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Evangelical Imbalances: Francis Writes to the People of God in Germany

Diego Fares / Church Life - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sat, Apr 17th 2021


The German Church is on a preparatory phase of her synodal journey[1] and Pope Francis has written a Letter[2] to share the concerns of his brothers and sisters “for the future of the Church in Germany” (Introduction).

Rather than commenting on the pope’s Letter, I limit myself in this article to pointing out some points of style and content for a contextualized and fruitful reading.

The Letter is written in Spanish, in the fraternal and simple style of Francis. It is an entirely personal Letter: 13 paragraphs of varying lengths, numbered consecutively, in each of which the pope sets out his thinking concisely and then takes a step forward, briefly resuming the threads that intertwine in his message.

As a pastor of the whole Church who wants to walk sometimes in front, sometimes behind, sometimes in the midst of the flock, his intention here is explicit: he wants to proceed alongside the German Church. The pope writes: “I would like to offer you my support, be closer to you to walk by your side and encourage your efforts to respond with parrhesia to the current situation” (Introduction).

The challenges facing the German Church with issues such as populism, sexual morals, priestly celibacy, and diminishing sacramental practice are well known.

Starting from the Spirit with the people as interlocutor

The pope’s Letter alludes to many of these themes but goes further: it wants to encourage all of the People of God – lay people and pastors – to find a good starting point, the fruit of discernment, to sustain their synodal journey. Francis loves the German people and culture and knows that, between graces and temptations, what is essential is played out from the start. This is why he encourages everyone to start not “from ourselves” (No. 12), but from the Lord and the Spirit, who breaks into the life of the Church and allows us to always start afresh.

The image the pope uses to introduce his Letter is that of the Paschal irruption of the new life of the Risen Lord, which the Spirit gave to the first community: “With this newness he is always able to renew our lives and our communities (Evangelii Gaudium [EG], No. 11)” (Introduction). The final paragraphs are a hymn to the love of the Lord, who “with a tenderness that never disappoints…makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew (EG 3)” (No. 13).

The pope expresses his thoughts with various images of great evocative force: the letter to the Church of Ephesus with its desire to “revive as a church  their first love (cf. Rev 2:1-5)”; the Spirit who “will not break a bruised reed and will not quench a dimly burning wick” (Isaiah 42:3); the “ardor of the heart” that the Lord stirs up in the disciples of Emmaus, walking alongside them; the prophecy of Joel – so dear to him – on the elderly who dream and on the young people who have visions (cf. Joel 3:1); and the final exhortation to have the courage not to “flee from the resurrection of Jesus,” not to “declare ourselves dead, no matter what happens,” for “nothing inspires us more than his life, which impels us onward” (No. 13).

The fact of taking as an interlocutor the pilgrim people of God in a country or a people who as a whole are living in a time of tribulation[3] confers on this Letter the character of a particular literary genre. Rather than trying to define this, we note a positive effect: the pope does not speak of the people of God, but speaks to the people of God as a subject, making sure that  their ears open to the Spirit and their  attention is awakened.

In the center of the Letter, the pope speaks about the sensus Ecclesiae. This “sense of the Church” is what is awakened: that “universal Church who lives in and of the particular Churches (cf. Lumen Gentium [LG], No. 23), just as the particular Churches live and flourish in and of the universal Church” (No. 9).

The consolation of an imperfect Church bearing a treasure

The tone of the Letter reminds us of some of Bergoglio’s reflections on the joy of priesthood, where he has proposed as a theme for meditation the letters to the seven Churches in the  Book of Revelation (cf. Rev 2-3). There, inspired by Romano Guardini, he showed that “the Apocalypse is a book of consolation. Not a theology of history or The Four Last Things, but a comfort that God gave to his Church toward the end of the apostolic age.”[4] The Church needs consolation because she has lived in tribulation. How does God console us? He does not do so by saying that “after all, suffering is not as terrible as it seems,” but he considers it in all its horror and, beyond earthly reality, he points to heaven… The consolation of the Lord does not appear in the form of theological advice or disquisitions, but in symbolic images and events that must be interpreted correctly. John translated revelation into figures and symbols, following this aesthetic law of Sacred Scripture in which every saving event takes a visible form, every Word becomes flesh.”[5]

The evocation of this text can help us to perceive the tone and intention of the pope’s Letter, which seeks nothing more than to console a particular Church – by impressing evangelical images on its heart – in the moment of grace, when it is setting off on a new path, so that, through it, the universal Church will also be built up and consoled.

