* Pope Francis’ Pastoral Vision (continued)
Last week I referred to a section of Pope Francis’ 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”) as one of the keys to understanding his vision of how the world can better approach issues of social change, especially issues that cause great tension and division. He suggests four principles to guide us. I will take them one
at-a-time and apply them, not to the large global issues, but to the Church itself if we want to truly be communities of “joyful missionary disciples” or, as Archbishop Vigneron has expressed in his vision for the Archdiocese, if we want to “Unleash the Gospel.” I think the Archbishop’s vision fits within the broader vision of the Pope, but I will point out areas of tension that have emerged as well.
The first principle the Pope names is “Time is greater than space” (#222-225). Here Pope Francis is highlighting the dialectic between fullness and limitation. Within a given “space” (the world, a bloc of nations, or a single nation, or a state, city or town, a corporation or a business enterprise, a non-governmental organization or a community group, a Church or a diocese or parish, a university or a school, a marriage or a family, and so on) at any given moment, the embodiment of truth or justice or freedom or any transcendent value will always be limited and imperfect. When we forget that, we tend to overvalue and put too much energy into preserving the way things are “right now.” We also can either nostalgically think there was a more perfect past or have an idealized future vision and try to impose them on the present reality. In the words of Pope Francis, making “space” greater than “time” is to use our power to make things “right now” the way we want them to be, unwilling to either let change happen or imposing change in such a way that we damage the space within which we are living.
For Pope Francis the better understanding and direction is to recognize that time is greater than space. To give greater priority to time over space is to recognize the value of starting processes that can grow and create new and better alternatives. It is to recognize both the good realities that exist as well as the imperfections and limitations of the present and realize that we can accept such imperfections because we can always initiate ways that can make them better. The Pope uses the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) as a Scriptural image of this—we can see the weeds, but in tearing them out to create a perfect field “right now”, we are in danger of destroying the good wheat as well. We need patience and trust. We need a vision for the long haul, but also a willingness to try new and creative approaches, to see what will bear the greatest fruit. A practical example is Pope Francis’ emphasis on what he calls “synodal processes and wisdom.” Pope Francis places great value on the kind of wisdom that can emerge when bishops gather as groups and share their true thoughts and concerns, rather than having preconceived answers. When he was criticized for limiting that synodal wisdom to men and bishops only, he established procedures for women to have a voting role in future synods. When asked to decide the question of whether women can be ordained as deacons, he tabled that question and challenged regions of bishops to explore how that would fit into their vision of the Church and to think creatively beyond just the categories of ordained versus non-ordained leaders in the Church. The Pope’s emphasis on time as greater than space has allowed him to be comfortable in not having all the answers “right now,” to be open to the wisdom of others, and to put into place seemingly small but important structural changes that can prove their value over time.
On our local level, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Synod of 2016 on the New Evangelization fits very well within this vision of the Pope. At that Synod the recognition that the Church of the Archdiocese of Detroit had to undergo significant structural change and that the Spirit of God can guide that change emerged strongly. The subsequent “Unleash the Gospel” initiative and the move to the “Family of Parishes” model are efforts to focus the Church on moving beyond the current “space” and business-as-usual and initiate processes that can bear fruit over the next years and decades. If there is one area of concern on my part, in looking at what is happening in the Archdiocese in light of Pope Francis’ vision, is that we might be trying to make the new model happen too quickly, forcing what is an idealized vision which needs a lot of time to unfold, to fit our current situation “right now” (thus giving priority to space over time). What is needed is to initiate the new processes and then give them time to mature, so that true discernment of their fruit can be done, as well as recognizing any “weeds” that might emerge.
On the parish level, this first principle raises the following questions for me. Are we willing at St. Regis to let a new vision of parish, of church and school and faith formation, of collaboration with other parishes, emerge over time? Or will we be so wedded to the current “space” (structures, Mass times, ways of doing things) that we will miss an opportunity to be shaped by the Holy Spirit in a way that will position us well for the next generation(s) of parish life and ministry? Next time, a second principle, “Realities are more important than ideas.”