Take the Gospel with Tranquilizers: A Conversation with the Superiors General

Pope Francis

 Pope Francis / Church Thought / Published Date:4 February 2017/Last Updated Date:4 February 2021

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“The Pope is late,” they tell me at the entrance to the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall on November 26, 2016. Inside, in the place where Synods are held, 140 Superiors General of the Male Religious Orders and Congregations (USG) are waiting. They are gathered at the end of their 88th General Assembly. Outside a little light rain. “The Fruitfulness of the Prophetic in Religious Life” is the theme of the Assembly that had met November 2325 at Rome’s Salesianum.

It is not often that the Pope is late. At 10:15 the photographers arrive and then quickly and decisively the Pope. After the applause of welcome, Francis begins: “Sorry for the delay. Life is like this: full of surprises. Thank you so much.” And he goes on saying that he does not want his lateness to lessen the time fixed for us to be together. So the meeting lasts a full three hours and finishes around 1.15.

Halfway through the meeting there is a pause. A small room had been set aside for the Pope, but he said: “Why do you want to leave me on my own?” And so he joyfully spent the break with the religious superiors taking a coffee, a snack and in greetings.

La Civilta Cattolica

No talk had been prepared beforehand either by the Pope or by the religious. The CTV cameras only recorded the initial greetings and then retired. The meeting had to be free and fraternal, made of questions and unfiltered answers. The Pope did not want to read the questions beforehand. After a very brief greeting from Fr Mario Johri, general minister of the Capuchin Friars and president of the USG, and its general secretary Fr David Glenday, Combonian, the Pope took questions from the Assembly.

And if they were criticisms? “It is good to be criticized – he affirms – I like it, always. Misunderstandings and tensions are part of life. And when they are criticisms that make us grow, I accept them, I respond. But the hardest questions do not come from the religious. They come from the youth. They put you in difficulty, yes they do. Lunches with the guys at the World Youth Days or other occasions, put me to the test. They are so open and sincere and they ask the most difficult things. Now you, ask your questions!

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

Holy Father, we know your ability to speak to the youth and enflame them for the cause of the Gospel. We know of your commitment to draw the youth to the Church; for this you have convoked the next Synod of Bishops on the youth, the faith and vocational discernment. What motivated you to convoke the Synod on the youth? What should we do to reach them today?

At the end of the last Synod each participant gave three suggestions for the theme of the next one. Then the episcopal conferences were consulted. There was convergence on the strong themes such as the youth, priestly formation, inter-religious dialogue and peace.

In the first post-Synod Council a great discussion took place. I was there. I always go, but I don’t speak. For me it is important to really listen. I need to listen, I let them work freely. This way, I understand how the issues arise, what are the proposals and difficulties, and how they are addressed.

They chose the youth. But some underlined the importance of priestly formation. Personally, I am very keen on the theme of discernment. I recommended it often to the Jesuits: in Poland and then to the General Congregation. Discernment brings together the issues of formation of the young for life: for youth particularly, and especially seminarians and future pastors. Formation and accompaniment to priesthood need discernment.

At the moment this is one of the greatest problems that we have in priestly formation. In formation we are used to formulas, to black and white, but not to the gray areas of life. And what counts is life, not the formulas.

We need to grow in discernment. The logic of black and white can bring casuistic abstraction. Instead, discernment means going beyond the gray of life according to the will of God. And you look for the will of God following the true doctrine of the Gospel and not in the fixations of an abstract doctrine.

Reflecting on the formation of the youth and on the formation of seminarians, I decided the final theme as it is has been announced: “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”

The Church has to accompany the young people in their journey to maturity, and only with discernment and not with abstractions can they discover their project of life and live in a manner truly open to God and to the world. So I chose this theme to introduce discernment more strongly in the life of the Church. The other day we had our second meeting of the post-Synod Council. This area was discussed abundantly. They have prepared a first draft on the Lineamenta that will be sent to the Episcopal conferences straight away. The religious have worked on it. A good draft has been prepared.

