The Personalist Project

All the post-conciliar popes have been personalists, which makes sense, because, as John Paul II said, Vatican II was "a personalist council."

Personalism is, I propose, the mode of the Church in the modern world.

John Paul was its original explicator. He absorbed modernity—its dynamics, issues, sufferings and aspirations—into his warm, capacious heart and deep, incisive mind. He sifted the wheat from the chaff, then brought the wheat into fruitful contact with the immutable mysteries of our Faith. His signal achievement was to demonstrate the dialectical (I could almost say conjugal) relation between the objectivity of truth and the subjectivity of the person.

Benedict XVI, an eminent and erudite theologian, confirms in all his speaking and writing the essential continuity of John Paul's developments with the living Tradition of the Church. 

Pope Francis is an intellectual in neither calling nor disposition, but, his words and way of being as Vicar of Christ everywhere bespeak personalism. His special emphases as pope have been intimacy with God in prayer ("the dialogue within") and openness and attention to the poor and the marginalized. What he has most passionately and constantly opposed is the ugliness and injustice of power dynamics—egotism, elitism, careerism, clericalism—which are opposites of the self-oblating, mutual love and service that personalism (not to mention the gospel) is all about.

Some Catholics think they perceive a worrying discontinuity between Francis and his predecessors. They fear, for instance, that while John Paul II and Benedict XVI forcefully opposed relativism, Francis flirts with it, skirts its edge, talks confusingly.

I think they misunderstand him (and them). Pope Francis doesn't downplay truth; rather, he directs our attention to it as it is embodied in persons. He doesn't suggest that truth is subjective; rather, he says and demonstrates what his predecessors and also said and demonstrated in their own way: that Truth is found in subjectivity and inter-subjectivity, i.e. communion with God and others. 

I saw an alarmist headlines last week: "Pope Emeritus Breaks Silence"—as if to suggest Benedict had come out with a critique (however discrete) of the present papacy. In fact, he had penned another profound and beautiful reflection (in an interview) on personalist themes very like Francis' own.

The interviewer began by asking the Pope Emeritus about the "resolute affirmation" in his latest book that "Faith is not an idea, but a life." He answers:

The question concerns what faith is and how one comes to believe.

On the one hand, faith is a profoundly personal contact with God, that touches me in my innermost being and places me in front of the living God in absolute immediacy in such a way that I can speak with Him, love Him and enter into communion with Him. 

So, what is "the other hand", then? Is it objectivism? Is it "a set of teachings to which I must give assent and conform my behavior"? That is what we might expect, but it's not what comes from the Pope Emeritus. Rather, he says, "on the other hand" is communion. On the one hand faith is all about my interior relationship with God; on the other hand, it's all about my relationship with others.

But at the same time this reality which is so fundamentally personal also has  inseparably to do with the community.

It is an essential part of faith that I be introduced into the "we" of the sons and daughters of God, into the pilgrim community of brothers and sisters. 

The encounter with God means also, at the same time, that I myself become open, torn from my closed solitude and received into the living community of the Church.

Again, this has nothing to do with subjectivism. What is mediated to me through the Church is real, and so must be the transcendence I achieve by overcoming egotism and opening myself to the truth, beauty and goodness found in and through others.

Those who look and listen closely, will notice several keys words and concepts that Benedict and Francis frequently stress in common:

Encounter: Faith begins as an encounter with God, and with others whose hearts are open to each other and to Him.

Tenderness: God is not hard and severe. He is not cold and condemnatory. He is "kind and merciful", tender-hearted toward human frailties.

Mercy: Mercy is the proper theme of our age; it is the only possible answer to the otherwise overwhelming evil in human experience.

Intimacy with God. The Christian life is lived from within and nourished by prayer—not prayers that are merely "said" outwardly, but a deep, inward, heart-speaks-to-heart intercourse with the divine source and redeemer of our being.

These popes are definitely singing the same song.

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