Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis on the Beatitudes

Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates on March 29, 2018, during his visit to the Regina Coeli detention center in Rome, where he celebrated the "Missa in Coena Domini." Francis' visit to a prison on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of some inmates stresses a pre-Easter ritual that a pope must serve society's marginalized and give them hope. (Vatican Media via AP)

(RNS) — Describing holiness in his latest apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis does not resort to theological abstractions. Rather, he uses the simple words of Jesus in the Beatitudes: “happy” and “blessed.”

“The word ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ thus becomes a synonym for ‘holy.’ It expresses the fact that those faithful to God and his word, by their self-giving, gain true happiness,” Francis writes in Chapter 3 of “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), which was released in March.

(See my earlier columns for treatment of Chapters and 2.)

Not that he sees holiness as a simple prospect. The pope acknowledges that living the Beatitudes means “going against the flow” of the world. Francis urges us to let the Lord’s words “unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live.”

“In the Beatitudes,” he says, “we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, created circa 1890. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum/Creative Commons

The world finds security in wealth, but Francis warns, “once we think we are rich, we can become so self-satisfied that we leave no room for God’s word, for the love of our brothers and sisters, or for the enjoyment of the most important things in life.”

He cites St. Ignatius of Loyola, who urged an “indifference” to riches in order to have an interior freedom. But he also notes that St. Luke, in his Gospel, does not speak of poverty “of spirit” but simply of those who are poor. Jesus “invites us to live a plain and austere life” and “to share in the life of those most in need.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

In a world of conflict, Jesus proposes the way of meekness. “Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

“If we are constantly upset and impatient with others, we will end up drained and weary,” says Francis. “But if we regard the faults and limitations of others with tenderness and meekness, without an air of superiority, we can actually help them and stop wasting our energy on useless complaining.”

This meekness should be displayed “even when we defend our faith and convictions,” writes Francis. “In the Church we have often erred by not embracing this demand of God’s word.”

Francis acknowledges that the normal response is, “If I am that meek, they will think that I am an idiot, a fool or a weakling,” but Jesus says, “the meek will inherit the earth.”

“Reacting with meekness and humility,” explains Francis, “that is holiness.”

Pope Francis lies down in prayer during the Good Friday Passion of Christ Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The world tells us that “entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life,” reports Francis. “The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them.”

On the other hand, followers of Jesus “are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations,” explains Francis. “They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Pope Francis acknowledges how “easy it is to become mired in corruption, ensnared in the daily politics of quid pro quo, where everything becomes business.” As a result, “many people suffer injustice, standing by powerlessly while others divvy up the good things of this life.”

Rather, “True justice comes about in people’s lives when they themselves are just in their decisions; it is expressed in their pursuit of justice for the poor and the weak.” Quoting Isaiah, Francis urges, “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Mercy, one of Francis’ favorite themes, has two aspects: “It involves giving, helping and serving others, but it also includes forgiveness and understanding,” he writes. It is the fulfillment of the golden rule: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” “Giving and forgiving,” explains Francis, “means reproducing in our lives some small measure of God’s perfection, which gives and forgives superabundantly.”

“All of us have been looked upon with divine compassion,” says Francis. We should therefore hear him saying to us, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33).

Pope Francis looks up at a statue of the Virgin Mary on the occasion of the Immaculate Conception feast in Rome, on Dec. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“The Bible uses the heart to describe our real intentions,” explains Francis, “the things we truly seek and desire, apart from all appearances.” This Beatitude “speaks of those whose hearts are simple, pure and undefiled, for a heart capable of love admits nothing that might harm, weaken or endanger that love.”

“A heart that loves God and neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36-40), genuinely and not merely in words, is a pure heart,” writes Francis.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Although this beatitude makes us think of the endless situation of war in our world, Francis starts with “The world of gossip, inhabited by negative and destructive people.” Such people “are really the enemies of peace.”

Peacemakers, on the other hand, build peace and friendship in society. “And if there are times in our community when we question what ought to be done, ‘let us pursue what makes for peace’ (Romans 14:19), for unity is preferable to conflict.”

This evangelical peace “excludes no one but embraces even those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult, demanding, different, beaten down by life or simply uninterested.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

People are “persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others,” Francis reminds us.

“In living the Gospel, we cannot expect that everything will be easy, for the thirst for power and worldly interests often stands in our way,” warns Francis.

“The Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch, created in 1877. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Living the beatitudes “will be viewed negatively, regarded with suspicion, and met with ridicule.”

At the same time, we should not bring persecution on ourselves. “The saints are not odd and aloof, unbearable because of their vanity, negativity and bitterness,” says Francis.

