By Christopher Wells
The Vatican Publishing House (Libreria Editrice Vaticana “LEV”), with the Dicastery for Communication, has released a new volume of Pope Francis’s writings, focusing on the Holy Father’s reflections on human relationships – the relationships that exist between people created in the image of God.
Entitled “Diverse and United: I communicate, therefore I am”, the new book is part of the “exchange of gifts” series from LEV that gathers the Pope’s texts and speeches on various topics, together with never-before-published material. The series has an ecumenical focus, with most volumes including a preface written by a representative of one of the non-Catholic Churches or Ecclesial Communities.
The current volume is introduced by Dr Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the principle leader of the Anglican Communion.
In his preface, Welby writes, “My brother in Christ, Pope Francis, lays before us in his words the promise of divine love and mercy: the love that God has for His people and the invitation that God gives to each of us to be in a relationship with Him”. He adds, “There is a great deal to learn from his words and writings contained in this book”.
“With the gaze of Christ”
Diverse and United includes a never-before-published chapter entitled “With the gaze of Christ”. In it, Pope Francis reflects on the Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life. The Gospel of Mark recounts a significant detail of their meeting: “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him”.
This, writes Pope Francis, reveals something about Jesus’ style: the Lord is not focused primarily on what the man is saying, but upon the man himself. This reveals how necessary it is, for truly human communication, “to enter into contact with the world and with others, and to build relationships”.
Contemplating the “other”
The Holy Father explains that “without this look of love, human communication… can easily become only a dialectical duel”. Instead, by opening ourselves up to the “other”, we are able to approach the question of the meaning of existence, both our own, and that of our interlocutor.
Communication can then become not simply a means of exchanging information, but of building communion.
A predisposition to openness
This way of communicating involves a certain risk. Although it begins with a knowledge of our own identity, it must also be open to listening to the position of the other person. Effective dialogue means being secure in one’s own identity, but also recognizing the identity of the other and open to their freedom.
Here, Pope Francis notes the observation of Saint John Henry Newman, who taught that, oftentimes, human conversation does not depend primairy on the truth of the point in question (although this is necessary and important), but on one's predispositions of openness. Precisely because so much relies on the disposition of those with whom we speak, says Pope Francis, communication must be an encounter “capable of disrupting and transforming” those dispositions. In other words, it must be open to conversion – and “this takes courage”.
The importance of freedom
Pope Francis notes that, in the Gospel, the rich young man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions”. The young man was sad because he was not truly free, but was enslaved by his possessions.
“It is precisely freedom that is the essential ‘seasoning’ for making people’s existence on earth fully human, and therefore every act of communication fully human”, Pope Francis writes. “Without freedom there is no truth.Every relationship becomes fiction, hypocrisy, slips into superficiality, or worse, instrumentalization.”
But the next words of Jesus suggest that the rich young man might not be lost. When the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved,” Jesus responds, “With man it is impossible, but not with God”.
This, says Pope Francis, indicates an openness to prayer, to inviting God to be part of our conversations. The Pope notes that here, too, Jesus is looking at those with whom He is speaking.
Pope Francis concludes his reflection with a prayer that “God’s gaze might always rest on our lives”; and that, as we enter into relationships and communicate with others, we might have the same “gaze of Jesus, who looks upon us with eyes of gratuitous and generous love to the point of total self-giving”.