The “spirit of fierceness” pervades human history. Its form may change but it is always the same dynamic: one of opposition against “the other.” We see it first in the anger of Cain, when it drove him to kill his brother. And it continues to be unleashed in the fury of the dragon who, unable to kill the woman, a symbol of the Church, turns its anger against the “rest of her children” (cf. Gen 4:6; Rev 12:17). New forms of this spirit today include “bullying” and “media persecution.”
In a recent homily at Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis reflected on the mystery of evil that is revealed in bullying, in the act of “attacking the weakest.” He noted that “psychologists might have other explanations for the strong abusing the weak … but even children can have this trace of original sin, the work of Satan.”
The fact that he refers to Satan tells us something about the spiritual character of this attitude, which, according to some words we use to name it – accanimento in Italian or encarnizamiento in Spanish – would lead us to think that it is something animalistic or carnal, but this is not entirely the case. Mixed and confused with this carnal dimension, there is a hidden addition of ferocity and of gratuitous cruelty which, when we see its effects, produces enormous discomfort and mental confusion. Consider, for example, the teenager driven to suicide because she cannot cope with the idea that a private image has been shared online and gone viral.
This spirit of fierceness is diabolical, in the sense that it is against the law of nature: it is not only destructive but also self-destructive. It is contagious and it produces negative effects at a social level: feelings of abandonment and discouragement, disorientation and confusion. Since it is hidden and often gets confused with other phenomena, it is necessary to expose it to the light of spiritual discernment so that we do not misdiagnose the best remedy for it. It is possible to succumb to the contagion of its perverse dynamism even while fighting against some of its effects.
It is important to take into account the fact that, besides obviously destructive ferocity, there is another, more “polite” form, more subtle but involving equal and systematic cruelty. Is it not perhaps symptomatic that we use the terms “inhuman” and “barbaric” without thinking sometimes that we do not mean “animal” by them but rather something else?
A brief phenomenology of the “spirit of fierceness” will help us to recognize it and better understand its malice, so that we foster our desire to resist it with the help of the Spirit, reject it, and drive it out from our hearts and the social structures in which it is embodied. As the hymn Veni Creator says, Hostem repellas longius (“Drive the enemy far from us”).
To understand how we can resist it without being infected, we will keep in mind a recommendation of Pope Francis given in his meeting with Jesuits in Peru, during his most recent apostolic trip to Latin America. On that occasion he referred to a little booklet, Las cartas de la tribulación (“Letters of the Tribulation”), saying that “these contain marvelous criteria of discernment, criteria of action so as not to allow ourselves to be dragged down by institutional desolation” and “to find the path to follow … when the tempest of persecutions, tribulations, doubts and so forth, is raised by cultural and historical events … There are various temptations that mark this moment: challenging ideas, not paying attention to the events, becoming fixated with the persecutors … dwelling on our own desolations.”
Among various temptations that arise in times of tribulation, we will highlight that of the “spirit of ferocity,” through which the evil spirit tempts us not only to resist grace, but takes a further step: it involves us and makes us become accomplices of his desire to destroy our own flesh.
Phenomenology of ferocity
Whenever we encounter ferocity, we react instinctively. The various languages refer to this phenomenon emphasizing different aspects. In Italian, the term accanimento refers to the subject – the cane (dog) – which stresses the subject of this ferociousness. In Spanish, encarnizamiento refers to “carne” (flesh), considering the object on which fury is exercised. English and French use “fierceness” and “ferocité,” respectively, underlining the violence of the action itself. In German, Hartnäckigkeit means “stubbornness” and underlines a physical trait revealing a ruthless determination or unscrupulous pursuit of a goal.
If we analyze the phenomenon of bullying, for example, we see that it is not easily categorized, although certain recurring characteristics – premeditated aggression, its systematic nature and asymmetry of power – allow us to put individual episodes in this context. However, the description of some traits that are common in the abstract does not penetrate the core of the phenomenon, its apparently unmotivated evil, which at some point intensifies exponentially and becomes contagious. Characteristics such as these lead us to realize that this is not a merely instinctive and animal issue, but something more.
