A Papal Perspective on Community

Pope Francis’ first sixth months in the Vatican have made waves within Catholic communities and in the mainstream media. As head of the Catholic Church, and the proclaimed direct successor to Peter, the Pope directs the Catholic flock, bringing certain theological, moral, spiritual and social issues to the atten­tion of members of the Catholic Church, as well as to the forefront of the universal debate on faith.

Francis has made much news, in particular, because of his unique approach towards religious and non-religious communi­ties around the world. He has made himself more public than his predecessor Benedict XVI, demonstrating an emotional affection and personal touch that might become the distinction of his pa­pacy. For example, at World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, he granted direct interviews on the flight there, walking among the crowd and celebrating mass on the beach at the event. He has visited many leaders of other faiths to speak with them and according to CNN, has become the most spoken about man on the internet. And, of course, the Pope appears in a “selfie” taken with teenagers at the Vatican, look­ing adorably puzzled into the camera.

Yet despite all his proximity to the people and his approachable ways, an in-depth, public interview with the Pope did not exist— until now. He recently granted his first interview with the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, which was translated into English by their US counterpart, America. News of the interview made the front page of the New York Times and other mainstream media, at which point I decided to read the original. In the interview, the Pope speaks widely of how he sees the Church’s current state and role, emphasizing the Catholic Church’s mandate of the proclama­tion of “Christian love and salvation, first and foremost.” This, as a central Christian value, appears to Francis to be essential in propa­gating the message of the Church and building a strong commu­nity around shared beliefs.

To me, Francis provides a road map for those seeking to strengthen both their personal beliefs and those of the communi­ties of which they are a part. These need not be just Christian be­liefs, but the beliefs and values shared by a community—Swarth­more, for example. What does Pope Francis say that can help Swarthmore students, faculty and staff build a stronger value-based community?

In the interview, three main themes stand out to me. First, hu­mility is an essential virtue, not only for serving others before your­self, but for being able to value and take pride in the small things that you do and that are done for you. Second, beliefs grow the most and values are strongest in harmonized communities where members work in service of each other. Communities need to search for common threads in values and beliefs and focus on com­ing together around that common ground. Third, Francis provides some advice to communities that want to grow. Communities must think critically about what their strongest selling points are and then advertise those most strongly at first, tailoring these points according to who the potential members are. All of these themes resonated with me as I understand the role of faith in my life. I also think they can provide an approach for us to become a more united Swarthmore, truly built around the values of “Ci­vility, Respect and tolerance for difference, Consensus-based decision-making, Access, and Sustainability,” as President Chopp defines them.

Humility is the first step in building communities grounded in values, since it can be done by an individual. It is important not just because being humble keeps you from being a holier-than-thou type or because it keeps one closer to fellow community members, but because, for Francis, many virtues flow from humility: patience, the ability to accept your flaws, and taking pleasure in the small things.

Francis exemplifies these virtues himself. When asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (the Pope’s given name)?” he answers “a sinner … is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” According to Francis, being a sinner is integral to the condition of being human, even as we try to escape that condition. To judge oneself as being above it, or others for being sinners, is counterproductive to growing in faith. In community, we must realize that we will err, clash with our own beliefs and with the beliefs of others, but that it is human for us and others to do so.

The Pope also speaks of the virtue of magnanimity, and how it is the grace that flows from humility. Magnanimity is the ability of being great of mind and heart, which to Francis means the ability to appreciate the small things. Only if we are humble can we do this. As he says, “Thanks to magnanimity, we can always look at the horizon from the position where we are… That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.”

As a college student, it is important to “[appreciate] the small things in large horizons.” Personally, I am often eager to go out and make what I think are important, grand contributions to the world. I would like to leave campus and start a business, and tell myself that only then will I have made a difference. Many students and myself occasionally think of Swarthmore as insular, and that a change here won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The Swarthmore community becomes secondary, compared to what comes after it. Yet, one of the gifts of faith for building communi­ties is the ability to be magnanimous, liberating oneself from the mindset that certain acts are insignificant or not valued by God. We can make a fundamental difference in a community right here, and should therefore focus on making a difference in our present community. Incorporating this virtue into one’s life gives a con­tinual satisfaction and extra care in the small things one does.

