I was honored recently to be asked to write a review of a soon-to-be released collection of writings by then-Cardinal Bergoglio, personally selected by him just weeks before his election to the papacy. I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog as well!
The collection, entitled Open Mind, Faithful Heart (Crossroad Publishing) is a wonderful collection of forty-eight brief reflections (I deliberately avoid describing them as “essays”) written by Cardinal Bergoglio. Many of them read as if they began as short talks given during retreats, but whatever their origin, they are a wonderful, delightful and insightful resource for a questing heart and soul. I would strongly recommend that a person encountering this book for the first time should not read it as one would read an autobiography, even a spiritual autobiography, for this is not that kind of text. Rather, I recommend that one scan the Table of Contents and select a reflection that has particular resonance or interest, and prayerfully enter into the reflection as if going on retreat.
The text itself has been arranged somewhat thematically into four broad categories, but there is great variety even within each section. Several things stand out in each and every reflection. First is the overall tone of the texts. In the months since his election to the See of Peter, all have been struck by the new Pope’s simplicity of style, he warm and engaging relationships with all he meets, and his focus on God’s mercy and human touch. This is often contrasted with his predecessor’s more academic style, tone, and obvious intellectual bent. These essays, however, broaden our appreciation of Pope Francis, for this is a many who has an intellectual brilliance and sophistication th
at might easily be overlooked. It is a useful reminder that our popes are all complex human beings who defy easy and simplistic characterization. just as Pope Benedict is known as a brilliant academic, his friends also know him as a gentle, caring person of great empathy, we find Pope Francis to be not only a warm, engaging pastoral personality, but also a man of intellectual depth and maturity as well.
Second, the texts are grounded on a solid foundation of scripture, but not merely in an academic manner. Pope Francis finds the human touch
in these scripture passages, easily connecting them to the real world of everyday life and ministry. Apparently the original texts did not provide the specific scriptural citations, and the editors have performed an admirable service by including those references in the current text.
Third, we encounter the marriage of text and context so apparent in Pope Francis’ public ministry: his use of simple, graphic language which spea
ks directly, and yet almost mystically, to the hearts of his listeners. Here, his use of language is no less profound and direct. As I wrote above, these are reflections meant to be “read” and taken to heart. However, while they are food for the soul, they also encourage us to action in the very real exigencies of life. In essence, these forty-eight reflections constitute a spiritual retreat for all who are weary and looking for direction in living out the demands of discipleship in the contemporary world.
Let me conclude by looking at just one of the reflections in the book. I have selected reflection #19, “Passing On the Faith” because I have been teaching a graduate course this semester on “Teaching the Faith” at a Catholic university. Cardinal Bergoglio begins this reflection by linking the God’s Epiphany not merely to the “earthly existence” of Jesus but to those who have received God’s gift throughout the ages ad have become “disciples of Jesus and apostles for others.” With a rich use of scripture, he places the reader/listener in the middle of history: standing on the shoulders of all those who have gone before us bearing witness to God’s presence through lives and passing that along to us, while we ourselves are challenged to look forward to those generations to come who rely on our own witness to pass that gift along to them. He reminds us of the joy that God’s epiphany brings, and that this joy generates glory to God. He challenges us that we are messengers of God’s presence, not our own, and he echoes St. Paul: “the disciples are to decrease so that Christ increases.” The reflection ends with a simple prayer:
Seeing joy weep tears,
seeing wealth so poor,
seeing greatness brought low,
and seeing that so was God’s desire.
Great was the mercy we received
on that most blessed day!
Whoever sees it, may it be I!
Making peace amid so much war,
bringing warmth to such great cold,
letting what is mine belong to all,
planting heaven here on earth.
What a magnificent mission
God has entrusted to our hands!
Whoever does it, may it be I! Amen.