Contagion is a distinctive element to keep in mind in interpreting the spirit of ferocity. Not all of us experience the spirit of fierceness in the same way or at the same time, but there is a common element: when we are faced with someone aggressive, it awakens a strong mimetic impulse both in those who match the aggressor’s ferocity and in those who, according to a similar dynamic, defend the victim. And when there is such fury, the seed of vengeance is planted, and the contagion spreads over time.
Another element to be considered is that, although it may seem that human cruelty has always been the same and that with modern civilization certain things no longer happen, in reality the contrary is true: as technology becomes more sophisticated, the spirit of aggression becomes crueler in its daily effect, and more politically correct in modality. Is it not symptomatic of this that we judge a remotely operated missile to be less ferocious than hand-to-hand fighting in a bloody melee? That we “see less blood” does not mean that the spirit of aggression has diminished; if anything, it has become more precise, more systematic and even more inhumane.
Finally, here is a paradox. At the same time, the weakness and resistance of the flesh encourages, sustains and exacerbates this fierceness. One cannot rage against something as solid as iron, nor against something that offers no resistance such as water or air. This paradox leads us to discover a contradiction. “Ferocity against flesh” is intrinsically senseless since after a certain point it ceases being an adequate object for an excess of fury. At a certain point what comes naturally is the appeal to stop the aggression and to have pity. However, if there is anything that leads us to “put our fingers in our ears and attack again with renewed fury” a defenseless victim, it is this spirit of ferocity. It is therefore proven that it is not merely instinctive, but the fruit of a lucid and free decision “to do evil for its own sake.”
All this is to say, to discern, unequivocally, that it is correct to speak of a “spirit of fury” rather than of instinct. In reality, when we use expressions like “killer instinct” or “blood-thirsty animal” we project on the animal world a cruelty actually chosen with a clarity and lucidity that the animal world does not have. And if it has been so chosen, it follows the rhythm dictated by the impulse and satisfaction of instinct, each time sudden and impossible to plan in the long term.
When fierceness damages dialogue
This leads us to analyze in a different way the phenomenon of “media persecution.” If the spirit of ferocity remains confined to the world of words and violence does not become physical – but at most, manifests itself in tone and gestures – this does not mean that we have left the sphere of aggression and find ourselves on a more civilized plane. Quite the opposite! It is precisely in violent words, lies, slander, defamation, detraction and gossip that the spirit of fury dwells, and it prowls out from there.
Francis unmasks some temptations clearly and drastically. Some comment ironically – as if to say that the pope was exaggerating – on the fact that he told a group of cloistered nuns that if they gossiped, they were “terrorist sisters.”
Words, by their dynamic, tend to become reality. Therefore it is important to understand that it is contradictory to “discuss aggressively.” Being fierce in dialogue is counterproductive. The essence of dialogue is not the words spoken or the speeches made, but the reciprocal approach of the interlocutors to a reality which requires explanation. When someone formulates a judgment, he or she proposes it for the other’s consent, so as to be able to complement it by his or her own point of view. If dialogue is nothing more than a façade behind which there is an objective of imposing our view or disdaining other people’s views, then there is no dialogue. Ferocity is not a result of instinct, but of logic – and the logic is that of the “father of lies” (John 8:44). It is confronted by a different logic, that of truth, as Jesus attested in the gospel and which the Holy Spirit discerns in every situation. The logic of the Incarnation is opposed to the logic of aggression.
Remedies against ferocity in ‘Las cartas de la tribulación’
In Las cartas de la tribulación, mentioned above, Bergoglio finds some remedies to resist this evil spirit without being infected. This is the so-called “doctrine of tribulation.” The letters “constitute a treatise about tribulation and how to endure it.”
Celebrating vespers in the Church of the Gesù in Rome on September 27, 2014, Pope Francis said: “While reading the letters of Fr. Ricci, one thing struck me: his ability not to be ensnared by these temptations and [rather] to propose to the Jesuits, in times of tribulation, a vision of things that anchored them even more in the spirituality of the Society.”
