Krzysztof Bardski, Church facing the challenges of our times – Revolution of tenderness, w: Wir teilen diesen Traum, Theologinnen und Theologen aus aller Welt argumentieren “Pro Pope Francis”, red. P. Zulehner, T. Halik, Patmos Verlag 2018, s. 70-76.
1. What are the signs of our times, challenging the Church in your country, your
region, your continent?
2. What can and should the Church contribute to cope these challenges?
3. Which development within the Church (on your continent) is required that
the Church is able to act in the face of the challenges of our times and the
Church facing the challenges of our times: Revolution of tenderness
1. Discerning the face of Jesus
The Church in the post-modern world needs a revolution: a revolution of tenderness (Evangelii Gaudium, 88). It breaks in the heart and conscience of every singular faithful and brings to a radical transformation of ecclesiastical structures and Church activities. Pope Francis has begun the revolution of tenderness and invites each one of us to put it into practice in local church communities.
The Incarnation of Christ urges us to adopt the attitude of those standing on the right hand of the Son of man in Matthew 25:34-36. To discern the presence of Jesus in the naked, hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick. Or, in the language of our time, in the marginalized, disinherited, excluded, oppressed, destitute, rejected. Pope Francis reminds us that “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction” (Ev. Gaud., 88).
2. Dimensions of the Revolution of Tenderness
Why “revolution of tenderness”? First of all, the term “revolution” in Eastern Europe bears a certain negative connotation, calling to mind the Revolution of October and the beginning of the oppressive communist system. But the same term is a synonym of independence for USA citizens and expresses the dream for social justice in Latin America. For us it means a radical and substantial transformation of paradigms of thinking and acting, an essential turn, according to the Latin etymology “revolutio”.
The revolution of tenderness has three dimensions. First, to rediscover the tenderness of God in Jesus Christ. There is an old catechetical definition still persisting in our tradition: “God is a just judge that rewards the good deeds and punishes the evil deeds”. Let the revolution break! Let us put on the first place that “our loving trust in God implies trust in His tenderest concern for us” (Mother Theresa, Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity, 23), we rely “entirely on His promises and His tender and personal thoughtfulness for us” (Mother Theresa, Spiritual Directory, Section B, 130) and He gave us “His own Heart filled with tender, compassionate, and merciful love” (Spiritual Directory, Section B, 68). Tenderness is a tangible and concrete expression of love. God kissed us tenderly through the Incarnation of His Son, as states the traditional interpretation of the second verse of the Song of Songs, and He is never tired of kissing us tenderly through His mercy.
Second, the revolution of tenderness conveys a new vision of the Church as loving Mother and Bride of Christ. The Church is no longer a fortified castle defending old-fashioned doctrines but a beautiful New Jerusalem (Apoc. 21:10ff.) with widely open gates welcoming all who are lost and tired. Let the Church become a mirror that reflects the tender love of God. Or, travestying an ancient interpretation, the moon that reflects the light of Christ, Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 3:20), in the middle of the night of human wounds, tragedies and despair. This new paradigm of the Church requires deep transformation of her structures and practices, especially connected with the sacramental discipline.
Third, let the revolution of tenderness transform our personal attitudes as Christians. How to do it? Mother Theresa gives us a simple advise: “By revealing to one another something of God’s own love, concern and tenderness” (Constitutions, 74). The concepts of love, charity or mercy seem sometimes abstract and general. Tenderness makes them human and palpable.
It is the general aim, yet there are several particular challenges the Church must face to perform her mission in the post-modern world. The revolution of tenderness happens in a concrete historical moment and needs to take in consideration specific contexts.
3. Good News in post-modern world
The first challenge requires the acceptance that the development of science and technology conveys in the post-modern world essential transformations of paradigms of thinking and interpreting the reality. Evolution, genetics, modern trends in anthropology have deep impact in the post-modern view of the world. Hence it is urgent to avoid the tendency of building a cultural and intellectual ghetto that claims to possess a special kind of “immutable truth” expressed in conceptual realms of “Christian philosophy”, “Christian anthropology” or “Christian social teaching”.
Instead, we need to re-contextualize the Good News in the context of new paradigms of post-modern thinking, to re-interpret from the point of view of the post-modern mentality even such fundamental concepts as our view of God, salvation, sin, eternal life, etc. This challenge requires not only a new theological language or ways of expression but it touches our deep understanding of the world in us and around us.
Pope Francis writes: “New cultures are constantly being born in these vast new expanses where Christians are no longer the customary interpreters or generators of meaning. Instead, they themselves take from these cultures new languages, symbols, messages and paradigms which propose new approaches to life, approaches often in contrast with the Gospel of Jesus” (Ev. Gaud., 73).
