Pope Francis’ speech at the theology congress on interreligious dialogue and migration within the context of the Mediterranean Sea, organized at the Jesuits house in Naples, on Friday June 21 2019, presented an interesting and motivating vision for contemporary theology, namely that of being a reflection that is greatly and actively sensitive to the hardships men and women of today are facing.
For Francis theology should be caring because, first and foremost, it is the reflective art of listening. And, for listening to take place, there has to be a dialogue that incoporates the different cultures and civilisations of the people involved. Thus, the Argentinian Pontiff pointed out:
“Dialogue as theological hermeneutics presupposes and involves conscious listening. This also means listening to the history and experiences of the peoples who face the Mediterranean space in order to be able to decipher the events that connect the past to today and to be able to capture their wounds along with their potential. In particular, it is a matter of grasping the way in which Christian communities and individual prophetic existences have known – even recently – how to incarnate the Christian faith in contexts sometimes of conflict, minority and plural coexistence with other religious traditions. This listening must be deeply internal to cultures and peoples also for another reason. The Mediterranean is precisely the sea of hybridization – if we do not understand this fusion we will never understand the Mediterranean – a geographically closed sea with respect to the oceans, but culturally always open to encounter, dialogue and mutual inculturation”.
When theology humbles itself by listening conscientiously to the history and life experiences of others, by opening itself to dialogue with other people who are outside its intellectual boundaries, and by levelling that sterling invitation towards an appreciation and propagation of mutual inculturation, it can in fact be a theology of mercy. As Pope Francis said in his speech, “without mercy, our theology, our law and our pastoral care run the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic pettiness or ideology, which by its nature seeks to domesticate mystery. Theology, through mercy, defends itself from the domestication of mystery”.
It is against the innate spirit of theology to try to tame God’s infinite mercy for humanity. Hence, and since it claims of believing and proclaiming a God who saves His people from bondage and slavery, theology cannot shut its mouth in front of the injustices that are assailing the human person in the current world scenario. On the contrary, theology is called to speak up, defends the suffering ones and denounces what is oppressing them. And, theology can afford of doing this precisely because it is a “continuous journey of going out of oneself and meeting with the other”.
Seen from this perspective, Pope Francis envisages theologians as being “men and women of compassion”. In practice, what this means is “that they are men and women of compassion – touched by the oppressed life of many, by the slavery of today, by social wounds, violence, wars and the enormous injustices suffered by so many poor people who live on the shores of this ‘common sea.’” Theologians cannot afford being themselves the victims of what the Holy Father dubbed as “laboratory theology”. In other words, of a theology that is “without compassion, … swallowed up in the condition of the privilege of those who place themselves prudently outside the world and share nothing risky with the majority of humanity”. For Pope Francis, such a theology, which is “pure and ‘distilled’ theology, distilled like water, distilled water, … knows nothing.”
On the other hand, theology can only flourish if it is continually sustained “by prayer.” As a matter of fact, when theology is done “on one’s knees”, it empowers not merely its soul but also expands its intelligence inasmuch as it can expectionally understand and interpret the current reality through a Christian outlook. Prayer motivates theology by helping her become more interedisplinary. By the latter term what Pope Francis means is “a theology of acceptance which, as an interpretative method of reality, adopts discernment and sincere dialogue”. A theology of this kind invites the theologians to start learning to “know how to work together and in an interdisciplinary form, overcoming individualism in intellectual work”. That is why theology is desperately seeking for “theologians – men and women, presbyters, lay people and religious – who are historically and ecclesially rooted and, at the same time, open to the inexhaustible novelties of the Spirit, who know how to escape the self-referential, competitive and, in fact, blinding logic that often also exists in our academic institutions and is very often hidden in theological schools”.
Towards the end of his speech Pope Francis proposed a theology in a network. He explained what he meant by this term: “The work of the theological faculties and ecclesiastical universities contributes to the building of a just and fraternal society, in which the care of creation and the construction of peace are the result of collaboration between civil, ecclesial and interreligious institutions. It is first of all a work in the ‘evangelical network’, that is in communion with the Spirit of Jesus which is the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of love at work in creation and in the hearts of men and women of good will of every race, culture and religion”.
Amid the challenges that present themselves along the way, theology has a bright future. Provided though that it starts “from the Gospel of mercy”, upholds “a serious assumption of history … as an open space for the encounter of with the Lord” and, finally, adopting “light and flexible structures, which show the priority given to reception and dialogue, to inter- and trans-disciplinary work and in networks”. This is, as Pope Francis rightly concluded, “a kerygmatic theology, a theology of discernment, mercy and acceptance, which is placed in dialogue with society, cultures and religions for the construction of peaceful coexistence of people and peoples”.
A caring theology indeed!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap