The Spirit of the World, Pope Francis and Mother Teresa

Pope Francis continues to emphasize the themes that he expressed as dear to him from the beginning of his pontificate. We must go back to his famous pre conclave speech that according to some won over at that very moment, the respect of fellow elector Cardinals. For the full copy of his speech see Magister’s article here. The central idea and diagnosis of the Pope: Spiritual Worldliness. A concept inherited by Pope Francis from French Cardinal, Henri de Lubac. Recently the Pope has been developing what spiritual worldliness means, in different instances.

1. First in this speech where he reflects on the young rich man (Mark 10), and the dangers of wealth. Here he lambasted the idea that economic wellbeing is the point of the Catholic spirit :

And the Pope focused on what he called two “cultural riches”: the first, a “culture of economic wellbeing that causes us to be lacking in courage, makes us lazy, makes us selfish”. Wellbeing, he said, “anaesthetizes us, it’s an anaesthetic”.
“No, no, not more than one child, because otherwise we will not be able to go on holiday, we will not be able to go out, we will not be able to buy a house. It’s all very well to follow the Lord, but only up to a certain point. This is what economic wellbeing does to us: we all know what wellbeing is, but it deprives us of courage, of the courage we need to get close to Jesus. This is the first richness of the culture of today, the culture of economic wellbeing”.There is also, he added, “another richness in our culture”, another richness that prevents us from getting close to Jesus: it’s our fascination for the temporary”. We, he observed, are “in love with the provisional”. We don’t like Jesus’s “definitive proposals”. Instead we like what is temporary because “we are afraid of God’s time” which is definitive. “He is the Lord of time; we are the masters of the moment. Why? Because we are in command of the moment: I will follow the Lord up to this point, and then I will see… I heard of a man who wanted to become a priest – but only for ten years, not any longer…” Attraction for the provisional: this is a richness. We want to become masters of time, we live for the moment. These two riches are the ones that, in this moment, prevent us from going forward. I think of so many men and women who have left their land to work throughout their lives as missionaries: that is definitive!”.
And, he said, I also think of so many men and women who “have left their homes to commit to a lifelong marriage”, that is “to follow Jesus closely! It’s the definitive”. The temporary, Pope Francis stressed, “is not following Jesus”, it’s “our territory”.

2. Second is another homily which challenges a worldly careerism in the Church (more recently he told priests in diplomatic school who chose promotion: “don’t be ridiculous”) This homily contains an explanation of spiritual worldliness as it tries to remove Jesus from the love and good works of Christians. To describe it, he uses the contrasting example of Mother Teresa, spoken of before here and here.

“You cannot remove the Cross from the path of Jesus, it is always there.” Yet, Pope Francis warned, this does not mean that Christians must hurt themselves. The Christian “follows Jesus out of love and when you follow Jesus out of love, the devil’s envy does many things.” The “spirit of the world will not tolerate this, does not tolerate this witness”:
“Think of Mother Teresa: what does the spirit of the world say of Mother Teresa? ‘Ah, Blessed Teresa is a beautiful woman, she did a lot of good things for others …’. The spirit of the world never says that the Blessed Teresa spent, every day, many hours, in adoration … Never! It reduces Christian activity to doing social good. As if Christian life was a gloss, a veneer of Christianity. The proclamation of Jesus is not a veneer: the proclamation of Jesus goes straight to the bones, heart, goes deep within and change us. And the spirit of the world does not tolerate it, will not tolerate it, and therefore, there is persecution. “

3. Finally, is the message of Pentecost to religious movements in the Church, the most thorough diagnosis of spiritual worldliness so far. In this speech he also speaks briefly of a ‘culture of waste’ which will be the central theme of his address on the environment which I will post tomorrow. These ideas had already been developed by Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina. For now, his spiritual bazooka:

At this time of crisis we cannot be concerned solely with ourselves, withdrawing into loneliness, discouragement and a sense of powerlessness in the face of problems. Please do not withdraw into yourselves! This is a danger: we shut ourselves up in the parish, with our friends, within the movement, with the like-minded… but do you know what happens? When the Church becomes closed, she becomes an ailing Church, she falls ill! That is a danger. Nevertheless we lock ourselves up in our parish, among our friends, in our movement, with people who think as we do… but do you know what happens? When the Church is closed, she falls sick, she falls sick. Think of a room that has been closed for a year. When you go into it there is a smell of damp, many things are wrong with it. A Church closed in on herself is the same, a sick Church.

