The Personalist Project

Just a couple quick thoughts:

1. The power of personal presence.

I'm thinking of Newman's emphasis on the role of personal influence in acquiring knowledge: book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment... The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. 

The point is especially true of religious knowledge. Christian truth is transmitted primarily through personal witness.

It is intended for the many not the few... its great instrument, or rather organ, has ever been that which nature prescribes in all education, the personal presence of a teacher... It is the living voice, the breathing form, the expressive countenance, which preaches, which catechises. 

I felt this especially listening to the Pope's address to Congress. In that hall, where stridency and arrogance and mendacity are the norm, it was the gentleness and humility of the Pope's voice and bearing that stood out—reached out—that attracted and evangelized.

It wasn't only in his formal addresses that the Pope's presence had an impact. A New Yorker described his experience of the Pope's visit this way:

I watched the Pope ride down a street in NY with church bells pealing – the tears came – the phone rang – my sister in MD said are you crying? I said yes – she said me too and neither of us knew why – we’re not Catholic. Side by side sat Boehner and Biden – both Catholic – one weeping – one not, in fact in every picture of Boehner standing near the Pope, he weeps…. The next day Boehner announces resignation, like a man who found permission to lay down the weight of the world finally.

Pope Francis embodies the Holy Spirit and when you feel that presence you cannot help it – it’s spontaneous – especially if you’ve been humbled.  You can’t make people more spiritual – only God can do that if the person is willing – if they are just looking for more political correctness, and not looking for God, things won’t change – in any denomination.

Those of us who tend toward books and ideas and words and doctrines can easily forget this dimension of the Pope's efficacy. The Vicar of Christ is not an office, but a person. To be a Christian is even more about Real Presence than it is about true teaching.

2. His themes were all personalist themes. They were, you could say, anti-ideological themes. Look at the person in front of you—the wounded person in front of you, who needs healing, attention, care. Build bridges not walls. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted. Don't condemn. (It's not for us to condemn.) Offer love, hope, help.

He is guiding us by word and deed toward a new way of being Christian, which is really the old way, the original way. Stop contending for power. Stop being oppositional. Stop making demands. Don't be like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead, open your hearts, show mercy, show humility, put yourselves in service. That's where you'll find Jesus, and joy.

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