By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
During his recently-concluded 34th Apostolic Journey (12 – 15 September), Pope Francis visited Hungary for the closing Mass of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, before flying to Slovakia where he visited Bratislava, Šaštín, Presov and Košice.
In Slovakia, the Holy Father met with a group of about 53 Jesuits on Sunday, 12 September, the evening of his arrival in the country. The official transcript of his words to Slovak Jesuits was released on Tuesday by the Jesuit review "La Civiltà Cattolica".
After a few words of welcome from the provincial of the Slovak Province, Pope Francis engaged with them in conversation, responding to questions directed at him.
The questions covered a wide variety of topics: from the Holy Father’s health after his surgery in July, the mission of the Society of Jesus in Slovakia, and the challenges faced by the Church in the country.
Closeness to God and His people
Pope Francis urged the members of the Jesuit order engaged in pastoral work in Slovakia to serve God’s people inspired by one word: closeness.
First, he told them, “closeness with God.” He stressed the importance of prayer – not the formal prayer that does not touch the heart – but one that struggles with God and draws us closer to Him. He also warned against falling into the temptation of being too busy to pray. The Pope then stressed the importance of closeness among themselves – a charitable love among brothers which helps to build community life.
The Holy Father also emphasized closeness to the Bishop, including the Pope, and finally, closeness with the People of God. He encouraged the Jesuits to meditate on Pope Paul VI’s words to the Society of Jesus during the 32nd General Congregation, and urged them to go the peripheries and the crossroads while keeping a spirit of obedience to their provincials.
He reminded them that being close to God's people is important because it ‘frames’ us, helping us never to forget where we are drawn from and where we come from - our people. However, he warned, “if we detach ourselves and move toward an ethereal universality, then we lose our roots. Our roots are in the Church, which is the people of God.”
Responding to a separate question about how he sees the Society of Jesus today, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of discernment and prayer, especially in times when fervor is lacking or in times of desolation. He also held up the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola – the founder of the Society of Jesus - as a real treasure that contains rules of discernment that need to be better known.
Challenges of the Church
Pope Francis spoke about the challenges of the Church in the face of the “temptation to go backwards” in search of security, noting that this is not really a universal problem, but rather specific to the Churches of certain countries.
He explained that in a world that is so conditioned by dependencies and virtuality, “it frightens us to be free.” He recalled the example of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” who reproaches Jesus for giving us freedom. "We are afraid to move forward in pastoral experiences," he said, thinking of the work done during the synod on the family "to make it understood that couples in second unions are no longer condemned to hell." "We are afraid to accompany people with sexual diversity. We are afraid of the crossroads of which Paul VI spoke".
The Pope went on to warn against seeking the way out in rigidity and clericalism. “Today I believe that the Lord is asking the Society to be free, with prayer and discernment,” the Pope said, adding that it is “beautiful to bring forward the freedom of the Gospel.”
He however cautioned against imprudence, stressing that we need to be attentive and vigilant. He said that turning back is not the right way, instead, moving forward “in discernment and obedience.”
To another question about the challenges of the Church in Slovakia and the opinion of critics, the Pope stressed the importance of real dialogue before making judgments. He added that he personally “may deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve this: it is the work of the devil. I have even said this to some of them,” he said.
The Holy Father also spoke about the decision - the result of consultation with bishops across the world – to redefine celebrations with the pre-conciliar liturgy (vetus ordo), so as to return “to the true intentions of Benedict XVI and John Paul II.” He restated that permission from Rome must be sought as it is done with biritualism.
"I go forward," Pope Francis said, “not because I want to make a revolution. I do what I feel I must do. It takes a lot of patience, prayer and a lot of charity."
Pope Francis then responded to a question on the growing global concern for migrants and refugees. He reiterated his call that migrants need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated, keeping in mind the capacities of their host countries. “Leaving migrants without integration is leaving them in misery,” he said, “it is equivalent to not welcoming them.”
The Holy Father concluded his meeting with Slovak Jesuits by stressing the importance of studying the phenomenon of migration to understand its causes and consequences, particularly situations of migration caused by geopolitical factors.