The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be, but she must step out. Jesus tells us: “Go into all the world! Go! Preach! Bear witness to the Gospel!” (cf. Mk 16:15). But what happens if we step outside ourselves? The same as can happen to anyone who comes out of the house and onto the street: an accident. But I tell you, I far prefer a Church that has had a few accidents to a Church that has fallen sick from being closed.

However there is one problem that can afflict Christians: the spirit of the world, the worldly spirit, spiritual worldliness. This leads to self-sufficiency, to living by the spirit of the world rather than by the spirit of Jesus…. The Church is neither a political movement nor a well-organized structure. That is not what she is. We are not an NGO, and when the Church becomes an NGO she loses her salt, she has no savour, she is only an empty organization.

We need cunning here, because the devil deceives us and we risk falling into the trap of hyper-efficiency. Preaching Jesus is one thing; attaining goals, being efficient is another. No, efficiency is a different value. Basically the value of the Church is living by the Gospel and witnessing to our faith. The Church is the salt of the earth, she is the light of the world. She is called to make present in society the leaven of the Kingdom of God and she does this primarily with her witness, the witness of brotherly love, of solidarity and of sharing with others. When you hear people saying that solidarity is not a value but a “primary attitude” to be got rid of… this will not do! They are thinking of an efficiency that is purely worldly.

We live in a culture of conflict, a culture of fragmentation, a culture in which I throw away what is of no use to me, a culture of waste.Yet on this point, I ask you to think — and it is part of the crisis — of the elderly, who are the wisdom of a people, think of the children… the culture of waste!

A Catholic scientist speaks on Climate Change

Sophie Caldecott has a wonderful inetrview with Glenn Juday, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The interview focuses on climate change, and expresses through Juday’s ideas what a Catholic position should be. As Sophie says, he “has a refreshingly positive attitude towards the issue of global climate change.” I have spoken at length about the Church’s (here and here) and specifically Pope Benedict’s statements  here, here and here. Juday claims his views are fundamentally the Pope’s views, and I could not agree more. They also strike a similarity in tone and vision with another prominent Christian scientist (a scientist who is a Christian) who writes on climate change, Mike Hulme. Below an excerpt of what Juday has to say:

Juday believes that there is a profundity to the Church’s understanding of the climate change issue that is unique. “As the scientific consensus developed, the Popes, certainly John Paul II and Benedict XVI, informed themselves and have offered their reflections.” The last two popes have addressed environmental concerns through statements such as the address for the 1990 World Day of Peace and the 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate.  However, the Left has claimed the issue and imposed a political idealism that involves a certain loathing of humanity and reproduction, seeing mankind as the root of all evil in the natural world. Catholics who are reluctant to accept environmental issues “are reacting to the enthusiastic embrace of the climate change issue by people whose philosophical presuppositions they utterly reject, the radicals who are interested in collectivist solutions, the people who tend to value less or completely disregard questions of human freedom and – in the case of population control – human dignity.” Because these Catholics lack the scientific and theological background to see the urgency and importance of the issue from a Catholic perspective, they feel uncomfortable associating with it at all.

Glenn has often found himself caught in the midst of controversy. Once, he found himself in the middle of the battle over whether Alaska’s ancient forests should be timbered or not. He understood both sides, and argued for sustainable farming and logging that maintained both environmental concerns as well as human needs. Now, as then, he does not see in black and white. About environmentalists who see humankind as a pest to the planet, he says “Lacking the Catholic understanding of the human condition and our place in nature, it’s no surprise that they lack some of the tools for the appreciation of a positive understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature, hence their anger.” A true environmental ambassador, he believes that it is a Catholic mission to minister to those at both ends of the spectrum. Papal teaching, he argues, offers “a balance between those opposing poles.” 

The Church’s ecological vision “is grand, it’s all encompassing”. A relationship with God, an understanding of the purpose of creation as being ordered towards worship formed within the ecology of the family, should naturally flourish in a profound respect for the natural world around us. As William Patenaude of the Catholic Ecology blog says, “For [Pope Benedict XVI], man is at war with nature because we are too often at war with God.” Juday continues, “It’s not an add on, it’s not the case that the Church is digging up a new issue to add on to a whole lot of others,”; it is an integral part of Catholic teaching.

A Pastoral Letter to Surfers

Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu has written a wonderful Pastoral Letter to Surfers for the Year of Faith. I have seen some  attempts of connecting surfing to the spiritual lessons of the Christian life, such as  Peter Kreeft here. But this short and simple letter is my favorite so far. Quoting Benedict, Augustine and Aquinas, Bishop Silva manages to capture some essential elements of what surfing means and shed a Christian light on it.