This, anyway, is the key point: discernment is always dynamic, as is life. Static things don’t work, especially for the youth. When I was young, the fashion was to have meetings. Today, static things like meetings are no good. We have to work with the youth doing things, working, with missions to the people, social work, going every week to give food to the homeless. Young people find the Lord in action. Then, after the action we have to have some reflection. But reflecting on its own is not a help: they are ideas…just ideas.

So two words: listening and movement. This is important. But not only to form the youth to listen, but rather and above all to listen to them, to the youth themselves. This is a first very important task for the Church: listen to the youth. And in preparing the Synod the presence of the religious is truly important, for the religious work much with the youth.

What do you expect from the religious life in the preparation of the Synod? What hopes do you have for the next Synod on the youth, in light of the diminishing strengths of religious life in the West?

Certainly it is true that there is a lessening of the forces of religious life in the West. This is connected to demographic issues. But it is also true that the care of vocations does not respond to the needs of the youth. The next Synod will give us ideas. The diminution of religious life in the West worries me.

Something else worries me: the rise of some new religious institutes that raise some concerns. I am not saying there is no need for new religious institutes! But in some cases I wonder what is happening today. Some of them appear to be a great newness, they seem to express a great apostolic force, they draw in many and then … they collapse.

Sometimes scandalous things are discovered behind them. … There are some new small foundations that are really good and do things seriously. I see that behind these good foundations there are sometimes groups of bishops that accompany them and ensure their growth.

But there are others that are born not from a charism of the Holy Spirt, but human charisma, from charismatic people who attract others by their alluring human skills. Some are, I could say, “restorationists”: they seem to provide safety and instead they offer only rigidity.

When I am told that there is a Congregation that attracts many vocations, I confess, I am worried. The Spirit does not work with the logic of human success: the Spirit has another way. But they say to me: there are many young people committing themselves, praying much, they are very faithful. And I say to myself: “Very well: we’ll see if it is the Lord!”

Some of them are Pelagian: they want to return to ascesis, they do penance, they seem to be soldiers ready to do anything to defend the faith and good practices … and then the scandal of the founder or foundress explodes. We don’t know, do we? The style of Jesus is another.

The Holy Spirit made noise on the day of Pentecost: that was the beginning. Usually the Spirit does not make so much noise, but carries a cross. The Holy Spirit is not triumphalist. The style of God is the cross that is carried forward until the Lord says “enough.” Triumphalism does not go well with the consecrated life.

So, do not put your hope in the sudden and powerful flowering of these Institutes. Seek instead the humble path of Jesus, that of evangelical witness. Benedict XVI told us well: the Church does not grow by proselytizing but by attraction.

 Why did you choose three Marian themes for the next three World Youth Days leading up to Panama?

I did not choose them! From Latin America they asked for a strong Marian presence. It is true that Latin America is very Marian and it seemed a very good thing.

I did not receive any other proposals and I was happy with this. But the true Madonna! Not the postalmistress who sends out a letter every day saying, “My child, do this and then the next day do that.” No, not this. The true Madonna is the one who generates Jesus in our hearts, as a Mother. The trend of the Madonna superstar, who puts herself at the center as a protagonist, is not Catholic.

 Holy Father, your mission in the Church is not easy. Despite the challenges, the tensions, the opposition, you offer us the example of serenity, a man at peace. What is the source of this serenity? Where does the trust come from that inspires you and sustains you in your mission? Called to be religious guides, what do you suggest we do to live out our tasks responsibly and in peace?

What is the source of my serenity? No, I do not take tranquilizing pills!

The Italians offer a good counsel: to live in peace you need a healthy dose of not caring (menefreghismo). I have no problem saying that what I am living through is a completely new experience for me. In Buenos Aires I was more anxious, I admit. I felt more tense and worried. Indeed: I was not like I am now. I have had a very particular experience of peace since the moment I was elected. And it has not left me. I live in peace. I do not know how to explain this.

For the conclave they tell me that London bookmakers put me at number 42 or 46. I did not foresee it at all. I even had my homily ready for Holy Thursday. In the newspapers they said I was a kingmaker, but not the Pope. At the moment of the election I simply said: “Lord, let’s go on!” I felt peace and that peace has never left me.

In the general congregations we spoke about the problems in the Vatican, about reform. Everybody wanted it. There is corruption in the Vatican. But I am at peace.