The experience of past centuries teaches us that hesitation and negative attitude towards new trends in scientific, social and cultural life frequently caused the marginalization of the message of Christ. The Church, attached in the past to secondary details of her life or teaching, frequently missed excellent chances of evangelization. Thanks to God, several initiatives undertaken in the past by Pope John Paul II (e.g. “Fides et Ratio”) rebalanced the discrepancies between modern sciences and faith, yet there is still a lot to do.
A special responsibility regards biblical scholars: to discern the living heart of the Gospel in the embroilment of historical conditions connected with the formation of the biblical text. And, in consequence, to allow the heart of the Gospel to palpitate in a new way in the post-modern world. As translator of several books in the polish edition of the Ecumenical Bible, I dare to say that we need to translate the Gospel not only into vernacular languages but into the “language” of the post-modern mentality. The inculturation stressed by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (68-70) does not concern only African or Asian communities, but also the post-Christian Europe.
4. Beyond religious and cultural barriers
The second challenge concerns the easy and direct contact with other cultures and religions. Internet, migrations and traveling bring distant cultures and civilizations close to each other. It urges us to reconsider our identities in dialog with others.
The problem of tribalism that Pope Francis stressed during his visit to Africa is present also in Europe. Sometimes we face a special kind of political tribalism that divides in a painful way our society, even our families. But there is also a danger of religious tribalism. Especially when we build our own identity in opposition to other religions, e.g. Islam. A danger of e-tribalism, when we limit our internet connections to a particular circle of users and pages that share our views, liking only them and hating others. It creates a false image of the world around us and leads to alienation and marginalization.
I think a call for the Church in the post-modern era is to discern in the teaching of Jesus inspiring human intuitions that go beyond religious and cultural barriers, even beyond the distinction “to believe / not to believe”. Christ’s kenosis invites us to renounce the position of superiority and disdain for other religions or non-believers and to assume the role of partners in the common lot of mankind. Pope Francis summons us: “It is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded” (Ev. Gaud., 23).
But the first and most urgent challenge is to work for the reconciliation among Christians. My experience in the editorial team of the Ecumenical Bible and in the Biblical Society suggests that this work begins with a deep transformation of our personal attitudes and with individual contacts between representatives of other Christian denominations. Recently we celebrated the 500-th anniversary of the Reformation. It was a splendid occasion to fraternize and enlarge our mutual knowledge and experiences, yet in some catholic circles it arouse initiatives to deepen the differences and to expose only negative aspects of that historical event.
5. Transformations in social and cultural areas
In Europe, especially in Poland, we witness dynamic transformations in social and cultural areas. The twentieth century brought us democratization in many social fields and accessibility to social positions formerly limited to selected individuals. The process continues in this millennium and conveys transformations of social roles that affect even the familiar life. The Church needs to undertake the challenge of bringing the Good News of the Gospel in the context of these new social paradigms instead of defending traditional models useful in other epochs that today are loosing their relevance.
In a special way we witness changes in the social position of women. Roles traditionally reserved to men are being adapted by women. Women assume responsible charges and the so called “patriarchal mentality” becomes obsolete in most European countries. This process is inevitable also in the Church and we are grateful to Pope Francis and his predecessors for being sensitive to this signum temporis. Yet it seems the Church needs a deep reconsideration of the role of women in ecclesiastical structures. We are aware of the apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (22 may 1994) issued by Pope John Paul II but the initiative of promoting the possibility of female diaconate seems to open new perspectives.
Another challenge is connected with the identity of clergy in the post-modern society. The traditional model of priesthood needs to be reviewed. In our opinion, a separated ecclesiastical “cast” with its own spirituality, habits, lifestyle and particular social position is becoming outdated. Sometimes becomes even an obstacle to the universal proclamation of the Gospel. The presbyter needs to be a leader of the Christian community, with special responsibility and theological formation, yet sharing with all other faithful the same everyday joys and sorrows, hopes and problems. To be a shepherd in the midst of the flock (Ev. Gaud., 31). In this context let us keep in mind the wise words of Pope Francis: “The Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives” (Ev. Gaud., 43). The revolution of tenderness in the post-modern understanding or the hierarchical structures of the Church must take as point of reference that there is only one priest – Jesus Christ.
6. Personal conscience and pastoral discernment
Another phenomenon characteristic to the post-modern social and cultural transformations is a certain kind of individualization of religious doctrines. Sometimes it has been compared to a religious supermarket. Costumers choose or reject certain beliefs from different traditions, building their personal creed, putting together heaven with reincarnation or neglecting vast areas of the Church moral teaching. This situation is a natural consequence of a vast accessibility to information that allows every individual to shape his/her worldview in an independent way.