The pope’s way of consoling follows – in the introductory points – the pedagogy of the Apocalypse: first of all he thanks the German Church for all that is good in terms of generosity and co-responsibility: works of charity, saints, men and women theologians, ecumenical attitude… Here the pope shares his way of looking: “I look with gratitude at that capillary network of communities…woven into history who are witnesses to the living faith that has sustained, nourished and enlivened them for several generations” (No. 1).

Secondly, he notes the sin, the problems, the difficulties that this Church is going through: for example, “the erosion and decline of faith, with all that it entails” (No. 2). The image that the pontiff presents to the Church in Germany to strengthen herself is that of the beggar whom Peter – who has nothing material to give him – heals and resuscitates, saying: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6).

Finally, Francis accepts the proposal of a synodal journey made by the pastors to find a remedy for evil and to make progress for good. He affirms: “In essence, it is a synod under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that is, walking together and with the whole Church under his light, guidance and irruption to learn to listen and discern the ever new horizon he wants to give us. Because synodality presupposes and requires the impulse of the Holy Spirit” (No. 3).

The pope invites us to look up: it is a matter of “setting in motion processes that will build us as people of God” (ibid.) and that therefore require “a long fermentation of life and the collaboration of a whole people for years.”[6] The challenge is to build the people of God, not a perfectly organized and functioning NGO. And underlining the contrast, Francis puts before us the image of a Church that “will never be perfect in this world,” because “its vitality and beauty is rooted in the treasure which it bears by its constitution (cf. LG 8)” (ibid.)

Called to manage the evangelical imbalance

In the body of the Letter, the pope touches on the central themes of his pontificate. His descriptions always add something new to these themes, be they the temptations of Neo-Pelagianism and Gnosticism, or the graces of the joy of proclaiming the Gospel and bringing the beatitudes – especially that of mercy – to all people.

We underline a bold formulation that Francis has used recently with insistence: against the temptation to “eliminate tensions” following the logic of the technocratic paradigm, which ends up “numbing and taming the heart of our people and diminishing and silencing the vital and evangelical force that the Spirit wants to give,” he exhorts the pilgrim Church in Germany thus: “‘Today we are called to manage the imbalance. We cannot do something good, something evangelical, if we are afraid of imbalance.’[7] We cannot forget that there are tensions and imbalances that have an evangelical flavor. They must be kept because they are a proclamation of new life” (No. 5).

The description of Neo-Pelagianism is lively, but the central point of discernment is the denunciation that this temptation kills life: technocratic logic tends to “put an end to the tensions of our being human”: tensions that “the Gospel wants to provoke” and certainly not annul. Thus a “modernized” Christianity is produced, but without a soul, “a ‘gaseous’ Christianity without evangelical ‘bite.’” This is what Francis calls “spiritual worldliness.” More than a moral temptation, it is an “attempted paradigm” that infects everything: its “logic influences our way of thinking, feeling and loving the Lord and others” (No. 5, note 11). In this passage we see an example that illustrates what we try to express when we say that the descriptions and images the pontiff uses give a new incisiveness to concepts that, taken in abstract form, would be merely repeated.

In No. 6, the pope answers a question that we could ask in this way: “What are the tensions and imbalances that must be maintained, given that they are an announcement of new life?” His speech highlights at least three. We mention them one after the other, but they are actually simultaneous and inclusive, in that they prepare the Church to open herself to the irruption of the Spirit and help her to go toward others.

These tensions are: the imbalance that implies giving precedence over everything to grace and not to our abilities; the healthy tensions in which we place the proclamation and implementation of the merciful love of the Lord; and the unbalanced inclination that is provoked when evangelization is lived “as an essential mission of the Church,” when it is taken “as the guiding criterion par excellence with which to discern all the movements that we are called to do as an ecclesial community.”

