday is the other).
The Cross Above the Annunciation
METROPOLITAN ANTHONY OF SOUROZH | 07 APRIL 2016
The Cross Above the Annunciation
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
This year the Feast of the Annunciation, according to our calendar falls just at the end of the week when we venerate the Cross. And perhaps is it particularly significant, because you remember the words which were spoken to the Mother of God when She brought Her Child, Jesus, to the Temple: that a sword will pass Her heart, a sword will pierce Her heart. This sword was the death of Christ upon the Cross. And to see at the same time the promise of salvation given to the whole of mankind, — indeed, the promise that one day God will be all in all, and that the whole Creation will become the shining, glorious vestry of God — on that day we see also the Cross above the Annunciation.
Let us reflect on this conjunction of events; the Mother of God received today the greatest promise which mankind can receive at the same time, in Her perfect surrender: Let it be unto me according to His will! — in this perfect surrender She accepts the tragedy that will follow. We are saved by Her faith, we are saved by Her surrender; without Her the Incarnation would have not taken place — but at w h a t cost to Her.
And this is why it could be said once that if the Mother of God can forgive us our unfaithfulness, our betrayal of Christ, a life unworthy of the faith which we proclaim — if She can forgive us, no power in Heaven or earth can reject us. And this is why we pray to Her, and say, All-Holy Mother of God, s a v e us!.. Not because She can save us apart from the sacrificial love, the Incarnation, the life, the death, the descent into hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Her Son, the Only-Begotten Son of God become the son of man; not because She can plead for us, but She can, in the very words of Christ at the Cross say, Forgive! They do not know what they are doing…
But it is not enough to be forgiven: one must bear fruit of repentance. If we understand at what cost we are forgiven by God: the life and the death of His Only-Begotten Son, at what cost the Mother of God can intercede for us: the surrender of Her life but also the gift unto death of Her Only-Begotten Son, gratitude alone should prompt us to be worthy of this love, to be worthy of God, worthy of Mary the Virgin, worthy of our own selves… Because God’s gift of self to us, Mary’s gift of Him to us speaks to us of our eternal, immeasurable value in the eyes of God,
Let us therefore venerate worshipfully the event; and respond, respond with all our life, all our heart and mind, all there is in and of us to the trust which God has put into us; because He gave His life for us, She surrendered to God for us, She gave Him unto death for us because God believes in us, because God hopes all things from us — let us respond to Him with all our life. Amen