Pope Francis on How Contemplation Leads to Action


Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudate et exsultate, on holiness in the modern world, initially seems to privilege charitable action over prayer and contemplation, saying that it is “not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service” (26). A reading of the full text, however, must lead to the understanding that there is an essential relationship between silence and service. Indeed, it is silence and contemplation that can best fight some of the dangers of modern society with which Pope Francis is most concerned: what he calls the heresies of contemporary Pelagianism and Gnosticism and the threat of Catholics operating as members of a mere non-profit organization. For Pope Francis, contemplation is actually a necessary but not a sufficient element of holiness that allows a charitable action to best bear fruit.

Gnosticism and Pelagianism

Pope Francis describes contemporary Gnosticism as unduly exalting knowledge and the possession of all the right answers as the apogee of holiness. Contemporary Pelagianism is a trust in one’s own will and powers to achieve holiness. These attitudes both fail to recognize the limits of human control and understanding; they can become disconnected from the ways in which God acts in everyday human life.

Now, these heresies are often implied to be temptations to which those who especially value liturgy and teaching are most vulnerable, but that need not be the case. One could believe that only by following all of the liturgical rubrics perfectly does one become holy. However, one can also believe that one makes himself holy entirely by his own acts of charity, instead of realizing the extent to which God’s grace gives him the power to be charitable to the needy. Both of these traps are neo-Pelagian in that they rely exclusively on own one’s efforts to be perfect; the difference lies in which actions the person emphasizes.

Similarly, the new Gnosticism may exist in a mere possession of all of the teachings of the faith and a “cold and harsh” expectation that others follow them perfectly. However, Pope Francis describes the new Gnosticism as “purely subjective” and as considering only “its own vision of reality to be perfect” (40). By this he means that a person who is not open to the Church’s authority and teaching but who exalts his own conscience and whims over all else – even raising them to the level of truth, thereby creating a “closed system” that feeds on itself and makes him believe that he is superior to others – can also fall into the trap of contemporary Gnosticism.

As such, these heresies are dangers to both the so-called “conservative” and “liberal” wings of the Church, and just because they are often presented as only being the vices of the liturgists and teachers does not mean that those focused on social justice and outreach can ignore them.

The Beatitudes

Returning to the main point, Pope Francis makes it clear that holiness consists not in reliance on one’s own actions or knowledge but in the Beatitudes and the “Great Criterion”: the corporal works of mercy described in Matthew 25. How, then, do silence and contemplation relate to these elements of a Christian life?

First, many of the Beatitudes are eminently compatible with silence and stillness. Those who mourn, for example, do not properly engage in the “entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape” (75) that the world offers. Instead, they see the suffering of the world and turn to Christ for consolation; rather than proposing inadequate explanations for the great mystery of suffering, they silently share in that suffering and come to the aid of those who suffer. They create a silent space within themselves in which God can offer them solace. Similarly, those who are persecuted are silent like sheep led to the slaughter, who do not retaliate or plot revenge but accept their persecution as binding them to Christ in the Passion. The meek are not ostentatious, and when they must speak, they do so with humility. All of these Beatitudes describe an interior disposition open to contemplation.

Now, the Beatitudes also exalt the peacemakers who clearly “do” something, but there runs through all the Beatitudes a sense that this blessedness comes not just from having done good, but from the interior spirit and freedom that allows people to do this good. Indeed, Pope Francis notes that faith becomes “a sort of NGO” (i.e., non-profit organization) when it is “stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident” (100) in the lives of the saints. As such, while he warns against a sterile silence, contemplation is foundational to his picture of holiness, to the point that he rejects “holiness without prayer, even though that prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions” (147). The Beatitudes, the image of holiness he prizes most, emphasize this affiliation between contemplative prayer and its fruit: service.

Authentic Prayer and Contemplation

According to Francis, “the best way to discern if our prayer is authentic is to judge to what extent our life is being transformed in the light of mercy” (105). He emphasizes that contemplation of the face of Christ increases one’s familiarity with it, and helps one learn to recognize that face in others and to know how to respond accordingly. This contemplation need not be measured by, let’s say, the standard of the ecstasy of St. Theresa of Avila, but it must occur nonetheless, otherwise one cannot hope to become truly familiar with the face of Christ and to see Him in the hungry, thirsty, and naked. Yes, one can meet the needs of the poor and give them what they need without believing that theirs is the face of Christ. What Pope Francis is emphasizing is that authentic prayer will keep this service from falling into the trap of contemporary Pelagianism and will ensure that we remember that it is not simply of our own power that we serve.

Silence, therefore, is not essentially escapism or a disdain for doing charity in the world; it allows “the quiet voice of the Lord” to be heard, and allows the contemplative to discern “the paths of holiness” to which he is called, because “unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter” (150), an insight that is especially important for bloggers and combox frequenters. Prayer does not remove one from the world but allows one to enter it more deeply, such as in the Ignatian Examen that prompts one to discern the consolations and desolations of the day and to see how we move closer to or further from God in daily life. Indeed, discernment is “all the more necessary today,” he says, because of the “culture of zapping” (167) in which people are immersed, that does not allow them to see deeply into the world but keeps them distracted by superficialities and does not give them the time to truly serve by doing anything more than sharing a picture on social media. Silent contemplation leads to action because it allows us to see the kinds of action to which we are called instead of paralyzing us with infinite possibilities. It is “an act of trust in God”(154) instead of in one’s own strength and knowledge, as it builds faith that God will call us to act where we are needed, instead of where we want to act.

Pope Francis has been described as using his papacy to scold introverts, but a fair reading of Gaudate et exsultate does much to counter that impression. For him, authentic contemplation and prayer must lead to service, but service must be purified by that same contemplation and prayer. He ends his exhortation by turning to Mary who “treasured everything in her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51) and who also lived the Beatitudes. And while he does not cite her words in the Gospel of John, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5), they nonetheless exemplify that connection between waiting to hear Christ’s call in contemplation and then responding.

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1 thought on “Pope Francis on How Contemplation Leads to Action”

  1. Pingback: Emmanual Carrère's The Kingdom and the Limits of Imagination - Catholic Stand

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