These evangelical tensions “unbalance” in the Spirit and must be maintained, because they give life to the people of God, against the subtle temptation to follow the logic of the technocratic paradigm, which in different ways – such as victimhood or the desire for success, reaction or pragmatic compromise etc.. – only nullifies healthy tensions, and so kills life.

In numbers 7 and 8 Francis considers the fruits of letting the Spirit “unbalance” the Church. The main fruit is that in this way the primacy of evangelization is recovered, with the consequent “joy of the Gospel,” which is unleashed in the soul of the disciple who listens to it, and which increases when he or she goes out as a missionary to share it.

Ways of going forth

The pope indicates five ways of going forth: 1) go and meet our closest brothers and sisters, those on the threshold of our temples; 2) go out and anoint all the earthly realities, reaching the deepest parts of the soul of our cities; 3) go out to touch in a real and concrete way the many passions and situations of sin and inequality that so many live; 4) go out to awaken in the youngest the passion for the Kingdom; 5) go out to develop the spiritual taste of being a people, of being close to the life of the people. Francis summarizes the evangelizing mission with this sentence: “Mission is a passion for Jesus, but at the same time, it is a passion for his people” (No. 8).

At this point the pope manifests what constitutes his deepest conviction, the message he wants to convey against any spirit of defeatism that, paradoxically, lies at the basis of the technocratic paradigm: “The challenges must be overcome. We must be realistic, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled dedication” (ibid.)

The fundamental temptation is to let ourselves be robbed of our missionary power. This is why – Francis affirms this indicating it as a reference in a note to show the importance he attaches to the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – the objective of “all these dynamics of listening, reflection and discernment” that invite us to get involved, is “to return every day more faithful, available, agile and transparent to the Church to announce the joy of the Gospel, the basis on which each question can find light and answers” (ibid.)

Synodality and the ‘sensus Ecclesiae’ in the Second Vatican Council

Paragraph No. 9 consists of four sections where the pope takes up some things stressed by the Second Vatican Council, whose journey began 50 years ago and whose reception has not yet ended, “especially in relation to the synodality called to work at different levels of ecclesial life (parish, diocese, the national level, in the universal Church, as well as in different congregations and communities).”

Francis emphasizes that “synodality” is a process in which “we must develop and ensure that the sensus Ecclesiae also lives in every decision we make and supports us at all levels” (No. 9).

We note the beautiful image that the pope offers us when he speaks of the “pleasure of feeling part of the holy and patient faithful people of God” (ibid.) The sensus Ecclesiae, which the anointing of the Spirit gives to the totality of the faithful, frees us from particularisms, from being trapped in conflicts, from limiting the horizon and fragmenting reality, from remaining in conflictual situations, from losing the sense of the profound unity of the Church.

We can also highlight some of the characteristics of this sensus Ecclesiae that lives in God’s faithful people: “The sensus Ecclesiae offers us that broad horizon of possibilities from which to try to respond to urgent questions.” Moreover, “it reminds us of the beauty of the Church’s varied face (cf. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 40)” (ibid.)

It is interesting that the pope speaks of this multiform face not only “from a spatial perspective in the peoples, races, cultures (cf. LG 13), but also from the temporal reality, which allows us to immerse ourselves in the sources of the most living and full Tradition, which has the mission of keeping the fire alive rather than preserving the ashes (Gustav Mahler) and allows all generations to revive, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the first love” (ibid.)

The whole Letter is placed in a temporal hermeneutic key, in which “concern for the future” implies a way of being in the present, of assuming the contradictions without getting lost in them, of decisively facing and overcoming the challenges that push us to go forward.

Ultimately, the temptation concerns our way of living in time: the technocratic paradigm, with its illusion of progress, places us in an abstract time, without novelty. Instead, the Gospel, lived on the road with all the faithful people of God, gives us a time full of hope, that is solidly rooted in the past and that helps us to discern well our starting points.

