Fr. Brian Reedy, a US Navy Reserve chaplain who is pursuing a doctorate in philosophical theology, says to understand Pope Francis, it is important to understand his Jesuit formation. CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

To understand Pope Francis, you have to understand the Jesuits

By  Elise Harris, CNA/EWTN News
  • July 2, 2017

ROME, Italy – Discernment is one of the words Pope Francis repeats most, especially when speaking to priests and seminarians – a concept that may seem obscure without an understanding its importance to the Pope's Jesuit formation.

“When a Jesuit says 'discernment,' they’re employing a term that has a very rich spiritual tradition within the Society of Jesus, so you can presume a lot in that,” said Fr. Brian Reedy, SJ, a US Navy Reserve chaplain who is pursuing a doctorate in philosophical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Fr. Reedy explained that discernment is something St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, emphasized profoundly in his Spiritual Exercises, which form the “backbone” of Jesuit spirituality.

In terms of Catholic moral theology, Fr. Reedy said it exists between the camp of what is “permitted” and what is “transformative,” and that beyond the permitted sign lies what is “forbidden.”

One key rule of discernment that is often forgotten is the guiding principle of “thinking with the Church,” Fr. Reedy said. This means that “whatever you discern, you’re not only thinking about the moral law and how that functions, but also specifically thinking with the Church.”

Pope Francis “is completely steeped in Jesuit tradition and is a man completely of the exercises,” Fr. Reedy said. “You can hear a Jesuit who has contemplated the life of Jesus.”

He notes that Francis' pedagogical or didactic style “is very much patterned on Jesus’, who often gave very oblique and obscure answers to questions.”

Christ did this, he said, “to specifically avoid a kind of legalism that just wants a solid answer that can then be manipulated in some way,” whereas true discernment means “you’re not interested in rules for the sake of rules, (or) tools that can be manipulated or used as weapons; what you’re interested in is finding the best, the truest, the most holy, the most transformative.”

“When he senses that somebody’s asking a question in order to pin something down in a way he fears is going to hurt somebody else” Francis gets obscure, he said, explaining that the Pope is “very sensitive” to having doctrine “turned into a weapon of sorts.”

Part of the confusion surrounding Pope Francis' sayings and writings is that his language can frequently be ambiguous and imprecise, leaving people scratching their heads trying to figure out what he actually meant.

But for Fr. Reedy, this isn't a Jesuit quality so much as it is a personal limitation of the Vicar of Christ.

“Francis is a complicated character. He’s not a precise theologian, so I think some of the ambiguity and imprecision just comes from his own training and background, which the Church just has to be patient with,” he said.

“I think people should stop pretending that Jesus was crystal-clear when he said things all the time,” Fr. Reedy said, noted that Christ “specifically said at times that he was intentionally being confusing. He would say that he was using parables so those other people over there wouldn’t understand – he would say that.”

However, even though Christ could at times speak cryptically, he was clear when pressed on important topics, such as the Eucharist and the meaning behind his words “this is my body,” and that to enter eternal life his disciples must “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

So when it comes to Pope Francis, Fr. Reedy said people have to take into account “the Jesus-like way he teaches,” which he said is often at play in the Pope's speeches.

But there is also an element of manipulation when it comes to the Pope's ambiguity which must be addressed.

“I think (the Pope's) ambiguity is being manipulated,” Fr. Reedy said, explaining that in these cases, “I think we need to continue to push for greater clarity.”

(Catholic News Agency)

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