For context, we add that the instruction on how to bear and resist temptation, presented by Bergoglio in his short preface to Las cartas is complemented by two other texts, forming a trilogy: one earlier, La acusación de sí mismo, first published in 1984; and another, written in the first months of his transfer to the residence in Córdoba, titled Silencio y palabra.
First of all, it should be said that Las cartas are not an abstract elaboration of spiritual criteria, but rather the source and fruit of an attitude which led an entire institution – the Society of Jesus – to accept its own suppression (which caused the death of many Jesuits) in obedience to the Church, without returning evil for evil.
This paradigmatic behavior in a “great persecution” gives us a spiritual context for confronting any other. This follows the spirit of the First Letter of Peter when he tells us to be unsurprised by the fiery ordeal of persecution (1 Peter 4:12). The attitude mirrors the Letter to the Hebrews which recalls that we have not yet “in the struggle against sin, resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4).
With the same spiritual paternity of those superiors general of the Society of Jesus, Bergoglio identifies the most efficient defense against the risk of victimization in exaggerated persecutions. A paternal care of the wheat, without prematurely getting rid of the chaff, is the remedy that can “rescue the body from spiritual distress and rootlessness.” However, he does not do this by opposing an attack from the outside, but like a father he helps his children “assume an attitude of discernment” that allows them to defend themselves.
The most devastating effect of the spirit of ferocity attacking the weakest is seen in the faithful people of God: it falls upon those who are simple and childlike, who, when they see this ferocity unleashed against the defenseless, who are among the greatest, will experience abandonment, despair and a sense of uprootedness. A paternal attitude consists in protecting the little ones from scandal. This was the first concern of Our Lord when the time of his passion came: to pray to the Father so that his own would not be scandalized.
Humble yourself to resist evil
The defenses against the spirit of ferocity do not try to “defeat evil with evil.” This results in contamination by its dynamic. On the contrary, they aim to strengthen our ability to resist evil by finding ways to endure tribulation without giving in. This resistance to evil is completely different from that other kind of resistance, against the Spirit, that the devil practices by provoking and instigating anger. Let us examine the characteristics.
In some cases the resistance to persecution will consist of a “flight into Egypt,” as Joseph made to save the Child and his Mother: “We need to always have an ‘Egypt’ close at hand – even in our heart – to humble and empty ourselves in front of the excess of someone who doubts” or is persecuting us. Therefore, the first option is to retreat, not to react by attacking or following the instinct of a direct opposition. Going to this place in our hearts, where we can always find exile whenever persecuted by a Herod, is the source of the peace the Lord gave to Bergoglio when he understood that he would be elected bishop of Rome. The pope himself has told the story many times, asking for prayer so that he never loses this peace.
However, in other cases the resistance would be to face the evil spirit openly, giving public witness to the truth firmly, but graciously. On this point, Pope Francis shows a special grace, which is – to put it plainly – that of “drawing out the evil spirit” who in this way reveals himself. When temptation is based on a half-truth, it is very difficult to shed light and clarify things by intellectual means. “How can we be of help in such circumstances?” Bergoglio asked himself in Silencio y parola. “It is necessary to let the evil spirit show himself” and the only way to do that is make space for God, because Jesus is the only one who can force the devil to reveal himself: “There is only one way to make space for God, and this has been taught by Jesus himself: humiliation, kenosis (Phil 2:5-11). Be silent, pray and humble oneself.”
Bergoglio says, “We should focus on ‘time’ more than on the ‘light.’ Let me explain: the light of the Devil is strong, but brief – like the flash of a camera – while the light of God is meek, humble, unimposing – but offers itself, and is lasting. We need to know how to wait, praying and asking for the intervention of the Holy Spirit until the period of the intense light has passed.”
Political dimension of the fight against the spirit of fierceness
It is important to understand what is at stake in this humbling of the self to make room for Jesus. It is not a simply punctual and subjective religious attitude. In the dialogical process of “focusing on time” and “showing oneself weak” and accepting the real humiliation of not being able to explain everything, “another dimension” opens up.
