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What is the Church’s Vocation? Pope Francis in conversation with the Maltese Jesuits

Antonio Spadaro, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Jun 10th 2022

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At 7:20 a.m. on Sunday, April 3, Pope Francis entered a hall of the Nunciature in Malta, where 38 Maltese Jesuits were gathered, including Fr. Roberto Del Riccio, provincial of the Euro-Mediterranean Province, which includes Malta, Italy, Albania and Romania. Francis greeted everyone present, one by one, and then sat down to open a free and spontaneous conversation, as he is wont to do on these occasions. The atmosphere was cordial and fraternal. Francis began:

The only memory I have of the Maltese Jesuits is that of my companions when we studied philosophy. They were destined for Chile. I myself did my juniorate[1] in Chile. Then they would go to study in Buenos Aires. I spoke to the last one of that group on the phone a year ago, before he died. Feel free to ask a few questions so we can talk a little together.

Holy Father, the reality of the Church today is changing. It is becoming smaller and smaller in a secular, materialist Europe. At the same time, the Church is developing in Asia and Africa. What will the Church of the future be like? Will it be smaller, but more humble and authentic? What about the Church’s synodal journey? Where is it going?

Pope Benedict was a prophet of this Church of the future, a Church that will become smaller, lose many privileges, be more humble and authentic and find energy for what is essential. It will be a Church that is more spiritual, poorer and less political: a Church of the little ones. As a bishop, Benedict had said: let us prepare ourselves to be a smaller Church. This is one of his greatest insights.

Today there is the problem of vocations, yes. It is also true that in Europe there are fewer young people. Before, there were three or four children per family. Now often only one. Marriages are decreasing, while people focus on their profession. I would tell the mothers of those thirty-five year olds who still live with their parents to stop ironing their shirts!

In this situation there is also the risk of wanting to seek vocations without adequate discernment. I remember that in 1994 a synod on consecrated life was held. I attended as a delegate from Argentina. At the time, the scandal of the novices in the Philippines had broken out: the religious congregations went there in search of vocations to “import” into Europe. This is terrible. Europe has aged. We have to get used to this, but we have to do it creatively, so as to assume for vocations the qualities that you mentioned in general for the Church in your question: humility, service, authenticity.

Then you also mentioned the synodal path. And this is a further step. We are learning to speak and write “in Synod.” It was Paul VI who resumed the synodal discourse, which had been lost. Since then we have moved forward in understanding, in understanding what the synod is. I remember that I was a relator for the synod of bishops in 2001. Actually, the relator was Cardinal Egan, but because of 9/11 and the Twin Towers, he had to go back to New York, his diocese. I was the substitute. The opinions of everyone, even of individual groups, were collected and sent to the general secretariat. I would gather the material and arrange it. The secretary of the synod would examine it and say to remove this or that thing, which had been approved by a vote of the various groups. There were things he did not consider appropriate. There was, in short, a pre-selection of materials. Clearly there was a failure to understand what a synod is. Today we have moved forward and there is no going back. At the end of the last synod, in the survey of topics to be addressed in the next one, the first two were priesthood and synodality. It seemed clear to me that there is a desire to reflect on the theology of synodality in order to take a decisive step toward a synodal Church.

Finally, I want to say that we must not forget that jewel which is Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. What is the vocation of the Church? It is not numbers. It is to evangelize. The joy of the Church is to evangelize. The real problem is not whether we are few, in short, but whether the Church evangelizes. In the meetings before the conclave, we talked about what figure the new pope should represent. It was precisely there, in the general congregations, that the image of the Church going forth was used. In Revelation it says: “I stand at the door and knock.” But today the Lord is knocking from within to be let out. This is the need of today, the vocation of the Church today.

Holy Father, allow me to thank you for your life and example and also, in particular, for your apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. Also, greetings from the Venerable English College where I work. There they are praying for you and thanking you. My question is: How do you suggest spiritual directors and seminarians prepare to be priests in the third millennium?

What struck you in Gaudete et Exsultate?

First the whole. How to live the beatitudes. Then the signs of holiness. I was really struck by the reference to humor….

Ah! Footnote 101, the one about Thomas More! Yes, that apostolic exhortation has been archived. I would love for all novices to read it. You ask me what to do. I would ask seminarians one thing: be normal people, without imagining that you are either “great apostles” or “little devotees.” Be normal guys, capable of making decisions about your life on the road. And for this you also need normal superiors.

The hypocrisy of some superiors astounds me. Hypocrisy as a tool of government is terrible. With hypocrisy you don’t take care of your restlessness, your problem, your hidden sin. You must help remove all hypocrisy that ruins a young person’s path.