After the description of the pulsating heart beating in the sensus Ecclesiae of the faithful people of God, the pope makes a brief reference to the temptation of Gnosticism. He exhorts us to be vigilant and attentive to discern any “Gnostic” temptation that wants to “reduce the people of God to an enlightened group,” in the sense that it confuses faith and knowledge.

Against the Gnostic elitism of those who love the new and pretend to “go beyond the ecclesial ‘we,’” Francis exhorts the German Church to use the voice of the simple and of the lowly who must be heard and given more space and visibility; he recalls “the special gifts and graces” that the Spirit distributes to each as he wants.

The faithful people of God are bearers of anointing; walking in union with him keeps alive the hope and the certainty that the Lord walks at our side and sustains our steps. This is the “holiness of the side door” that protects against enlightened elitism.

The “Marian style” in the Church’s missionary activity (cf. No. 10) and the Argentine national poem – the “Martín Fierro” – warn against fights between brothers, so as not to be devoured by the enemy.

A way of being Church

In Nos. 11 and 12, Pope Francis summarizes what he said before about synodality and the sensus Ecclesiae, which are the way of being Church: “With the background and centrality of evangelization and the sensus Ecclesiae as determining elements of our ecclesial DNA, synodality consciously claims to assume a way of being Church where “the whole is more than the parts and is even more than their simple sum” (No. 11).

To this way of being, which looks at the totality, the pope adds “not to be evasive or become uprooted” and to know how to “work with the small, with what is close, but with a broader perspective” (EG 235), following the Ignatian motto to which he always refers, that is, that those who do things in the style of Jesus should not be discouraged in the face of the great and, nevertheless, should let themselves be contained by the small.

Francis concludes the Letter with some concrete proposals to start from the Lord and not from ourselves or from the anxiety of self-justification and self-preservation (cf. No. 12). It is the attitudes of prayer, penance and adoration that follow the logic of the Lord to humble himself when he is put to the test by temptation, in times of great decisions. The decision to undertake a synodal journey does not escape this logic: “The grace of conversion, following the example of the Master who ‘emptied himself, assuming the condition of a servant’ (Phil 2:7), frees us from false and sterile protagonisms, removes us from the temptation to remain in protected and comfortable positions, and invites us to go to the peripheries to find ourselves and listen better to the Lord” (No. 12).

Finally, we recall the image of the “mirror that does not lie”: “The beatitudes are the mirror where we look at ourselves, which allows us to know if we are walking on the right path: it is a mirror that does not lie” (ibid.)

[1] At the plenary meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference, held from March 11-14, 2019, in Lingen, the bishops decided to undertake the preparation of a Synod and defined some tasks and stages. This path has its antecedents in the “Synod of Würzburg” (1971-75) and  in the “Pastoral Synod of the Catholic Church in the German Democratic Republic” (1973-75).

[2] Cf. Francis, Letter to the People of God on the Road in Germany, June 29, 2019.

[3] These are the cases of the Letters of Francis to the People of God in Chile and to all the People of God on the occasion of abuses: cf. Francis, Letter to the People of God on Pilgrimage in  Chile, May 31, 2018; Id., Letter to the People of God, August 20, 2018.

[4] R. Guardini, Il Signore. Riflessioni sulla persona e sulla vita di Gesù Cristo, Milan, Vita e Pensiero, 1976, 592.

[5] J. M. Bergoglio, Aprite la mente al vostro cuore, Milan, Rizzoli, 2013, 147f.

[6] Y. Congar, Vera e falsa riforma della Chiesa, Milan, Jaca Book, 1972, 259.

[7] In his speech to the clergy of Rome Francis said: “It’s not a matter of fixing.” And referring to the testimonies he heard, he continued: “We felt the imbalance, we are called to take the imbalance with our hands, we cannot be afraid of the imbalance. That’s what the Lord tells us. “The Gospel is an unbalanced doctrine.” Take the Beatitudes, they deserve “the Nobel prize for imbalances.” Francis, Meeting with the Diocese of Rome, May 9, 2019, in

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