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Pope Francis discusses traditionalism, liturgy wars and synodality with Jesuits in Canada

The complete text of the conversion can be found on-line in La Civiltá Cattolica, under the headline “Walking Together: Francis in conversation with Jesuits in Canada.” The following article contains the introduction and questions, edited for length and clarity, and the main extracts. The full report will be published in the print editions of La Civilta’ Cattolica on Sept. 3

Editor’s note: On the morning of his last day in Canada, July 29, 2022, Pope Francis met 15 Jesuits from the Canadian province, which includes Haiti, at the residence of Archbishop Gerald Lacroix, in Quebec City.

In response to their questions, he praised the Canadian bishops for being so united and said his visit was just “the icing on the cake. He reminded them that “the Indigenous People are really very capable of dealing with the question [of reconciliation], and are able to commit themselves.”

Speaking about synodality, he said, “the church is either synodal or it is not church.” He said he did not meet victims of sexual abuse during his visit, as some had requested, because of lack of time and especially because “I wanted to bring out a strong theme in this trip, that regarding the Indigenous People.” He emphasized the fundamental importance of “exchange, confrontation and dialogue” for communication.

Asked whether he envisaged further changes in canon law in relation to abuse, Francis said: “Law cannot be kept in a refrigerator. Law accompanies life and life goes on. Like morals, it is being perfected.” He also talked about the crisis in Haiti.

Speaking about synodality, the pope said, “the church is either synodal or it is not church.”

Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editor in chief of La Civiltá Cattolica, recorded the conversation, which will be published in that journal on Sept. 3. He gave America permission to publish the main extracts.

Marc Rizzetto, S.J., of the Quebec community welcomed Francis on behalf of those present and the more than 200 Jesuits of the province, and said, “In this country, which is one of the largest provinces of the Society of Jesus, we work with joy and hope, in the image of St. Jean de Brébeuf and companions, the Holy Canadian Martyrs.” He added, “Living among the fragile, being courageous despite our fragility, aware of the greatness of each person and always eager to share the treasures of our spirituality, we are called today to be men for and with others, pilgrims.”

He concluded by telling Francis: “We are with you in the boat, rowing with you, appreciating the direction you are giving to the church and praying for you. Thank you for contributing to the work of reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples.” 

•••

Pope Francis began by telling them: “This is my third time in Canada. The first time was in the 1970s. I was going to do my tertianship in Spain, and since I had already been appointed novice master, I visited some novitiates. I went to Colombia and Mexico. In Canada there were no novices, actually, but father general asked me to come here to visit Father Michel Ledrus. So I went to meet him in Saint Jérôme. Father Ledrus was a truly great spiritual master. That was my first trip to Canada. The second time was in June 2008, for the International Eucharistic Congress here in Quebec. I gave a reflection on the theme “The Eucharist builds up the church, sacrament of salvation.” This, then, is my third visit to your country. Many thanks for your welcome!

He said he was “struck” by the word “fragility” that Father Marc had used and remarked: “So many times we hear it said that the Jesuits are the army of the church, the powerful army…. It’s all fantasy! Never should our thinking come to reflect our own self-sufficiency. I believe that the real strength of a Jesuit begins in the awareness of his own fragility. It is the Lord who gives us strength.”

“So many times we hear it said that the Jesuits are the army of the church, the powerful army…. It’s all fantasy!”

He then invited questions saying, “All right, now as in football, let’s have the ball in the middle and play with your questions!”

One Jesuit told him, “We are in a process of reconciliation that is not over. We are on the way” and asked, “What are the consolations of this pilgrimage of yours?”

Five years ago, I received a visit from Canada’s prime minister, the same one you have today. At that meeting, he asked me to do something about the Indigenous Peoples and the residential schools. The bishops had also spoken to me about them. The judgment of all was that something needed to be done, but also that it had to be well prepared. The bishops have prepared well, for years, a process that has gone so far as to make this visit of mine possible. We have passed from a phase in which it seemed that the matter was of concern mostly to the bishops of the areas concerned, to having the full involvement of the episcopate.