I remember a Jesuit student who later married. He was in his first year of philosophy. He had met a girl and fallen in love with her. He wanted to see her every day. At night he would sneak out and meet the girl, be with her. He was starting to lose weight, because he was getting very little sleep. But this boy fortunately fell into the hands of an elderly spiritual father who was not afraid of anything and was not a hypocrite. He sensed how things were. And he told him, “You have this problem.” He told him! And, taking care of it, he accompanied him to leave the Society. Then this young man got married.

I myself remember many years ago listening to a young Jesuit from a European province who was doing his magisterium[2] after philosophy. He asked the provincial to be transferred to another city to be near his mother who was dying of cancer. He then went to the chapel so that the superior could grant his wish. He stayed there until very late. When he returned, he found a letter from the provincial on the door, dated the next day, asking him to stay where he was, and telling him that he had made this decision after reflection and prayer. But that was not true! He had given the postdated letter to the minister to deliver the next day, but because of the late hour, the minister had delivered it the day before. This guy was devastated. This is hypocrisy. May there never be hypocrisy in the Society! Better to scold than to have courtier attitudes!

Among Jesuits, you cannot accompany a brother without trust and clarity. If a person does not trust the superiors or those guiding him, it is not good at all. The superiors must bring about trust. And then they must trust the “grace of state” so that it is the Holy Spirit who gives them the right advice. And let them study with the wisdom that the Church has accumulated over time. But one must not be frightened of anything. Never should young people be uniformed. Each person is unique: for each one they made the mold and then broke it. And let the superiors also get used to having some enfant terrible. You have to be patient, correct them, but often they are really good. We are not all the same: we have distinct identity cards.

Yesterday, hearing the speeches being made, there was talk about Malta being a welcoming country for refugees. I was puzzled. We also have an agreement with Libya to send migrants back. You may have heard about the tragedy in the Mediterranean last Saturday when 90 migrants from Libya lost their lives. Only four survived. You will meet some of the refugees. However, you will not see the camps where the situation is much more difficult. It is also true that this is a problem for the whole of Europe, which does not help our country. This is also true for the reception of Ukrainians.

It’s true: migration is a problem for Europe. Countries are unwilling to reach agreements. I understand that it is not easy for Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Greece and Spain. They are the ones who have to receive them because they are the first ports, but then Europe has to take charge. In Europe, we must make progress with human rights in order to eliminate the culture of waste and discarding. We must also avoid giving legitimacy to the complicity of the competent authorities, always, even in meetings and gatherings.

On the plane they gave me a painting by a boy, Daniel, who paints his anguish as he is drowning and wants to save his sinking partner. I recommend a book, Hermanito, that is “Little Brother.”[3] It came out a year ago. It is the story of an older brother who leaves Guinea in search of his younger brother. It makes us understand what the desert crossing is like, the trafficking of migrants, imprisonment, torture, the sea journey…. And to you, thank you for not speaking in half words. What we are talking about is one of the shames of humanity that enters into the policies of states.

If there is a fire in the next room what do we do? Do we stay there and continue our meeting? It’s an image: the same thing happens in the world with climate change. The world burns and we stay quiet. How do you connect evangelization and climate change?

Yes, let’s work on this. Not taking care of the climate is a sin against the gift of God that is creation. For me it is a form of paganism: it is using what the Lord has given us for his glory and praise as if it were an idol. Not taking care of creation for me is like idolizing it, reducing it to an idol, detaching it from the gift of creation. In this sense, taking care of our common home is already “evangelizing.” And it is urgent. If things go on as they are now, our children will no longer be able to live on our Planet.

It’s getting really late and you have to go. I’ll ask you a quick question: your consolations and desolations, or disappointments, about the process of synodality.

There are consolations and disappointments. I’ll give you just one example: in the first sessions of the synod on the Amazon there was a lot of focus on the question of married priests. Then the Spirit also made us understand that many other things were missing: catechists, permanent deacons, the seminary for aborigines, priests coming from other dioceses or being moved within the same diocese. All this has been experienced amid consolations and disappointments. This is the spiritual dynamic of the synod.

At the end of the meeting, which lasted about 40 minutes, Francis asked that we pray a Hail Mary together. He then gave his blessing to those present, greeted them, and asked them to pray for him, making a gift of rosary beads to everyone.


[1].       Period of Jesuit formation that immediately follows the novitiate.

[2].       Period of formation in the Society of Jesus, generally of a pastoral nature, between the study of philosophy and that of theology.

[3]. The novel Little Brother: an odyssey to Europe is by Amets Arzallus Antia and Ibrahima Balde.

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