Grace is not an ideology: Pope Francis’ private conversation with some Colombian Jesuits

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:28 September 2017/Last Updated Date:17 February 2021

From September 6-11, 2017, Pope Francis was in Colombia, so completing his 20th apostolic voyage. The voyage included a visit on September 10 to the city of Cartagena de Indias, the capital of the region of Bolívar that looks onto the Caribbean Sea to the north of Colombia.

The pope went first to the St. Francis of Assisi Square, and then he went on to the sanctuary of St. Peter Claver, greeting people along the way. After reciting the Angelus in the piazza, he entered the sanctuary and remained in silence some moments before the altar that contains the relics of the saint, laying some flowers that had been given to him by two children.

Some 300 representatives of the Afro-Colombian community served by the Jesuits were in the church. The pope gave a gift to the rector of the sanctuary. Afterwards he went into the inner courtyard where he met privately with representatives of the community of the Society of Jesus made up of 65 religious.

La Civilta Cattolica

Francis was welcomed with song and applause.

Then he sat down and gave thanks for the meeting. Referring to the Society of Jesus he said playfully, “I like meeting with the sect,” prompting laughter all round. “Thank you for what you are doing in Colombia,” he said, and continued: “Yesterday I was very happy to meet Álvaro Restrepo in Medellín. He was the provincial in Argentina. He used to come to my residence to talk… He’s a great man, very good, very good. Well, I am here for you. I don’t want to make a speech, so if you have some questions or something you want to know, ask me now, that’s best: provoke and inspire me!” Somebody immediately asked for a blessing but the pope replied: “At the end. When I give my concluding blessing, I’ll bless you all.”

Fr. Carlos Eduardo Correa, SJ, the Jesuit provincial in Colombia, declared: “Dear Pope Francis, we are very happy because your message in these days in Colombia has encouraged us in the commitment to reconciliation and peace. We want to say to you that in all our work we want to continue taking these processes forward, so that in this country we can live the fellowship of the Gospel, and for this we want to thank you from our hearts for encouraging us and confirming us in the faith and in hope. Sincere thanks and may God continue to bless your ministry.” Francis thanked him for his words.

After the provincial comes the rector of the Pontifical University “Javeriana,” Fr. Jorge Humberto Peláez, SJ: “Your Holiness, this has been a marvelous gift because Colombia has sunk into a state of despair. With this visit we will take not just one step forward but many. You can count on the Javeriana University and the entire educational and pastoral work of the Jesuits for the work of reconciliation. Thank you for this visit. It gives us hope, Your Holiness.”   

Fr. Jorge Iván Moreno asks the first question: “Dear Francis, I’m pastor of the parish of St. Rita. The people there love you and appreciate you, and we wrote you a letter a few days ago. I want to know: when you were in San Francisco at those communities at Pie de la Popa, what struck you most? I think it’s the first time you’ve come to Cartagena and I’d like to know: as pontiff, what have you seen while passing through this “other” Cartagena, as we call it?” His Holiness replied:

Let’s stop at the question, as I think it gives me an opportunity to say something very dear to me. What I noticed and what touched me most was the spontaneity. The people of God there placed no limits on their joyful enthusiasm. Scholars could give a thousand different interpretations, but it was simply the people of God going out to be welcoming.

For me there was a clear indicator that this wasn’t something prepared beforehand with ready-made slogans: the very culture of these different parts of the people of God, these areas I passed through, expressed itself in complete freedom, praising God. It’s unusual.

Sadly, we are often tempted to evangelize for the people, toward the people, but without the people of God. Everything for the people, but nothing with the people. This way of being, in the final analysis, is due to a liberal and illuminist vision of evangelization. Surely, the first rejection of such a vision comes in Lumen Gentium: the Church is the holy people of God. So, if we want to hear the Church, we have to hear the people of God. People… Today we need to be careful when we speak of people! For someone might say: “you’ll end up being populists,” and they’ll start concocting theories.

But we need to understand that this “people” is not a category of logic. If you want to speak of people with logical schemes you end up falling into an illuminist and liberal ideology, or a “populist” one, right… anyway you end up closing the people into an ideologica schema. ‘People’, however, refers to a mythical category. And to understand the people we need to immerse ourselves in them, we need to accompany them from within.

To be Church, the holy pilgrim people, faithful to God, requires pastors who let themselves be carried by the reality of the people, which is not a mere ideology: it is vital, it is alive. The grace of God that is present in the life of the people is not an ideology. Certainly, many theologians could explain several important things that need to be known about the theme. But I want to say that grace is not an ideology: it is an embrace, it is something bigger.