You see, the most important thing is precisely the fact that the episcopate came together in agreement, took up the challenge, and moved ahead. This Canadian experience is an example of a united episcopate. When an episcopate is united, then it can deal with the challenges that arise. I am a witness to what I have seen. This, then, I want to stress: If everything is going well, it is not because of my visit. I am just the icing on the cake. It is the bishops who have done everything with their unity.

“If everything is going well, it is not because of my visit. I am just the icing on the cake. It is the bishops who have done everything with their unity.”

It is also good to remember with humility that the Indigenous People are really very capable of dealing with the question [of reconciliation] and are able to commit themselves.

These are the miracles that can happen when the church is united. Also, I have seen familiarity between the bishops and Indigenous Peoples. Of course, there is no point hiding it, there are some who work against healing and reconciliation, in society as in the church. Even last night I saw a small traditionalist group protesting, and saying that the church is something else…. But that is the way things are.

I only know that one of the worst enemies against the unity of the church and of the episcopates is ideology. So, let us go ahead with this process on the road. I like the motto of the journey, which says it clearly: Walking Together. Walk, but together. You know the saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if instead you want to go surely, go together.”

Another Jesuit remarked, “You speak of pilgrimage, reconciliation and listening,” and asked, “Does all this shape your synodal vision of the church? Is this what you are talking about?” Francis responded:

Look, it bothers me that the adjective “synodal” is used as if it were the latest quick fix for the church. When one says “synodal church” the expression is redundant: the church is either synodal or it is not church. That is why we have come to a synod on synodality, to reiterate this. Certainly, we can say that the church in the West had lost its synodal tradition. The church of the East has preserved it. One can discuss the ways of living synodality, certainly. Paul VI set up the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops because he intended to go ahead on this issue. Synod after synod has gone ahead, tentatively, improving, understanding better, maturing.

He recalled that, “In 2001 I was a relator for the Synod of Bishops. I substituted for Cardinal Egan who had to return to his diocese, New York, because of the Twin Towers tragedy. I remember that the opinions were collected and sent to the general secretariat. Then I gathered the material and prepared it for the vote. The secretary of the synod came to see me, read the material and told me to remove this or that detail. There were things he did not consider appropriate and he censored them. There was, in short, a pre-selection of material. There was little understanding of what a synod is. At the end of the last synod, in the survey on the topics to be dealt with in the next one, the first two were the priesthood and synodality. I understood that it was necessary to reflect on the theology of synodality in order to make a decisive step forward.”

“When one says ‘synodal church’ the expression is redundant: the church is either synodal or it is not church.”

Francis added: “It seems fundamental to me to repeat, as I often do, that the synod is not a political meeting nor a committee for parliamentary decisions. It is the expression of the church where the protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If there is no Holy Spirit there is no synod. There may be democracy, parliament, debate, but there is no ‘synod.’ If you want to read the best book of theology on the synod, then re-read the Acts of the Apostles. There you can clearly see that the protagonist is the Holy Spirit. The action of the Spirit is experienced in the synod. The dynamic of discernment happens. One experiences, for example, that at times an idea moves quickly, people quarrel and then something happens that brings things together again, that harmonizes them in a creative way. That is why I like to make it clear that the synod is not focused on a vote, nor is it a dialectical confrontation between a majority and a minority. The risk is also that of losing the overall picture, the sense of things.”

He said: “This has happened with the reduction of synod themes to a particular issue. The Synod on Family, for example. It was said that it was organized to give communion to remarried divorcees. But in the post-synodal exhortation on this theme there is only a footnote because all the rest are reflections on the theme of the family, such as that on the family catechumenate. There is so much richness. One cannot squeeze it all into the funnel of a single issue. I repeat, if the church is church, then it is synodal. It has been so from the beginning.”

A Jesuit noted that journalists are asking, “Why is the pope apologizing on behalf of Christians but not of the church as an institution?” and asked, “How can we answer?”

Yes, I heard. Look, I really do not understand this difficulty. I do not speak for myself or for an ideology or a party. I am a bishop, and I speak in the name of the church, not in my own name. I speak in the name of the church even when I do not make it explicit. Indeed, I do not have to make it explicit because it is obvious that I do so. On the contrary, I would say, I must make it explicit that it is a personal thought of mine when I am not speaking in the name of the church. Then yes, I must say so.