The proclamation of the Good News – as Pope Francis reminds us “must reach the places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost soul of our cities. Cities are multicultural; in the larger cities, a connective network is found in which groups of people share a common imagination and dreams about life, and new human interactions arise, new cultures, invisible cities” (Ev. Gaud., 74).
In this context a special role acquire two concepts: personal conscience and pastoral discernment. The Church has nothing to do with an English style lawn where all blades of grass are identical. Let us dare to accept even deep differences in the others understanding of Christ’s teaching, looking for what Pope Francis calls “the heart of the Gospel”.
Let us avoid an attitude that could be called “oppression of normativism”, when we consider that the message of Christ can be formulated in strict norms and patterns. Pope Francis reminds us: “We should not think, however, that the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content” (Ev. Gaud., 129).
It concerns in a special way specific fields of interpersonal relations. “Amoris Laetitia” opens the door to individual discernment showing appreciation to particular human situations, without neglecting the main perspective of the Christian life – the commitment to Jesus. The goal of the pastoral discernment is to find the way to preserve or restore the perfect union with Christ in the middle of complicated personal situations. In another words: to put into practice the unconditional divine mercy in spite of human unfaithfulness.
7. Sound pastoral relativism
In a wider perspective the pastoral revolution of tenderness needs to be open to a sound pastoral relativism based on Christ’s principle: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The sound pastoral relativism takes in consideration specific and unrepeatable human situations against the rigid normativism typical to the approach of the Pharisees.
It concerns in a certain way also entire regions and Christian communities in different parts of the world. The specific pluralism inside the essential unity of the Catholic Church has been noticed and taken for granted by Pope Francis in his address at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family (24 Oct. 2015): “We have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous – almost! – for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion”.
A sound decentralization creates an opportunity to a mutual enrichment with different approaches, conclusions and practices. In the chapter concerning the evangelizing power of popular piety, Pope Francis writes: “We can see that the different peoples among whom the Gospel has been inculturated are active collective subjects or agents of evangelization. This is because each people is the creator of their own culture and the protagonist of their own history. Culture is a dynamic reality which a people constantly recreates; each generation passes on a whole series of ways of approaching different existential situations to the next generation, which must in turn reformulate it as it confronts its own challenges” (Ev. Gaud., 122). These processes run in different way in every community. To preserve the unity in diversity, tolerance and mutual acceptance are indispensible. This is the reality of the post-modern Church and a dream of a perfect uniformity becomes today an obsolete illusion.
We are aware, in the past the Church assumed roles and responsibilities loosely connected with her essential mission. In Christian communities she became either the support of political authorities or the guardian of social stability. She moulded the common imagery and the worldview of millions of people throughout centuries. Now, in a pluralistic society, it is time for the Church to focus on her main vocation expressed in what Pope Francis calls “the hart of the Gospel”: “In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (Ev. Gaud., 36), or – quoting Benedict XVI – “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Ev. Gaud., 7; Deus Caritas Est, 1).
From this perspective, new doctrinal and moral paradigms are needed. Let us look at the rich tradition of the Catholic Church as a fruit of discernments the disciples of Christ made in former centuries. They are important but need to be re-discerned in the light of postmodern transformations. The role of the Magisterium Ecclesiae is to bring the light of the Gospel in the middle of the changing world that helps mankind to find the safe way. Rather than judge and condemn – to accompany and feed the hope, caring especially the poor, destitute and marginalized.
8. Traditionalist illusion and biblical fundamentalism
The enemies of the revolution of tenderness are not humans, as st. Paul says: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12), but attitudes, bearings and prejudices that constitute obstacles to the effectiveness of the message of the Gospel in our times. First of all let us discern their presence in our hearts.
Sometimes willing to defend the integrity of our faith and religious tradition, we undertake a desperate effort of searching for solid foundations and principles. This can lead to a kind of “traditionalist illusion”. Preserving past customs we feel protected and secure in spite of the inevitable changes that happen around us. Pope Francis writes about “the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (Ev. Gaud., 94).
The attitude of being strictly attached to traditional norms and patterns constitutes a danger to the Church as whole. Therefore Pope Francis invites us to undertake a constructive dialog with what Benedict XVI used to call “the living tradition of the Church” and to re-examine its content: “the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them” (Ev. Gaud., 43).
Another danger connected with the desire of solid foundations and principles is a kind of “biblical fundamentalism”. Sometime as Christians we follow the illusion that strict observance of biblical indications brings us closer to God. This approach is dangerous especially when some Old Testament passages are applied to present situations in a literal way. But also in the case of the New Testament we should avoid a strict application of biblical principles without taking in consideration the historical environment and the constant evolution of the social and cultural context. This danger concerns especially young members of prayer groups that sincerely desire to follow Jesus.
