Letter to the Editor: In Defense of Pope Francis’ Pastoral Style

“Spiritual accompaniment” has become an increasingly common and contested term among Catholics after the Synod on the Family in 2015. It is guided by what the bishops called “the law of gradualness,” a pastoral principle which recognizes that conversion is a slow process, and not a rapid climb to spiritual perfection. For this reason, pastors typically encourage individuals to grow closer to God in a step-by-step fashion, meeting people where they are, and not hammering them with the full demands of the Christian life all at once.

No one models the simultaneous understanding and courage required by this approach more than Pope Francis. Pope Francis is an intrepid gradualist. He is so intrepid, in fact, that his approach often doesn’t seem that gradual. One need only look to his recent homilies. On one day, the pope will speak of the tender mercy of God, and the next, he will warn of the machinations of the devil. He will praise the courage of the Christian martyrs, and then chide Catholics who lead a double-life, such as those who exploit workers or do not pay a just wage, saying, “to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist,” (February 23 homily), and that when these souls “knock on heaven’s gate,” Christ will respond, “I don’t know you.”

In his February 14 homily, the pope said that a key trait of a Christian herald is “frankness,” and insisted that the Gospel not be presented “like a good philosophical or moral idea.” The pope also places great emphasis on the importance of Christian example. He recently tweeted, “The Christian heart is always full of joy,” and “Do not underestimate the value of example, for it is more powerful than a thousand words …” and warns that to proclaim the Gospel without prayer turns the Word of God into “a good conference.” Pope Francis does not dichotomize between words and deeds so as to render either unimportant. For him, Christian speech is a form of action, and Christian action is a form of speech.  

The joyful but demanding example of Pope Francis offers a concrete way to combine the message of mercy with the call to conversion, which ties into Lent. The pope embraces people with joy and love, and in the next moment, addresses the wounds of sin with frank clarity. He does not remain silent about the hard truths of conversion. Following his example, as students journeying in Lent, we can do the very same. We must be joyful examples in our friendships, but also help each other live the practical demands of conversion, and with the tenacity of Pope Francis, challenge each other to live by virtue.

Oliver Coughlin attended the University of California, Los Angeles for his undergraduate studies and is currently a second year law student at the University of Notre Dame.

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