When I come to places like Cartagena where people express themselves freely, I see they are expressing themselves as the people of God. Certainly, it is true that some affirm that the people are superstitious.

So I tell them to go and read Paul VI who in Evangelii Nuntiandi. 48 highlighted the risks involved but also the virtues of the people. He said that popular piety is, yes, open to the penetration of superstition. But he also said that, if it is well-ordered then it is full of values and shows a thirst for God that only the simple and the poor can know. The people of God have a good sense of smell. Perhaps the people struggle to communicate well, and sometimes people get it wrong… But can any of us say, “Thank you, Lord, for I have never been wrong?” No.

The people of God have a good sense of smell. And sometimes our task as pastors is to be behind the people. A pastor has to take up all three positions: in front to mark out the road, in the middle, to know it, and at the back to ensure nobody falls behind and to let the flock seek the road… and the sheep smell a good pasture. A pastor has to move continually between these three positions. See, this is what your question has prompted me to say.

“Good evening, your Holiness, I am Rodolfo Abello, responsible for youth work in the province. I want to ask something along these lines toward which horizon should we be motivating our young people with Ignatian spirituality?”

What comes to me is to say something a bit intellectual: put them into the spirituality of the Exercises. What do I mean? I mean, put them in movement, into action. Youth work as pure reflection in small groups no longer works today. This pastoral approach to inactive youth gets no traction. You have to make them move: whether they are practicing or non-practicing, you need to get them up and active.

If they are believers, leading them will be easy. If they are non-believers, you need to let life itself make demands of them, but in action and with accompaniment. Impose nothing, accompany them… in volunteering, working with the elderly, in teaching basic literacy… all appropriate ways for the youth. If we put a young person into action, we facilitate a dynamic where the Lord starts to speak and move the heart of that person. It won’t be for us to stir the heart with our wisdom, at most we can help by using our minds once the heart moves.

Yesterday at Medellin I recalled an event that was very important to me because it came from the heart. At Krakow during lunch with the archbishop and 15 young people from around the world – in every World Youth Day there is such a lunch – they started to ask questions and a dialogue opened up.

A university student asked me: “Some of my companions are atheists, what do I have to say to persuade them?” I noticed a sense of ecclesial militancy in the young man. The response came to me clearly: “The last thing to do is to use words, really, speaking is the very last thing. Start by acting, invite him along, and when he sees what you do and how you do it, then he will ask you, and then you can start to speak.”

What I am saying is to get the youth moving, invent things that make them feel as though they are the protagonists and then lead them to ask themselves: “What is happening, what has changed my heart, why does this make me happy?” Just as in the Exercises when considering interior movements. Obviously though, don’t ask the young people what movements they have experienced because they won’t understand your language.

But let them tell you how they feel, and from there engage with them bit by bit. To do this – and here’s a tip I received from the much loved Fr. Furlong when they made me provincial – you need to have the patience to sit and listen to those who come asking questions, and you need to know how to handle people who want to push you into endless discussions. The youth are tiring, the youth are discussing, so you need this continual mortification of being among them to listen, always and in any way. But for me the key point is the movement.

Jesuit scholastic Jefferson Chaverra put this request to the pope: “Your Holiness, firstly, I want to thank you for coming to visit us and for coming to Colombia. Secondly, I don’t want to ask a real question but to make a request in the name of all Afro-Colombians, of all the black people of Colombia. I want to thank you for the many priests and bishops committed to our causes and at the same time tell you, and in your name tell the whole Church, that we blacks in Colombia need greater accompaniment by and engagement with the Church, for our pain and our suffering as black people continues to be enormous, and the workers are still few. Your Holiness, the harvest is great but the laborers are few. Many thanks.”

What you say is true. I spoke of this matter you touch on in my talk to the bishops. There is a basic charism for the Colombian Jesuit: a person whose name is Peter Claver. I believe that God has spoken to us through this man. This impresses me. He was just a weak boy, a young Jesuit in formation, yet he spoke so much to the old porter. And the old man nourished his aspirations. How good it would be if the elderly in our Society were to step forward and the youth follow them: this would fulfil the words of Joel: “the elderly will dream and the young will prophesy.” And so there is a need to prophesy, and to speak with the elderly.