If there is a problem, I write a note to St Joseph and I put it under a little statue in my room. It is the statue of St Joseph sleeping. And now he is sleeping under a mattress of notes! That is why I sleep well: it is a grace of God. I always sleep six hours. And I pray. I pray in my way.

The breviary is very dear to me and I never leave it. Mass every day. The rosary … When I pray, I always take the Bible. And peace grows. I do not know if this is the secret… My peace is a gift from the Lord. Let it not be taken away!

I think everyone has to find the root of the election that the Lord has made for you. Besides, losing your peace does not help you to suffer. The superiors need to learn how to suffer, but to suffer as a father. And also to suffer with great humility. This is the road to go, from the cross to peace. Never wash your hands of problems! Yes, in the Church there are Pontius Pilates who wash their hands of things to be in peace. But a superior who does so is not a helpful father.

 Holy Father, you have often told us that what distinguishes religious life is prophecy. We have been looking at length at what it means to be radical in prophecy. What are the safety zones and comfort zones from which we must break out? You spoke to the sisters of a “prophetic and credible ascesis.” How do you understand this in renewed terms? How can the consecrated life contribute to a culture of mercy?

Being radical in prophecy. This is a great concern of mine. I’ll take as an icon Joel 3. It often comes to mind and I know it comes from God.

It says: “the elders shall dream dreams and the young prophesy.” This verse is a lynchpin for the spirituality of generations. Being radical in prophecy is the famous sine glossa, the rule sine glossa, the Gospel sine glossa. That is: without tranquilizers. The Gospel should be taken without tranquilizers. This is what our founders did.

The radicality of our prophecy must be sought in our founders. They remind us that we are called to go out of our comfort zones and security, from all that is mundane: in the way we live, and also in thinking out new avenues for our Institutes. The new roads need to be sought out in the foundational charism and initial prophecy. We have to recognize personally and as a community what is our mundanity.

Even the ascetic can be mundane. But instead they have to be prophetic. When I entered the novitiate of the Jesuits, they gave me the cilice. The cilice is good, but be careful: it is not there to show me how strong and good I am. True ascesis must make me more free. I think fasting is something that is still used: but how do I fast? Simply not eating?

Little St Theresa had another way: never saying what she liked. She never complained and took all that they gave to her. There is a daily ascesis, a small one, that is a constant mortification.

A phrase of St Ignatius comes to mind which helps us to be free and happy. He said that to follow the Lord, mortification in all possible things helps. If something helps you, do it, even the cilice! But only if it helps you to be more free, not if it serves to show yourself how strong you are.

 What does community life entail? What is the role of a superior in keeping this prophecy? What can the religious do to contribute to the renewal of structures and mentality of the Church?

Community life? Some saints defined this as a continual penance. There are communities where people are at each other’s throats! If mercy does not enter into the community, that is not good. For the religious, the ability to forgive often has to begin within the community. And this is prophetic.

You begin with listening: let everybody feel they are being heard. Superiors need to be listening and persuading. If superiors are continuously rebuking, it does not help create the radical prophecy of religious life. I am convinced that religious have an advantage in giving a contribution to the renewal of the structures and the mentality of the Church.

In the presbyteral councils in the dioceses the religious help in the process. And they should not be afraid to make themselves heard. In the structures of the Church a climate of mundanity and of little princes can enter, and the religious have to contribute to destroying this evil climate. And you don’t need to become a cardinal to think of yourself as a prince! It is enough to be clerical.

This is what is worst in the organization of the Church. The religious can give testimony like an upside-down iceberg, where the tip, that is the top, is at the base.

Holy Father, we hope that through your guidance better relations can be developed between the consecrated life and the particular Churches. What do you suggest to us to express fully our charisms in particular Churches and to face the difficulties that sometimes arise in the relations with the bishops and the diocesan clergy? How do you see the dialogue between the religious life and the bishops and collaboration with the local Church?

For some time there has been a desire to revise the criteria for the relations between the bishops and the religious established in 1978 by the Congregation for Religious and the Congregation for Bishops with the document Mutuae Relationes. Already in the Synod of 1994 we spoke of this. That document responds to a certain period and is not up to date. It is time for a change.