In the way of dialogue which resists “primordial cruelty inherent within us, which is rebellion against God,” a political dimension of war, the “war of God,” reveals itself. Bergoglio uses the example given by a religious to describe this dimension: “Once, a religious, referring to a particularly difficult situation, said, ‘I understood that this was a war between God and the Devil. And if we humans take up arms, we are destined to destruction.’”
The awareness of this “political dimension” of the struggle against the spirit of fury is linked to the clarity with which Francis faces all conflicts – both internal to the Church, and external to it. It is this awareness that it is a war of God that makes him safe in peace, strengthens him in patience, and induces him to go out and go on.
Meekness will show us weaker
As Austen Ivereigh wrote: “The Cross would eventually oblige the devil to reveal himself, because the devil mistakes gentleness for weakness.” Bergoglio affirms: “In moments of darkness and great tribulation, when the ‘tangles’ and ‘knots’ cannot be undone, nor can things be clarified, then we must keep silent: the meekness of silence will show us even weaker, and then it will be the same Devil who, emboldening himself, will manifest himself in the full light, and show his true intention, no longer disguised as an angel of light, but fully self-evident.”
This “showing ourselves even weaker” is the attitude that overcomes the insidiousness of the evil spirit. And it is the best approach against gossiping, scandalous remarks, attacks that are easily spread through social media, and even by publications calling themselves “Catholic.” In these circumstances we must resist in silence. In this sense, the reflections by Maximus the Confessor quoted by Bergoglio in Silencio y Parola are interesting. They affirm that when Christ in his passion was becoming weaker – until death on the Cross, alone, with his disciples fleeing – the devil seemed to gain in strength and became brazen, even thinking himself victorious. But in the end it is the weakened body of Christ that becomes the bait the devil takes, in his ferocity. And it is in this way that he takes both the bait and the poison that neutralizes him.
Some accuse Pope Francis of being confusing when he does not aggressively defend the righteous and condemn the sinners, imposing rules, defining with papal infallibility the lines we cannot cross, etc. But they do not understand that, in reality, what he is confusing is the evil spirit that motivates them.
In a world where politicians and religious leaders debate and insult each other through tweets, Francis, with his way of resisting aggression through dialogue, “stands firm (Ephesians 6:13) but with the same attitude of Jesus,” and opens around him a different political space, that of the Kingdom of God, in which the Lord is the real champion of the battle, not us.
This “passive resistance of evil” – the same that Bergoglio has always emphasized as the grace which belongs to the people, and upon which they build patiently and wisely their culture – amends, among other things, three attitudes that are typical of a “politics of aggression” and are at the basis of all partisan politics. Bergoglio describes these behaviors as they present themselves in the Passion of our Lord. The first one is the behavior of the people who “persecute those who they believe to be weaker.” The powerful did not dare to oppose Jesus when the people followed him, but they were brave enough to do so when, after having been betrayed by one of his own, they saw him weakened. The second attitude is characterized this way: “At the root of all cruelty there is a need to unload one’s own faults and limits […] the mechanism of the scapegoat is repeated.” The third attitude belongs to those who, like Pilate, in the face of such ferocity decide to wash their hands of it and walk away.
On the other side, “showing oneself weak” in imitating Jesus consists of a very specific attitude. Bergoglio says that “Jesus forces the devil to ‘show himself,’ he makes room for this.” Of course, it is not possible to imitate what God obtains through his innocence and his unconditional self-gift into the hands of the Father for the salvation of all, even forgiving his enemies. But there is a way – accessible to us sinners – to make our own weakness innocent: it consists of the “accusation of oneself,” an attitude diametrically opposed to one of ferocity toward others.
Self-accusation, not in a generalized way, but in something very concrete, is to “show oneself as weak,” so that we can be “defended by the Paraclete,” in the same way that a defendant confides in and relies upon his lawyer to defend him most effectively in the face of his accusers. This idea was explored by Bergoglio in his commentary on Dorotheus of Gaza in the treatise Sobre la acusacion de si mismo. In fact, the latter alludes to how good it is to shape one’s own heart through the exercise of “self-accusation,” since it concerns “interior attitudes,” even small ones, which have their repercussion at this level of the institutional body.”
