‘Crisis’: The key word for the reform of the Church

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Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:15 January 2021/Last Updated Date:19 February 2021


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If there is one word that sums up in a nutshell what the world is experiencing, it is “crisis.” In his Christmas greetings speech to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis employed it no fewer than 46 times. “This Christmas,” he said, “is the Christmas of the pandemic, of the health, social, economic and even ecclesial crisis that has indiscriminately stricken the whole world. The crisis is no longer a commonplace of conversations and of the intellectual establishment; it has become a reality shared by all.”

Until recently, “crisis” seemed to be the key word of those who have articulated a cultured critique of the current condition. The elite considered the crisis in terms of accentuating its “existential” specification, which, instead of making it concrete, projected it into indefinite abstraction. In 2020 this crisis lost all of its abstract character, and took on the face of the lockdown, of the death count, of the plunging global economy. On March 27, in the midst of the pandemic, the pontiff prayed in a deserted St. Peter’s Square and thus symbolically focused the crisis of the whole world, putting it on display in a place that is a symbol of presence and unity.

The crisis as an engine for action

La Civilta Cattolica

In his address to the Curia, Francis wanted to highlight the meaning and importance of being in crisis. He first recognized that “the crisis is a phenomenon that affects everyone and everything. It is present everywhere and in every age of history, involving ideologies, politics, the economy, technology, ecology and religion.” Therefore, it is a fundamental human experience and “a necessary moment in the history of individuals and of society.” It cannot be avoided, and its effects are always “a sense of trepidation, anguish, upset and uncertainty in the face of decisions to be made.”

We can already understand how crisis is an engine for action and choices, because it destabilizes and prepares new equilibriums. It requires – as recalled by the etymological root of the Greek verb krinō, from which ‘crisis’ derives – that typical work of sifting that clears the grain of wheat from the chaff  after the harvest.

The crisis in this sense fulfills history, which takes shape through times of crisis. Francis recalled how the Bible is populated by “characters in crisis,” who, precisely through crises, accomplish the history of salvation: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus and Jesus himself, particularly during the temptations and then in the “indescribable crisis in Gethsemane: loneliness, fear, anguish, the betrayal by Judas and the abandonment by the Apostles,” up to the “extreme crisis on the cross.”

Francis has an evangelically dialectical vision of history: it is as if he were saying that if there is no crisis, there is no life. In this sense, crisis evokes hope. Hence his message: in times of crisis it is necessary to be a realist, and “a reading of reality without hope cannot be called realistic. Hope gives to our assessments an aspect that in our myopia we are often incapable of seeing.”

Why is this? Because “God continues to make the seeds of his Kingdom grow among us.” So those who look at the crisis without doing so in the light of the Gospel “simply perform an autopsy on a cadaver.” The time of crisis is a time of the Spirit, and the Gospel itself puts us in crisis. Therefore, “whenever we are faced with the experience of darkness, weakness, fragility, contradiction, and loss,” it is easy to understand “that things are about to take on a new shape, emerging exclusively from the experience of a grace hidden in the darkness.”

Distinguishing crisis from conflict

Francis makes a clear distinction between crisis and destructive conflict. This is a strong theme of the pontiff’s vision. Conflict, in fact, “always creates discord and competition, an apparently irreconcilable antagonism that separates others into friends to love and enemies to fight. In such a situation, only one side can win.” The logic of conflict always seeks a fracture between opposing parties. For example, the Church, if read with the categories of conflict, generates divisions between Right and Left, progressives and traditionalists. In this way it fragments and polarizes. Conflict stiffens and eventually leads to the imposition of “a uniformity far removed from the richness and plurality that the Spirit has bestowed on his Church.”

Francis defines the Church as a “body in continual crisis,” where newness “sprouts from the old and makes it continually fruitful” without opposing it.

In a very important passage of his discourse, the pope hopes for a positive attitude to crisis: “By shielding ourselves from crisis, we hinder the work of God’s grace, which would manifest itself in us and through us. If a certain realism leads us to see our recent history only as a series of mishaps, scandals and failings, sins and contradictions, short-circuits and setbacks in our witness, we should not fear. Nor should we deny everything in ourselves and in our communities that is evidently tainted by death and calls for conversion. Everything evil, wrong, weak and unhealthy that comes to light serves as a forceful reminder of our need to die to a way of living, thinking and acting that does not reflect the Gospel. Only by dying to a certain mentality will we be able to make room for the newness that the Spirit constantly awakens in the heart of the Church.”

The crisis as a time of grace

The reform, therefore, does not respond to the logic of conflict but to that of crisis, which implies an overcoming, a step forward: “We need to stop seeing the reform of the Church as putting a patch on an old garment, or simply drafting a new Apostolic Constitution. The reform of the Church is something different,” and it is the fruit of grace. The crisis is not solved by putting new patches on old clothes. Therefore, we must live the crisis as a time of grace: it involves movement, and it is part of a journey. Conflict, on the other hand, is a wandering without purpose: it is remaining in the labyrinth, wasting energy. The pontiff, speaking of himself, concluded his address to the Curia this way: “Please, always pray for me so that I may have the courage to remain in crisis.”

Will crisis be the key word to understand the life and reform of the Church that awaits us in 2021? We must spiritually welcome crisis, without fear or attempts at camouflage, in order to give the Church – universal and local – the right impetus to be ever more evangelical.