The most interesting insight to me, having been a surfer who once sought God on the waves and travelled the world looking for the ‘perfect wave’, is the following:

There is a tendency in surf culture to see surfing as a religion: to settle for creation rather than Creator.  Yet the ocean is an “icon of God”. The beauty, awe, and joy you experience should lead on to the Author of the universe: our loving God (Rom 1:19-20). The search for the “sweet spot” on perfect wave is really a search for ultimate happiness, which leads us to God, because nothing else totally satisfies that desire. As St. Augustine put it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”… 

Just as you search for waves, do not be afraid to search for truth. Do not let the many competing voices cause you to give up on the possibility of discovery.  Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” [John 14:6] As Pope Benedict XVI encourages:  “[T]he happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.” (World Youth Day, Madrid, 2011)”

ricAussieAfter surfing from Sumatra and Bali to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti, this is precisely what I discovered, that I was looking for too much in surfing. Not that surfing was bad, but I had placed divine expectations on it, and surfing is not God. I could only rest in God himself (here is a picture of me camping by an Australian park in a surf spot in Australia when I was 18). R. R. Reno, has an interesting quote about this, with regards to his experience with Rock Climbing. Reno is now editor of First Things, known as a ‘conservative’ Christian magazine. He is the editor and also a  serious theologian. But apparently was once a serious climbing bum, and this is what he found:

““[Climbing] is not as important as it seems. Don’t overestimate it and if you don’t, you’ll probably

enjoy it longer because you won’t make it play a role in your life that it can’t really play. It can’t be like religion. It’s a temptation to confuse the intense experience of climbing with something that’s more life fulfilling. I think the people who did that ended up unhappy.” This is undoubtedly the salient nugget of wisdom in this article. It was Rusty’s interpretation of what Dale Bard told him as a young climber. Climbing is one of those unusually addicting activities, which makes its participant susceptible to placing a higher worth on it than is appropriate. The climbers who have not fallen in this trap, it turns out, tend to enjoy their sport more in the long run.”

I think this captures the spirit of the Pastoral Letter to Surfers, but in the negative. The positive side is how our anthropological longing for infinity many times is expressed in activities like surfing and rock climbing. Understanding the difference between the expression of, and the reality itself, can make a huge difference. It is in the encounter with the infinite, with the face of God – Jesus,  that the longing can be fulfilled. Pope Benedict XVI spoke this existential language on his 2nd catechesis on prayer. Below an excerpt, and below that an incredible video on surfing and the waves of Teahopoo:

Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a longing for eternity, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and for truth which impel him towards the Absolute; man bears within him the desire for God. And man knows, in a certain way, that he can turn to God, he knows he can pray to him…

Man is religious by nature, he is homo religiosus just as he is homo sapiens and homo faber: “The desire for God” the Catechism says further, “is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God” (n. 27). The image of the Creator is impressed on his being and he feels the need to find light to give a response to the questions that concern the deep sense of reality; a response that he cannot find in himself, in progress, in empirical science.

Poverty, Volunteering and the Morally Poor

I came across an interesting article in the BBC about ‘voluntourism’ and the growing trend among youth to backpack while doing volunteer work. It is a critique of a well intentioned, but sometimes ineffective and selfish ‘form of service’ in the West. Personally I think the critique has some good points though it carries a bitter and somewhat moralistic undertone that sounds like disillusion. Much like the author, Daniela Papi, “I slowly stopped believing in our “voluntourism” offerings and began to see that young people didn’t need more fabricated opportunities to “serve” but rather opportunities to learn how to better contribute their time and money in the future,” only that I never believed in it from the beginning.  I have resisted calling Creatio Missions a form of ‘voluntourism’ though my business teachers and advisors insisted on it, because the service should be at an entirely different level than the tourism. Service trips to me are missions, they are service and solidarity, and tourism on the side, not on the same footing. Daniela was disillusioned because… “Much of the money we had raised for other small projects had been wasted, or landed in corrupt hands. And that school we helped to build? Well, when I arrived to see it, I found a half-empty building.”

Daniela goes on to critique the often unrecognized attitude of Westerner’s who have a mix of guilt and sense of superiority that makes them feel entitled to help poor people even though they most of the time have no idea about the culture, language, needs and problems of the people they are serving. Then she concludes: “People often say, “doing something is better than doing nothing”. But it isn’t. Not when that something is often wasteful at best, and at worst causing a lot of harm. We need to focus on learning first – not just encouraging jumping in… We can encourage young people to move from serving, to learning how to serve. It’s a small change in vocabulary, but it can have a big impact on our futures.