“It is not uncommon to meet – in religious communities, be they local or provincial – factions struggling to impose a hegemony of their own thought and preferences. This happens when charitable openness to one’s neighbor is replaced by each person’s own ideology. The whole of the family is no longer defended, just the part that concerns me. We no longer adhere to unity […] but to conflict […]. He who accuses himself makes room for God’s mercy.”
In Las cartas Bergoglio shows that bearing witness to the truth is something very different than merely “telling the truth.” In the tribulation which leads to the suppression of the Society of Jesus, “it is not of God to defend truth at the price of charity, nor charity at the price of truth, nor equilibrium at the price of both of them. In order to avoid becoming a truthful destroyer or a charitable liar or a confused paralytic, you need to discern.”
We must be vigilant against this “ferocity” – especially when it shows itself in an educated manner, even using the truth – because “Satan does not always tempt with lies. At the basis of a temptation there could be a truth – even if lived out with an evil spirit. This is the attitude of Blessed Peter Faber [later proclaimed saint].” Bergoglio shows that an ideological truth must always be judged not for its content but for the spirit [the will] which sustains it, which is not exactly the Spirit of truth.
As a remedy, a safer antidote to fierceness, Bergoglio supports the idea of “recourse to Jesuit sins” as made by the superiors general who – in a merely discursive perspective, rather than discernment – would describe themselves as totally unaware of the external confusion caused by persecutions. “What happens is not a matter of chance: there is here a dialectic proper to the situational context of discernment: to seek interiorly within oneself a state of being similar to the external one. In this case seeing oneself solely as persecuted could engender the bad spirit of ‘feeling like a victim,’ like an object of injustice, etc. Outside, on account of persecution, there is confusion… In considering his own sins the Jesuit asks for ‘shame and confusion for himself.’ This is not the same thing, but it seems so; and in this way one is better disposed to discernment.”
Bergoglio highlights that the superiors general “focus their reflection on the confusion” that the ideology underlying persecution produces “in one’s own heart” (of the Jesuits, in that case). “Confusion dwells in the heart: it is the coming and going of different spirits.” And he continues: “Ideas are discussed, situations are discerned.” The situation is one of confusion, and the cause of confusion is rooted in the dynamics of fierceness, that coming and going of thoughts which show up when one is under pressure by a fierce and persistent attack typical of those who are “stubborn.”
Resistance to the Holy Spirit, to its grace and the splendor of its truth, is that typically diabolic impetus which, in order to remain unseen itself, unleashes a fury against the flesh of the other. Faced with this merciless, accusatory dynamism, the interior attitude is – paradoxically – the accusation of oneself, sincerely and simply, without frills and without the fury of guilt: the accusation of self in the face of the mercy of God and the community.
A new letter of tribulation
A real example of this attitude was given by Francis recently in a kind of new “Letter of Tribulation.” This was sent on April 8, 2018, to the Chilean bishops, after having read the report by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna who had listened “with heart and humility” to the testimonies of witnesses and victims of abuses committed by the presbyterate and episcopate in that country. The spirit of the pope’s letter, addressed to his brother bishops, is that of a father speaking to grown children who are themselves parents. This is the profound sense of the letter, which is also the spirit Bergoglio perceived behind the letters written by the superiors general of the Society.
The paternal spirit is contrary to the spirit of fierceness. At the heart of this fatherly journey there are the victims and the country itself, Chile, which bleeds for the sins of the Church. The first tool of a spiritual father is discernment. The pope, as he writes to the bishops, wants “to humbly urge your collaboration and assistance in discerning the measures to be taken in the short, medium and long term.”
Francis invites the ecclesial community to put itself “in a state of prayer” with the aim of “repairing, as much as possible, the damage of the scandal and restoring justice.” The evils the pope refers to have “marred our spirit and cast us into the world, weak, fearful, shielded in our comfortable winter palaces.” They produce “distress and rootlessness” among the people of God. Therefore, to be able to restore and heal the wounds we should first of all accept to be forgiven and consoled by God.