It is important that the religious feel they are fully part of the diocesan Church. Fully. Sometimes there are many misunderstandings that do not aid unity and so there is a need to give a name to these problems.

The religious must be in the structures of governance of the local Church: administrative councils, presbyteral councils… In Buenos Aires the religious elected their representatives to the presbyteral council. The work should be shared between the structures of the diocese. From a position of isolation you cannot help one another. In this a lot of growth needs to happen. And this helps the bishop not to fall into the trap of becoming a little prince…

And spirituality needs to be spread and shared too, and the religious bear strong spiritual currents.In some dioceses the secular clergy gather together in different spiritual groups, Franciscan, Carmelites… And the very style of life needs to be shared; some diocesan priests ask if they can live together so as not to be alone, to have a bit of community life.

The desire comes, for example, when there is the good witness in a parish serviced by a religious community. So, there is a level of radical collaboration, because it is spiritual, from the soul. And being close together spiritually within a diocese between the religious and the clergy helps resolve some possible misunderstandings. You can study and rethink many things. Including the length of service as a parish priest, which seems to me to be too short and parish priests are changed too easily.

 Holy Father, the Church and so too the religious life are committed to facing up to situations of sexual abuse of minors and financial abuse with determination and transparency. All of this is a countertestimony, it raises scandal and has repercussions at the level of vocations and help of benefactors. What measures do you suggest to prevent such scandals within our Congregations?

Perhaps there isn’t time here for a very articulated response and I trust in your wisdom. But let me say that the Lord wants the religious to be poor. When they are not poor, the Lord sends a finance officer to send the institute into bankruptcy!

Sometimes religious congregations are assessed by administrators who are “friends” but who lead you into bankruptcy.

Anyhow, the fundamental criteria for a finance officer is that they are not personally attached to money. Once it happened that a sister who ran the finances fainted and a fellow religious said to those aiding her: “wave a banknote under her nose, she’ll soon come round!”

This makes us laugh, but also reflect. We need to verify too how the banks are investing the money. They must never be invested in weapons, for example. Never.

Concerning sexual abuse: it seems that of four people that abuse, two were abused in their turn. The seeds of abuse in the future are planted: it is devastating. If priests or religious are involved, it is clear that the devil is at work, destroying the work of Jesus through those who should be proclaiming Jesus.

Let’s be clear: this is a sickness. If we do not think it is a sickness, we can never treat the problem. So be careful in receiving  formation candidates to the religious life without evaluating well their sufficient affective maturity. For example: never receive to the religious life or to a diocese candidates that have been rejected from another seminary or from another Institute without asking for clear and detailed information on the motivations for their moving away.

Holy Father, religious life is not an end unto itself, but of its mission in the world. You invited us to be a Church going out. From your point of observation, is religious life around the world carrying out this conversion?

The Church was born going out. She was closed in the Upper Room and then she went out. And she must continue to go out. She shouldn’t go back to hiding in the Upper Room. This is what Jesus wanted. And by “out” I mean the peripheries, existential and social.

The existential poor and the social poor push the Church beyond herself. Let us think of one form of poverty, that tied to the problem of migrants and refugees: more important than international agreements are the lives of those people! And it is in the very service of charity that you can find great terrain for ecumenical dialogue: it is the poor who unite the divided Christians! These are all the challenges open for the religious of a Church going out.

The Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel wants to share this necessity: go out! I would like you to go back to that apostolic Exhortation with reflection and prayer.

It matured in the light of the Evangelii Nuntiandi and the work done at Aparecida and contains a wide-reaching ecclesial reflection. And finally we recall it always: God’s mercy is outgoing. And God is always merciful. And you too, go out!

At around 1p.m. the meeting concluded with some words of thanks and a long applause. The Pope, already standing, before leaving the Aula, greeted all with these words: “Go on with courage and without fear of erring! Those who never make mistakes are those who never do anything. We have to go forward! We will get things wrong sometimes, yes, but there is always the mercy of God on our side!” And before exiting the Hall, Francis wanted to greet once again all those present, one by one.