Book Review: The Cross as our Banner and Our Joy

Book Review: The Cross as our Banner and Our Joy March 28, 2015

Open Mind, Faithful Heart
By Pope Francis
Translated by Joseph V. Owens, SJ
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013

There’s a hymn that is popular in Latin America. It’s called “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long Live Christ the King). The first time I heard it while living and working in Nicaragua eight years ago, I was taken aback by its martial lyrics:

Un grito de guerra se escucha en la faz de la tierra y en todo lugar.
Los prestos guerreros empuñan su espada y se alistan para pelear.
Para eso han sido entrenados. Defenderán la Verdad.
Y no les será arrebatado ¡el fuego que en su sangre está!

(A war cry rings out all over the face of the earth.
The eager warriors grip their swords, ready to fight.
For this they have been trained. They will fight for the truth.
And no one will rob them of the fire that burns in their blood!)

As an aspiring peace activist, I am often concerned about the warlike sentiment that permeates our language. When hearing of the fight against cancer to the war on drugs, I worry about our tendencies to use metaphors related to violence and bloodshed.

And yet, I cannot deny that this aggressive fighting spirit is an integral part of our human nature and is not necessarily negative in all cases. It is arguably the source of the determination and resilience we need to survive and thrive in this world. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero may have been peacemakers, but they were also fighters: they strove with tireless drive and focus to create a more just world. As Catholic Christians, we are called to be just as steadfast, to be warriors in living our faith. This call to battle is the central spirit of Pope Francis’ wonderful book of meditations, Open Mind, Faithful Heart, where he urges his audience to be strong when faced with pessimism or despair:

A most serious temptation, one that impedes our contact with the Lord, is defeatism. When the enemy comes up against a faith that is by definition militant, he takes on the semblance of an angel of light and begins to sow seeds of pessimism. To engage effectively in any struggle, one must be fully confident of victory. Those who begin a struggle without robust confidence have already lost half the battle. Christian victory always involves a cross, but a cross that is the banner of victory […] Those faces of the humble folk with their simple piety are always faces of triumph, but they are also almost always accompanied by the cross. In contrast, the faces of the arrogant are always the faces of defeat (26).

Anyone who views Pope Francis as calling for a watered-down or unrigorous version of Catholicism should read this book. Staunchly resolute, Francis declares that “Our preaching will be authentic only if it derives from our being with Christ on the cross” (59) and “With the cross it is impossible to negotiate, impossible to dialogue: the cross is either embraced or rejected […] If we embrace the cross, then by that very decision we lose our life; we leave it in the hands of God, in the time of God, and it will be given back to us in a different form” (73). This is a tough message, but ultimately one that is central to the Gospel itself. And this, for me, is the greatest strength of Francis’ writing: his fluidity and astuteness when speaking of – and meditating on – the Bible.

Drawing on the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, Open Mind, Faithful Heart consists of forty-eight brief meditations divided into four sections: “Encountering Jesus,” which speaks of a personal relationship with Christ; “Manifestations of Light,” which responds to the idea of salvation history; “The Letters to the Seven Churches,” meditations on the seven churches in the Book of Revelation; and “Human Prayer,” which responds to the prayers of such central Biblical figures as Abraham, David, Job, Judith, Simeon and others. Although these reflections were originally written in different contexts and in different stages of Pope Francis’ career as a priest and pastoral leader, they fit together seamlessly into a coherent whole. Though primarily directed toward priests, they are relevant to all Christians seeking to grow in our relationship with Jesus as well as non-Christians seeking to gain a sense of what our faith is about.

It is impossible for me to give you a clear, concise summary of the points that Francis makes in this volume, for the book’s structure renders any such summary impossible. This is not a treatise on theology, but rather a book of devotional meditations on the challenge of the Christian life. Indeed, Francis expresses a certain wariness of intellectualism. “God did not create human intellect so that we could set ourselves up as the judges of all things,” he says. “Our intellect is not the light of the world; it is simply a flash for illuminating our faith” (28). Similarly, he urges us not to be afraid to say “I don’t know:” “Leading God’s faithful people sometimes requires us to forgo the urgency of answers and to remember that silence is often the best response of the wise”(85).

As I have stated, the greatest strength of this book in my view is its Scriptural focus. Drawing on both the Old and New Testaments, Francis makes the Bible come alive in a way that even the best homilists struggle to achieve. In a chapter entitled “The Vision of the Wedding Feast,” for example, Francis examines the wedding – a motif that recurs throughout both testaments of the Bible – as a metaphor for God’s ongoing, unfolding relationship with his people: “Before Christ there is the time of waiting, the betrothal; the earthly presence of the Messiah represents the time of the wedding; then there is the time of separation, or widowhood; and finally there is the time of moving toward the consummation, the expectation of the final, eschatalogical wedding” (146). Francis views the wedding with its various stages as a most apt metaphor for salvation history, an ongoing cosmic drama in which we are all called to take part.

Similarly fascinating is the meditation on the Book of Revelation, which Francis argues is not a story of the end of the world, but rather a book of consolation. Citing the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Francis states that divine consolation does not take the form of counsel, but images and symbols that must be interpreted. For Francis, it is imperative that all of us draw joy and meaning from the symbols in Revelation; however, he sees this process as particularly important for priests engaged in pastoral work:

As we behold this Lord and allow his message to emerge for us out of that tension between images and words, let us ask ourselves about the joy we feel in ministry, about our zeal, our sadness, our worries. As symbol, the figure of the Lord makes us holy; as word, he draws close and humanizes us. Let us ask about the ways we sanctify ourselves. With what attitude do we pardon sins? How do we draw close to people in their everyday lives? Does a special love inspire all our gestures? The Lord does away with all the old ritual mechanisms and makes sacred only love, revealed as a quiet word and a gesture of solidarity in the command, “Fear not.” All sadness in ministry, all fatigue, all drying up of the fountains of fervor result from losing contact with this living Lord (172).

From here, Francis goes on to unlock the symbolism of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation. The Church of Smyrna has become fatigued and bitter; Ephesus has lost the zeal of its first love; Laodicea has become “lite” and lukewarm. Francis traces God’s call to each of these churches to return to its original strength and devotion, and in doing so he extends this call to the global church of today’s world.

One drawback of Francis’ book, in my view, is its tendency to speak in abstractions. While there is much meditation on joy, hope, grace, sin, fear, prayer and salvation, there are few examples of the ways that these phenomena actually take form in our lives. But perhaps this perceived weakness is actually a strength. It is clear that Francis originally intended these meditations to be shared with fellow priests, and when he does bring in concrete examples, they usually relate to pastoral care. By speaking more abstractly, Francis has written a series of reflections that a much wider audience can relate to – not only the Catholic laity, but also non-Catholic Christians looking for a fresh meditation on Scripture or perhaps even non-Christians who are curious to learn about our faith from the perspective of its most prominent earthly leader.

Ultimately, Francis reminds us again and again of what Christianity is all about: accompanying Jesus right up to the cross. The Christian life is not easy, he tells us. “Following Jesus means deciding to walk in his footsteps, and that guarantees the cross. Such a path is far removed from the concessions made by those whose divided hearts dream of peaceful harmony between the Lord of glory and the spirit of the world!” (65). But, ultimately, the rewards of this path are endless – not only as we wait in expectation of Christ’s return at the end of time, but as we encounter the deep joy that stems from humbly yet resolutely following this path every day of our lives.

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