Now unfortunately Daniela does not elaborate on exactly what ‘learning how to serve means’. I agree with some critiques she proposes, but what does an alternative look like? Unlike Daniela, I still think that there is a place for volunteering and mission trips, but only when these well intentioned desires are channelled to make real good: through ‘solidarity teachers’ who accompany volunteers and projects that respond to the real needs of the people. This requires careful work with the local community, people on the ground for the long haul and attainable goals, among other things. For years I have noticed, especially among the youth, how obliviously self-centered and hedonistic motivations can be, but alongside with some very pure and good intentions too. But there seems to be a genuine oblivion there, and many times even a not so good motivation can be  harnessed for good ends, where a privileged youth will give sweat, tears and a part of their hearts for impoverished people who have some of their real needs met. To me that is part of ‘learning how to serve’, and is well worth it. A moralism that expects perfection of intentions and understanding would prevent most of humanity from performing any actions: who has all their motivations and intentions pure and perfect? We are human beings after all, and must strive for better intentions, but live in a fallen world. Mission trips can do a tremendous good if they are well oriented and help both local impoverished people and the volunteers themselves to give, love, serve, rejoice and suffer with others. Most of the burden for getting volunteering right and helping the poor lies on the individuals and organizations that promote the missions. They must ensure that the good will of locals and volunteers are directed to good ends and meet real needs.

R.R.Reno has a great article called ‘The preferential option for the poor’ that touches on a common attitude towards the poor of many Westerner’s, which he calls ‘typical’:

I fear that I’m typical. For the most part I think about myself: my needs, my interests, my desires. And when I break out of my cocoon of self-interest, it’s usually because I’m thinking about my family or my friends, which is still a kind of self-interest. The poor? Sure, I feel a sense of responsibility, but they’re remote and more hypothetical than real: objects of a thin, distant moral concern that tends to be overwhelmed by the immediate demands of my life. As I said, I’m afraid I’m typical.

 He then goes on to speak about the character of poverty in America, which is a moral kind of poverty. I agree, and would add to this the spiritual poverty. In fact, in many of my trips I find that much of the beauty occurs when the materially poor and sometimes spiritually rich people of shanty towns in Peru, Brazil and Ecuador meet the often times spiritually destitute yet materially wealthy volunteers from North America. In our common poverty we find great beauty, and exchange our goods so to speak. But for this to make sense, we must recognize the moral poverty of the wealthy West. And that moral poverty places demands on how we live our moral lives. Reno of course speaks from his religious commitments, but his argument reaches anyone who cares to listen:

Preferential option for the poor. A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Many people living at the bottom of American society have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and some of the other goodies of consumer culture. But their lives are a mess…

Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.

Again here, I think we need to avoid falling into a moralism that Gabriela seemed to transmit. Yes, lets improve our lives and be upstanding citizens, but again let us go out to the soup kitchen, build houses, meet the beggar on the street. There is a balance between inner work, responding to immediate needs and getting long-term programs right, which Pope Benedict seems to strike very well:

One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programs. The Christian’s programme — the programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly. Obviously when charitable activity is carried out by the Church as a communitarian initiative, the spontaneity of individuals must be combined with planning, foresight and cooperation with other similar institutions. (Caritas in veritate 31)

In the end what Reno is advocating for is the principle evoked by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. I cannot give what I don’t possess, and if I am morally poor, I need to fix my life in order to truly help others. In fact, this ties in well with the BBC article, which claims that well intentioned volunteers sometimes do more harm than good in their efforts. We must recognize that in any interpersonal exchange, and especially when we meet people in another culture, we are not only building things or giving them stuff but we are communicating our deepest beliefs, ideas, feelings and deep-seated convictions. If we show up at a village and listen to music on iPods all day, we are making a statement about individualism. If a volunteer flirts with the local men or women, they are making a statement about sexual mores. If a volunteer group is in a religious country (most of the poor third world) and does not go to Mass or Mosque they are making a statement about the unimportance of belief in life. We always make statements, with acts and omissions, and communicate a vision of the world which impact other people. Reno challenges us to figure out what that vision should be, what is a morally rich life and a spiritually rich life. Unlike Gabriela, I don’t discourage volunteers and students: let us go out there and try to love and give and serve. But  we must do so, aware that the first poor we must care for are ourselves, each one of us, and in our poverty go out and serve with joy. If we want to help the poor, we have a duty to figure out and live out a coherent life, so that when we do go help, we are giving true wealth.