The radical attitude to take, when desolation is so deep, is, as we said, to accuse and humble oneself – which is what Francis here is the first to do, without unloading blame onto a scapegoat, as many have tried to do, but taking them upon himself. In fact, he writes: “With regard to myself, I recognize, and I would like you to convey this faithfully, that I have made serious errors in the assessment and perception of the situation, in particular through the lack of reliable and balanced information. I now beg the forgiveness of all those whom I have offended and I hope to be able to do so personally, in the coming weeks, in the meetings that I will have with representatives of the people interviewed.”
These are the attitudes which allow wounds to heal, wounds that have been caused by evil and sin in society. This is the way that strengthens our belonging to Christ and the body of the Church.
.Pope Francis, Homily at Santa Marta, January 8, 2018.
.Besides fierceness, the Italian word accanimento can also mean fury, aggression, anger, excessive zeal and ferocity.
.But there is also “another persecution of which we do not talk much,” a persecution “disguised as culture, disguised as modernity, disguised as progress: it is a ‘polite’ persecution – I would say, a little ironically. […] The head of this educated persecution, Jesus named him: the prince of this world” (Pope Francis, Homily at Santa Marta, April 12, 2016).
.L. Ricci – J. Roothaan, Las cartas de la tribulación, Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1988. At the beginning of 1987, after returning from Germany where he had worked on his doctoral dissertation on Romano Guardini, the then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked his Jesuit superior, Dan Obregón, a Latinist, to translate the Cartas for publication. These are some letters written to the Jesuits by two of their superiors general – Lorenzo Ricci and Jan Roothaan – in times when the Society of Jesus suffered persecutions (one of which was so fierce that it resulted in the suppression of the Order for 41 years, from 1773 to 1814). The preface to this book, written by Father Bergoglio, is translated and published online by La Civiltà Cattolica under the title The Doctrine of Tribulation.
.Pope Francis, “Where have our people been creative? Conversations with Jesuits in Chile and Peru,” in Civ. Catt. February 2018.
.Pope Francis, Encounter with the priests, religious, consecrated, and seminarians. Santiago, Chile, January 16, 2018, in w2.vatican.va/. Cf. J. M. Bergoglio, The Doctrine of Tribulation.
.Cf. G. Cucci, “Bullying and cyberbullying: two phenomena on the rise,” in Civ. Catt. English ed. Mar. 2018 pp. 34-47.
.Pope Francis, Homily during midday prayer with contemplative women religious, January 21, 2018.
.J. M. Bergoglio, The Doctrine of Tribulation. There are seven letters of Ricci and one of Roothaan.
.Pope Francis, Celebration of Vespers and Te Deum, in the Church of the Gesù, September 27, 2014.
.Cf. J. M. Bergoglio, Reflexiones espirituales, Buenos Aires, Diego di Torres, 1987. The text “La acusación de sí mismo” contained therein had originally appeared in Boletín de espiritualidad de la Provincia argentina de la Compañía de Jesús, No. 87, 1984. An Italian translation is available under the title Umiltà: La strada verso Dio, Bologna, EMI, 2013.
.J. M. Bergoglio, “Ensañamiento,” in Reflexiones en esperanza, Buenos Aires, Usal, 1992. The following references are to the Italian translation “Silenzio e Parola” in Non fatevi rubare la speranza, Milan, Mondadori, 2013, 85-108. Hereafter SeP.
.Cf. Pope Francis, Press conference during the flight on the return from the apostolic visit to Chile and Peru, January 21, 2018.
.J. M. Bergoglio, The Doctrine of Tribulation.
.J. M. Bergoglio, The Doctrine of Tribulation.
.SeP 94. Guardini indicates this immeasurability or unbridledness (Ausschweifen) as characteristic of a person who is “dissolute, violent, corrupted by power and inner insecurity” (R. Guardini, Der Herr, Würzburg, Werkbund, 1964, 22).
.Cf. A. Spadaro, “Interview with Pope Francis” in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 450. Published in English as “A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francis” in America, September 30, 2013.
.Cf. “Five years of Pope Francis: The Path of the Pontificate Gradually Unfolds,” in Civ. Catt. English ed. Apr. 2018 pp. 1-8.
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