Accomplishing small acts that try to build a community is a virtue in itself. Pope Francis highlights the contributions any indi­vidual can make to a community in day-to-day life. In the context of the Catholic Church, he sees community not only as something built by a central authority, but by all the members of the church. The Pope highlights the theological value of “belonging to a peo­ple” and that “in the history of salvation, God has saved a people”. The work and grace of community make the church holy. The Pope “[sees] the holiness … in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces be­cause they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.”

How can we achieve “common sanc­tity”? To me, the answer is service.

All of the examples Francis mentions, though seemingly individ­ual, are about someone serving others—the children need the sup­port of the mother, the family the work of the breadwinner, parish­ioners the work of priests and nuns. Common sanctity flows from service and community— according to Francis, one does not have to be a priest or have any particular religious affiliation to build it.

As a senior, when I reflect on my time here at Swarthmore, I see moments of both great community and disunity. On average, I think we have fared decently well as a campus community, but it is important that we avoid becoming a forum for exclusively debat­ing the hottest current topics. As fellow students who share a com­mon space, constant debate will tear us apart. Rather, we should all think of the ways of which we can serve each other and other members of the campus community, achieving common sanctity.

At the same time, it is not enough to just pay lip service to the College’s ideas of diversity, inclusion and community—we must actively reflect and ask ourselves what we are doing to fight for these ideals. I believe the Pope’s advice on how to serve the Swarthmore community would be to keep, above an open mind, an open heart to all, and to remember that community builds itself through humble yet magnanimous actions.

Francis’ third piece of advice is on how communities can attract new members or reincorporate members who have left it, so that it can grow. This speaks to the central Christian concepts of for­giveness and understanding. One of the things I appreciate about the Catholic faith is its advocacy on how its community and faith is open to all—the word Catholic itself means “universal”. Fran­cis takes this universality one step further—the Church and all its members should also be charismatic, proselytizing and seek to bring back into communion those who have fallen out of it. The Catholic community should be “the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.” It is the duty of all Catholics, instead, to “proclaim the Gospel in every street corner.”

Yet the Gospel and Jesus’s teachings are rich and diverse, and so the aspects of them to be highlighted to new members must be proclaimed using the discernment. “It is not necessary … to speak of [all] the issues all the time”, according to the Pope. Instead, the Pope beckons Catholics to highlight love as the central doctrine of Christianity—all other moral teachings of the Church will follow after this. He uses a metaphor I very much like: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about ev­erything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… And you have to start from the ground up.” Within the Church, the wounds are misunderstandings within the community, or of the Church’s its values and teachings. Pope Francis claims that what the Catholic Church has to offer—both its community and its teachings—is important to curing these ailments. Yet the cure is not always easy to accept or to understand, and so the Church must selectively discern which teachings should come first, because they are most pressing or easiest to understand.

How can we grow the Swarthmore community, attracting new members and re-engaging those who no longer believe in the values the college promotes? By following Francis’ road map—let us focus on common ground first, things that we as a campus can for the most part agree on. I believe values of inclusion and consensus-based decision making are strong enough here that all other values that we strive for will have to be pursued through the lens of those. Therefore, if we are to uphold inclusion and consensus-based deci­sion making and focus on them first, we cannot divide our campus or take actions destructive to inclusiveness—we need to get bet­ter at treating the wounds of exclusion before we move on to the “blood sugars”.

In the end, the interview left me thinking about how I will build a community grounded in values, based on the advice provided by this very wise man. In my life, I have learned that the only way to grow in my convictions is with others—in the words of John Don­ne, “no man is an island sufficient unto himself”. Community is really how we achieve a growth in the values that we feel might be important to us—whatever those might be. Change will not take root until we humble ourselves, find a way to provide service to the community and its beliefs, and seek to keep the community united. Pope Francis provides a convenient road map on how to do so, one that many and I are deeming not just applicable to Catholics and Christians, but to everyone.

The full interview with Pope Francis can be read online for free at www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview.


Tony Farias ’14 is a senior Computer Science and Economics major and a great fan of and believer in the Swarthmore com­munity.


Photo credit: MaxStraeten from morguefile.com.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,