A Jesuit who works in church media asked: “In this field is it important to collaborate and network, including with the bishops?”

Certainly! It is important above all that dialogue be extended. Dialogue is never superfluous among media professionals and certainly also with bishops. Exchange, confrontation and dialogue are fundamental for communication.

“I do not speak for myself or for an ideology or a party. I am a bishop, and I speak in the name of the church, not in my own name.”

Speaking of the media, one thing comes to mind. I have seen that some have wondered why I have not had a specific meeting during this trip with those who have been victims of sexual abuse. As a matter of fact, I received several letters in this regard before the trip. I replied to these letters and explained that there were two issues. The first was one of time, of schedule. The second, important for me, was that I wanted to bring out a strong theme in this trip, that regarding the Indigenous People, so that it would be very clear. Many people responded to me saying that they understood that this was not an exclusion at all. In other contexts, such as the visit to Ireland, the meetings were possible and the theme emerged clearly.

A Jesuit canon lawyer referring to abuse in the church remarked: “You have made a lot of changes. Some call you the pope of changes. You have also made changes at the penal level, with regard to abuse, and this has been beneficial for the church.” He asked, “I would like to know how you see things evolving to date and whether you foresee further changes in the future.”

Yes, that is true. Changes needed to be made, and they were made. Law cannot be kept in a refrigerator. Law accompanies life and life goes on. Like morals, it is being perfected. Before, slavery was lawful, now it is no longer. Today, the church has said that even the possession of the atomic weapon is immoral, not only its use. This was not said before. The moral life is progressing along the same line. It is the teaching of St. Vincent of Lérins: ita étiam christiánae religiónis dogma sequátur has decet proféctuum leges, ut annis scílicet consolidétur, dilatétur témpore, sublimétur aetáte (“The dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws. It progresses, consolidating over the years, developing with time, deepening with age”). St. Vincent of Lérins compares the biological development of humans with the transmission from one age to another of the depositum fidei, which grows and consolidates with the passage of time. Human understanding changes with time, and human consciousness deepens.

“Someone once said that tradition is the living memory of believers. Traditionalism instead is the dead life of our believers.”

The vision of the doctrine of the church as monolithic, to be defended without nuance is wrong. That is why it is important to have respect for tradition, the authentic one. Someone once said that tradition is the living memory of believers. Traditionalism instead is the dead life of our believers. Tradition is the life of those who have gone before us and who go on. Traditionalism is their dead memory. From root to fruit, in short, that is the way. We must take the origin as a reference, not a particular historical experience taken as a perpetual model, as if we had to stop there. “Yesterday it was done like this” becomes “it always has been done like this.” But this is a paganism of thought! What I have said also applies to legal matters, to law.

A Jesuit from Haiti told him: We are going through a process of national reconciliation, but hope is being lost. Considering what we are experiencing in Canada, what can we say to the Haitian church to have hope? As Jesuits what can we do?

Haiti is currently in a critical situation. It is going through an ordeal, as if it cannot find the right way forward. It does not seem to me that the international organizations have understood what to do. I feel very close to Haiti, not least because I am constantly updated on the situation by some priest friends of mine. I fear that it is falling into a pit of despair. How can we help Haiti to grow in hope? If there is one thing we can do as church it is certainly prayer, penance.… But we must ask ourselves how we can help. The people of Haiti are a noble people. There, I simply say to you that I am aware of what is happening.

A Jesuit student of liturgy asked a question about “liturgy and the unity of the church” and asked “how important this subject is in formation” and “to our pastoral commitment as Jesuits.”

When there is conflict the liturgy is always mistreated. In Latin America 30 years ago there were monstrous liturgical deformations. Then they moved to the opposite side with a backward-looking [indietrista] intoxication with the old. A division was established in the church. My action in this field has aimed to follow the line taken by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who had allowed the ancient rite and had asked for subsequent verification. The most recent verification made it clear that there was a need to regulate the practice, and above all to avoid it becoming a matter, let us say, of “fashion” and remaining instead a pastoral question. I look forward to the studies that will refine the reflection on the theme that is important: The liturgy is the people of God’s public praise!

Since time had run out, the pope invited all present to pray a Hail Mary together. He then imparted his blessing and suggested a group photo.

This article has been updated.

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