Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis’ five loves to combat the ills of today’s culture

A boy takes a selfie with Pope Francis as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his general weekly audience, at the Vatican on March 14, 2018. March 13 was the 5-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as Bishop of Rome. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(RNS) — We can all recognize the dangers Pope Francis sees in today’s culture. In chapter four of his apostolic exhortation  “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and be Glad”), Francis lists “a sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism; and all those forms of ersatz spirituality —  having nothing to do with God — that dominate the current religious marketplace.”

In answer, Pope Francis gives us the five great expressions of love for God and neighbor that he considers of particular importance in the light of the dangers present in today’s culture.

In earlier columns, I discussed chapters one, two, and three of his March 19 apostolic exhortation.

Perseverance, patience and meekness

In response to these dangers, the pope says we need a “solid grounding in the God who loves and sustains us.” This is what gives us the inner strength to persevere, not only in life’s ups and downs, but also in the face of “hostility, betrayal and failings on the part of others.”

The inner strength that comes from knowing that God loves us “makes it possible for us, in our fast-paced, noisy and aggressive world, to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good.”

Quoting from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he urges us not to repay evil for evil, not to seek revenge, and not to be overcome by evil, but instead to “overcome evil with good.”

He even chides the Catholic media, where “limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned.” Here, he continues, “It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.”

On the other hand, “The saints do not waste energy complaining about the failings of others; they can hold their tongue before the faults of their brothers and sisters, and avoid the verbal violence that demeans and mistreats others.”

Only through humiliation does one attain holiness, the pope asserts. “If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness,” he adds. “Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ.”

Francis praises those who, in the face of daily humiliations, “keep silent to save their families, who prefer to praise others rather than boast about themselves, or who choose the less welcome tasks, at times even choosing to bear an injustice so as to offer it to the Lord.”

At the same time, “because someone is free of selfishness, he or she can dare to disagree gently, to demand justice or to defend the weak before the powerful, even if it may harm his or her reputation.”

Pope Francis laughs while greeting school children after he arrived at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Washington, on Sept. 24, 2015, after his address to a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Joy and a sense of humor

Saints are joyful and full of good humor, according to Francis, “not timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy.” Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, he writes, “the necessary result of the love of charity is joy; since every lover rejoices at being united to the beloved … the effect of charity is joy.” Supernatural joy comes from knowing we are infinitely loved.

He contrasts this spiritual joy with the false joy offered by today’s consumerist culture. “Consumerism only bloats the heart. It can offer occasional and passing pleasures, but not joy.” Joy comes from giving and loving. When we “focus primarily on our own needs, we condemn ourselves to a joyless existence.”

Christian joy, Francis argues, “is usually accompanied by a sense of humor.” Indeed, “Ill humor is no sign of holiness.”

Boldness and passion

Holiness requires boldness and passion, “an impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world.” Francis notes that Jesus’ “compassion made him go out actively to preach and to send others on a mission of healing and liberation.” Francis warns against being “paralyzed by fear and excessive caution.”

This fear can manifest itself in many ways: “intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations.”

Francis says there is a way out of this fear: “God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning.

“God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes.”

In community

Francis does not believe in solitary saints. Rather, he says, “growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others.” Each community is called to create a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord.”

“Sharing the word and celebrating the Eucharist together fosters fraternity and makes us a holy and missionary community.”

Community, he says, is also made up of small everyday things. “A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.”

In constant prayer

Finally, Francis says that “holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration,” but this “prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions.” He quotes Saint Teresa of Avila, who said prayer “is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with him who we know loves us.” This prayer is not just for the privileged few but for all.

He asks us, “Are there moments when you place yourself quietly in the Lord’s presence, when you calmly spend time with him, when you bask in his gaze? Do you let his fire inflame your heart? Unless you let him warm you more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire.”

Francis encourages the prayerful reading of Scripture. Quoting the bishops of India, he writes, “devotion to the word of God is not simply one of many devotions, beautiful but somewhat optional. It goes to the very heart and identity of Christian life.”

“Meeting Jesus in the Scriptures leads us to the Eucharist,” he says. “In the Eucharist, the one true God receives the greatest worship the world can give him, for it is Christ himself who is offered. When we receive him in Holy Communion, we renew our covenant with him and allow him to carry out ever more fully his work of transforming our lives.”

Patience, joy, boldness, community and prayer — these five expressions of love lead to true holiness.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


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  • Persevere indeed with the reality of Catholicism and the rest of Christianity starting with an update of a prayer which encompasses today’s rational thinking:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  • Lord Jesus Christ, most merciful Saviour of the world, we humbly beseech You, by Your most Sacred Heart, that all the sheep who stray out of Your fold may in one days be converted to You, the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls, who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end.

  • I’m just praying for your conversion brother.
    I care more about your soul than you can rationally conclude.
    Have a good day.

  • “…. daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus. ”

    Human cannibalism, washed down with the deceased’s blood….

  • That’s the same line of cr*p foisted on Man for 2000 yrs.
    What are the results ?
    Total and complete failure.
    Prophet JK Rowling.
    Now there’s a success story !

  • Hundred’s of millions prayed during the plague and flu pandemics.
    Nothing fails like prayer.

  • So, “Francis does not believe in solitary saints.” Rather, he says, “growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others.”

    I disagree with the pope’s statement as much as I disagree with the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of being an authority and judge of who’s a said and who’s not!

    We all have our individual callings. I was a management consultant for 27 years, and I learned that there are really great teams made up of tremendous individual team members, and there are also tremendous “individual achievers” who don’t work well in teams. Any good company needs both, and they make a serious mistake when they only attract and support the “teamwork” types.

    I believe it’s the same with sainthood; people have varying gifts of sociability and therefore, some can express their faith and good works in community while others need to do it in a solitary way. It’s unfair for this pope to claim otherwise. After all, he’s just a flawed man who wears a funny cap and dresses of different solid colors! The Roman Catholic Church’s tradition for hundreds of yearsnow, has it that he’s somehow “infallible.” If these old dudes would give up their funny caps and dresses and marry them a woman and have some kids, they’d soon find out just how “infallible” they are, side-by-side in a community called “the family!” :