Leading up to Christmas, David Gibson, in his December 13 blog here, noted how the logic of the Incarnation meant that God did not erase the messiness of our human condition but entered into it. In this time of urgent church reform, this means that we do well not to expect exclusively legal or mathematical clarity as the key to progress, but rather an attitude of discernment that takes its bearings from the baby in the manger.
As it happened, shortly after David’s post, on December 21, Pope Francis delivered his annual Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia under the rubric of “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1: 14). At the heart of this address was a reflection on the nature of change as the rationale for ecclesial reform, inclusive of the Vatican Curia itself, drawing in particular on Saint John Henry Newman. Francis quotes Newman’s well-known saying: “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” noting that clearly this does not mean change for change’s sake or following every new fashion, but rather the conviction that development and growth are a normal part of human life. We know that the baby in the manger is the one who “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was on him” (Lk 2: 40).
Francis goes on to note that for Newman, change was conversion and links this to the notion prominent in Vatican II of the pilgrim nature of Christian life, with new beginnings, displacements and changes so that, paradoxically, we need constantly “to change in order to remain faithful.” This applies not just to individual persons, but also to cultures. He insists that these days we live not just in an “era of change,” but in a “change of era”—a nonlinear, epochal time of change. This cannot mean approaching change as if it were a matter of simply putting on a new suit of clothes: something much more radical and interior needs to happen, “an anthropological conversion,” so that we need to change.
For this to happen in the incarnational mode that David Gibson refers to, Francis recommends the daring and patience that are part of a discernment of the signs of the times. This discernment respects tradition and is faithful to the depositum fidei but in a way that refuses to view tradition as static and the deposit of faith as somehow apart from the mystery of that personal encounter with Jesus Christ that always invites further growth. The aphorism of historian of Christianity Jaroslav Pelikan is apt: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I might add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
The stakes are high here, opposition to the vision of Francis takes both open and latent forms, and we don’t know who will prevail.
This drama of interpretative opposition around the issue of change takes place not just in the minds and hearts of individuals but also, and perhaps principally, in the communal life of the Church. It was evident at the recent Amazon Synod in Rome (October 2019). There, you will recall, at a meeting of over 180 bishops, with up to 80 lay people in attendance, after consultation with an estimated 87,000 people of the region, the synodal process yielded recommendations on care of the earth, the rights of indigenous people and the necessity in particular of an inculturated liturgy, ecclesial leadership of women in the context of a reflection on ministry mandated for men and women “in an equitable manner” and the ordination of married men to the priesthood. And so, after much discussion and some opposition (some 800 amendments were put to the final document and each paragraph had to be passed by over two-thirds of those present), as well as a kind of faux-controversy over the nature of indigenous statues, the Synod did, in fact, act very much in the spirit of discerning boldness and patience characteristic of the Christmas address of Francis and of the revolutionary shift to a synodal paradigm at the heart of his ecclesial reform.
The baby in the manger was visited by the wise men from the East. We travel from Christmas to Epiphany, and now through the rest of the year, liturgical, sacred and secular. The anthropological change that Francis refers to was analyzed by Bernard Lonergan in terms of a shift from classical to historical consciousness. Francis is well aware of the rigidity and fear that imprison some of us in a desire for mathematical and legal clarity in matters that do not admit of such simplification. For others of us, more apt to welcome change, perhaps the conversion may involve the insight that historical consciousness is not an ally of relativism and does allow of authentic objectivity. At a less cerebral level, conversion involves the cultivation of an openness to the Spirit who may lead us in unforeseen directions and an openness as well, in loving challenge, to our often militantly rigid sisters and brothers. We live in exciting times!
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.