Of course the whole text of the Old and New Testament is inspired in equal way, yet let us avoid the understanding of the mystery of divine inspiration in a simple and “magical” way. As lecturer of Scripture I am convinced we need more than ever in our time to re-contextualize the message of Jesus, it means, to express it with new terms that fit the postmodern worldview.
A danger comes also from a growing interest for esoteric and magical practices in post-modern societies. Sometimes even people sincerely believing in God, demonstrate excessive attachment to the so called “private revelations” connected with authentic or supposed visionaries and apparitions. Rightly Pope Francis reminded us that Our Lady is not a “director of a post office” sending messages to and fro. Attributing too much importance to private revelations, we diminish the real value of the public Revelation contained on the pages of the Bible. Also the tendency to look for the manifestations of Satan or evil spirits all around us, distorts the right view of the overwhelming mercy and power of God, creates an atmosphere of unnecessary fear and suspicion.
Finally, especially in some circles I prefer not to mention, we face the danger of instrumental usage of religious feelings, religious traditions and even religious ceremonies to antagonize people on political ground. In a society formed on the base of Christian tradition and culture, some aspects of religious life are especially susceptible for manipulations. The appropriation of these traditions by a certain political orientation brings measurable profits and an apparent social consolidation. Nevertheless, such kind of consolidation becomes detrimental for the universalistic message of the Gospel and may reinforce such attitudes as racism, xenophobia and nationalism.
9. Divine mercy – unconditional, disinterested and unlimited
Another field in the life of the Church that needs the revolution of tenderness is the so called discipline of sacraments. Especially its connections with new moral paradigms that aroused in the postmodern society. Sacraments, as visible signs of divine grace, conferred through the ministry of the Church, have a rich and variegated history from the doctrinal and pastoral perspective. In the postmodern world many aspects of human life have experimented radical changes, similar radical changes needs the way how the sacraments are conferred.
First of all a change of perception is needed: Sacraments are not a “reward” for those who fulfill special requirements but merciful assistance given to those who need help and support. Unfortunately, in our pastoral practice the accessibility to sacraments in some cases is severely restricted. In particular, Eucharist and reconciliation are strictly connected with the canon law requirements concerning conjugal life.
On the other hand the approach of the ministers of sacraments needs to be reviewed. The sacramental discipline does not consist in controlling and building fences to defend the integrity of the tradition but needs to be oriented toward a pastoral and missionary perspective. The sacramental discipline has a ministerial role to help the Church to be generous dispensator of the gifts of divine mercy, according to the words of Jesus: “Freely you received, freely give” (Matth 9:8). Pope Francis uses to say frequently, the divine mercy is unconditional, disinterested and unlimited.
Here a special case is the Christian approach to human sexuality. Since 1968 important achievements and transformations have happened on this field. John Paul II made visible progress in Church moral teaching by valorizing this area of human life with deep and accurate statements in the realm of the so called theology of the body. Yet it was just a first step in the right direction. The revolution of tenderness must take in consideration all positive achievements of the so called sexual revolution. New readings of biblical texts and new theological conclusions that take in consideration the evolution of interpretative contexts are very expected.
10. Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor
Finally, the Church faces the phenomenon of the marginalization and exclusion of large populations. Recently in Chile Pope Francis used the meaningful word “descartados” – that means rejected, excluded, useless, worthless. This marginalization touches different kind of people.
In Europe we face the vital problem of refugees and migrants from Near East and Africa. In spite of many dangers connected with the difficult integration of the newcomers in the social structures of the Old Continent, Christ’s call seems to be clear: “I was a stranger and You invited me in” (Matth 25:35). The attitude of hospitality is one of the dimensions of a radical universalism that is a characteristic mark of the Catholic Church. It is inspired by the idea of “imitatio Dei” expressed in the words of Jesus quoted by st. Luke: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6,36).
My ministry in the communities of Sisters Missionaries of Charity in third world countries made me realize the immense disproportions causing misery and death. At the same time I witnessed there freshness and authenticity of the Gospel. It is vital for the Christian communities in Europe to reinforce the communion with Christians in Asia, Africa and South America in order to incite a mutual exchange of gifts.
A special call for the Church today concerns the acceptance and care of diverse minorities, especially those marginalized by unjust social prejudices. Jesus said: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matth 11:28). Our Lord did not exclude anyone. Therefore inclusivity should became a characteristic mark of the community of disciples of Jesus. Following the teaching of Pope Francis expressed in his 4 February Angelus meditation, let us build a culture of acceptation (accoglienza) instead of a culture of rejection (scarto).
I dream a Church not centered on herself, but on the poor. Church ministering through her members especially those who are in distress and isolation, even those who do not belong to her or consider themselves her enemies. Let us discover in our concrete everyday life the essential truth that lies also as fundament of the vocation of Mother Theresa: let us recognize the face of Jesus and minister Him lovingly even in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor (cf. Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity, 70).