“Self-absorption”, “control anxiety”, “elitism”, “isolation from the people”, “abstraction”, “functionalism”… Like Jesus with the money changers in the Temple, Pope Francis has taken a whip to these and other “pathologies” in the Church.

– Prayers “meaningless” without awareness faith is God’s gift

On the feast today of the Ascension of the Lord, the pontiff sent a message to the Pontifical Mission Societies, whose general assembly he had planned to attend but which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the remarkable times in which we are living”, the Pope said in his text, the feast of the Ascension – which the Church celebrates forty days after Easter – “appears to me even more fruitful as a source of reflection for the journey and mission belonging to each one of us and to the entire Church”.

To that end, the Pope warned the Church that “unless we realise that faith is a gift of God, even the prayers which the Church raises to God are meaningless”.

“Nor do they reflect a sincere passion for the happiness and salvation of others and for those who do not recognise the risen Christ, however much time we may spend on planning for the conversion of the world to Christianity”, Francis continued.

– “Pitfalls and pathologies”

The Pope devoted a considerable portion of his text today to cautioning against “certain pitfalls and pathologies” that affect not only the Pontifical Mission Societies but also “many other ecclesial institutions” besides:

“Self-absorption”

“Church organisations and agencies, quite apart from the good intentions of their individual members, sometimes end up turning in on themselves, devoting energy and attention primarily to promoting themselves and to advertising their own initiatives”

“Control anxiety”

“Institutions and agencies sometimes set out to help ecclesial communities by employing the gifts generated in them by the Holy Spirit, yet over time they presume to exercise supremacy and control over the very communities they are meant to serve”

“Elitism”

“An elitist feeling, the unspoken notion of belonging to an aristocracy, takes hold at times among those who are part of groups and organized institutions in the Church: a superior class of specialists who strive to increase their own influence in collusion or in competition with other ecclesiastical elites, and train their members according to secular notions of activism or technical-professional competence, but always with the main goal of promoting their own oligarchic privileges”

“Isolation from the people”

“The elitist temptation in some organisations connected to the Church can be accompanied at times by a sentiment of superiority and of intolerance towards the rest of the baptised, towards the people of God who may attend parishes and visit shrines, but are not ‘activists’ busy in Catholic organisations”

“Abstraction”

“Once they become self-absorbed, institutions and entities connected to the Church lose contact with reality”

“Functionalism”

“Self-absorbed and elitist organisations, even within the Church, often end up staking everything on the imitation of secular models of worldly efficiency, like those rooted in competition, whether economic or social”

Summing up all those “pathologies”, the Pope warned that “a Church afraid of entrusting herself to the grace of Christ and focusing on the efficiency of its bureaucracy is already dead, even if structures and programmes that favour the interest of ‘self-absorbed’ clergy or lay people linger for centuries”.

– Starting again: “criteria and starting points” for authentic mission

To overcome the pitfalls associated with relying on Church members’ own initiatives, instead of God’s grace – and to clearly distinguish the Church’s confession of faith for what it is, “something different from all political, cultural, psychological or religious forms of proselytism” – the Pope proposed again a series of “criteria and starting points” for mission he set out in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium:

“Attractiveness”

“The joy that radiates from those attracted by Christ and by his Spirit is what can make any missionary initiative fruitful”

“Gratitude and Gratuitousness”

“Only in the freedom of gratitude can one truly know the Lord, whereas it is useless and above all improper to insist on presenting missionary activity and the proclamation of the Gospel as if they were a binding duty, a kind of “contractual obligation” on the part of the baptised”

“Humility”

“One can never think of serving the Church’s mission by employing arrogance as individuals and through bureaucracies, with the pride of one who misunderstands even the gift of the sacraments and the most authentic words of the Christian faith, seeing them as merited rewards”

“To facilitate, not to complicate”

“The Church is not a customs office and anyone who participates in the mission of the Church is called not to impose unnecessary burdens on people already worn out or to require demanding programmes of formation in order to enjoy what the Lord gives easily, or to erect obstacles to the will of Jesus, who prays for each of us and wants to heal and save everyone”

“Proximity to life ‘in progress'”

“Jesus met his first disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee while they were focused on their work. He did not meet them at a convention, a training workshop, or in the Temple. It has always been the case that the proclamation of Jesus’ salvation reaches people right where they are and just how they are”

“The ‘sensus fidei’ of the People of God”

“There is one reality in the world that has a kind of ‘feel’ for the Holy Spirit and his workings. It is the People of God, called and loved by Jesus, who for their part continue to seek him amid the difficulties of their lives”

“A special care for the little ones and the poor”

“Those directly involved with the Church’s missionary initiatives and structures should never justify their lack of concern for the poor with the excuse, widely used in particular ecclesiastical circles, of having to concentrate their energies on certain priorities for the mission. For the Church, a preference for the poor is not optional”

– “Leaving room for the Holy Spirit”

The Pope illustrated the necessity of moving past the “pitfalls and pathologies” of a self-centred Church to the new criteria he proposed for mission by pointing to those “many situations” in Catholic life today where he said “the primacy of grace appears to be no more than a theoretical concept or an abstract formulation”.

“Many initiatives and entities connected to the Church end up being concerned only with themselves”, Francis deplored, adding that “many ecclesiastical establishments, at every level, seem to be swallowed up by the obsession of promoting themselves and their own initiatives, as if that were the objective and goal of their mission”.

It is imperative the Church leave behind the “presumption of self-sufficiency” and “the temptation to commandeer Christ’s flesh, ascended to heaven, for narrowly ‘clerical’ projects and aims”, the Pope cautioned.

At stake, he said, is nothing less than “leaving room for the working of the Holy Spirit”.

More messages from Pope Francis, on Novena:

20/5: General Audience: Pope sings ode to Creation, “the Creation that we do not protect but which bears the signature of God”

How well do you know Laudato si’? Here’s a reminder of the key points of the Pope’s ‘green’ encyclical

17/5: Regina Caeli: Pope issues “urgent” appeal for “renewed dialogue” on future of planet

16/5: Santa Marta Mass: Pope hits out at spiritual worldliness, “the worst of the evils afflicting the Church”

Pope, in message for Day of Migrants: “God did not want the resources of our planet to benefit only a few. This was not the Lord’s will!”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.