Fr. Jorge Alberto Camacho, pastor of the St. Peter Claver parish, says to the pope: “Holiness, real thanks to you for being here with us. You have made a present to the sanctuary and we from the sanctuary want to reciprocate with some small tokens. One is the process of canonization of St. Peter Claver. It contains everything that made him a saint, his actions that enable us to work, like you. Fr. Tulio Aristizábal, the eldest member of our community in Cartagena, is 96 and an expert on St. Peter Claver. He will give you the book.

Fr. Tulio Aristizábal stands up and, with great emotion, says: “My father superior has asked me to give you as a gift the book of the process of canonization of St. Peter Claver. It contains a most interesting section: the sworn declaration of more than 30 slaves who tell us about St. Peter. In my mind, this is the best biography of the saint. I place it in your hands.” Pope Francis thanks him.

Fr. Jorge Alberto Camacho continues: “Holiness, the other present we have prepared for you is a program we have been promoting these past three months. We have called it the Pope Francis Ruta Verde or Green Way. It takes the encyclical Laudato Si’ into the popular districts. As a sign of this way, we want to gift you the booklet that we have used with the youngsters in the streets and the t-shirt of the Ruta Verde. At the end we will ask Your Holiness to bless these objects and the saplings of the Ruta Verde, local fruit trees that we have planted in the city.”

Fr. Vicente Durán Casas stands to ask another question: “Holy Father, again thank you for your visit. I teach philosophy and I would like to know, and I speak for my teaching colleagues in theology too, what do you expect from philosophical and theological reflection in a country such as ours and in the Church generally?”

To start, I’d say let’s not have laboratory reflection. We’ve seen what damage occurred when the great and brilliant Thomist scholastics deteriorated, falling down, down, down to a manualistic scholasticism without life, mere ideas that transformed into a casuistic pastoral approach. At least, in our day we were formed that way… I’d say it was quite ridiculous how, to explain metaphysical continuity, the philosopher Losada spoke of puncta inflata… To demonstrate some ideas, things got ridiculous. He was a good philosopher, but decadent, he didn’t become famous…

So, philosophy not in a laboratory, but in life, in dialogue with reality. In dialogue with reality, philosophers will find the three transcendentals that constitute unity, but they will have a real name. Recall the words of our great writer Dostoyevsky. Like him we must reflect on which beauty will save us, on goodness, on truth. Benedict XVI spoke of truth as an encounter, that is to say no longer a classification, but a road. Always in dialogue with reality, for you cannot do philosophy with a logarithmic table. Besides, nobody uses them anymore.

The same is true for theology, but this does not mean to corrupt theology, depriving it of its purity. Quite the opposite. The theology of Jesus was the most real thing of all; it began with reality and rose up to the Father. It began with a seed, a parable, a fact… and explained them. Jesus wanted to make a deep theology and the great reality is the Lord. I like to repeat that to be a good theologian, together with study you have to be dedicated, awake and seize hold of reality; and you need to reflect on all of this on your knees.

A man who does not pray, a woman who does not pray, cannot be a theologian. They might be a living form of Denzinger, they might know every possible existing doctrine, but they’ll not be doing theology. They’ll be a compendium or a manual containing everything. But today it is a matter of how you express God, how you tell who God is, how you show the Spirit, the wounds of Christ, the mystery of Christ, starting with the Letter to the Philippians 2:7… How you explain these mysteries and keep explaining them, and how you are teaching the encounter that is grace. As when you read Paul in the Letter to the Romans where there’s the entire mystery of grace and you want to explain it.

I’ll use this question to say something else that I believe should be said out of justice, and also out of charity. In fact I hear many comments – they are respectable for they come from children of God, but wrong – concerning the post-synod apostolic exhortation. To understand Amoris Laetitia you need to read it from the start to the end. Beginning with the first chapter, and to continue to the second and then on … and reflect. And read what was said in the Synod.

A second thing: some maintain that there is no Catholic morality underlying Amoris Laetitia, or at least, no sure morality. I want to repeat clearly that the morality of Amoris Laetitia is Thomist, the morality of the great Thomas. You can speak of it with a great theologian, one of the best today and one of the most mature, Cardinal Schönborn.

I want to say this so that you can help those who believe that morality is purely casuistic. Help them understand that the great Thomas possesses the greatest richness, which is still able to inspire us today. But on your knees, always on your knees…

Before leaving, the Holy Father blessed the Jesuits asking them not to forget to pray for him. Then, after some photos and greetings, he headed for the Monastero di Santo where he lunched with the papal entourage.