“Holiness, then, is not about swooning in mystic rapture,” he argues. Rather, he notes how Jesus later expands on the beatitude of mercy when he explains how we will be judged: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Francis cautions, though, that being a Christian means more than simply performing certain good works. It also means seeking social change. Quoting the Canadian bishops, he writes, “For later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.”

Francis warns against separating these Gospel demands from our personal relationship with the Lord. To do so makes Christianity “a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and many others.”

The other temptation is to see social engagement “as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist.” Or to see it as less important than a particular ethical issue or cause.

“Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

Today this applies especially to migrants. For Christians, Francis writes, “the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Matthew 25:35)?”

Francis does not downplay the importance of prayer and worship of God, “but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others.”

“Those who really wish to give glory to God by their lives, who truly long to grow in holiness,” concludes Francis, “are called to be single-minded and tenacious in their practice of the works of mercy.”

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

44 Comments

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  • “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

    Said passage does not fit with Christian pronouncements like The Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments.

    Bottom line: Matthew 10: 34-39 does not fit the character and one wonders about the entire passage with respect to Jesus’ mental state at the time. And would the second person in some trinity deity make such a pronouncement? The solution: JC was and never will be some member of a deity or any deity for that matter.

  • Unlike his immediate predecessor, Pope Francis puts the EMphasis on the right SYLlable. That’s one of the things I like about him. The Beatitudes is a good place to start, and I think his exegesis of these passages is superb. Bravo, Papa Francesco!

  • I cannot tell you what Jesus actually meant; I am not him.
    But I would caution you from taking passages like this out of context – not just the literary context, but the historical milieu in which it occurred, and the later period, when it was finally committed to text. Rabbi of those times often spoke with hyperbole, and used metaphor to drive a point. There are many other passages besides this that likewise can leave you scratching your head if you read them literally. I don’t think a literal reading is required here (for the first part of the quote, in any case).
    Perhaps you might find a better fight among fundamentalist Christians?

  • Dude, you research everything else; but you do not research the meaning of this passage? He is saying that we should love Him (God) above all else; even above our earthly families. This equates perfectly to the first commandment.

    It makes perfect sense; we should love God above all else. It pretty simple really; all a person needs is some humility. However, not always easy to find in this man-centric world.

  • This is just my personal interpretation of what Jesus was saying, nothing more:

    He was saying that there will be times when people have to choose between principle and their own kin. It’s another way of him saying, “anyone who follows me must deny himself and take up his cross.” That’s not what most people consider to be “good news,” but it is a reality in this very real world, and I think Jesus was just acknowledging that sometimes, following him will be difficult. For those of us who do, or at least try to, that’s encouraging to hear. At least we’re prepared.

  • Agree!! With one exception… 🙂
    In your comment, I would replace the word principle with Jesus/God.

  • Meekness and humility… not to be found among the “true believers” who routinely harass and judge others in these discussions.

  • Oh look, it’s meek and humble “Bob Arnzen” giving us a demonstration of his faith.

  • Note that the deluded Christian nutcase, bigot, and NRA shill presenting himself often in this thread as “Bob Arnzen” variously and dishonestly uses a variety of names on RNS such as Bob Arnzen, José Carioca, and others. However, there is actually no real Bob Arnzen, and there is no real José Carioca.

    It is recommended that you refer to him and reply to him stating his name as “Bobosé”, “BobbyJoe”, or just “snowflake”.

    The José Carioca account for this present post is used as a parody of “Bob Arnzen”.

  • Oh, the irony, from Bobby-Jo.

    Note that the gun supporter, deluded Christian nutcase, bigot, and NRA shill presenting himself in this thread as “Bob Arnzen” variously and dishonestly uses a variety of names on RNS such as Bob Arnzen, José Carioca, and others. However, there is actually no real Bob Arnzen, and there is no real José Carioca.

    It is recommended that you refer to him and reply to him stating his name as “Bobosé”, “BobbyJoe”, or just “snowflake”.

    The José Carioca account for this present post is used as a parody of “Bob Arnzen”.

  • I can. I was dishfellowshipped (excommunicated) from Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1985 and my family was not allowed to socialize with me. I was a pariah. My family had to chose between me and their god – and they did; they chose their god.

  • It is sad that you persist in creating new fake accounts

    https://disqus.com/by/jcarioca/

    https://disqus.com/by/jcarioca1/

    https://disqus.com/by/jcarioca2/

    after Disqus closes them one at a time for violating the prohibition against “Impersonation — misrepresents themselves as someone else”. Eventually Disqus will block your url and you’ll have to go to a public library to post.

    There is no Ben in Oakland, there is no Pope Hilarius II, there is no Moderator DC, there is no NoMoreBadTown, there is no PsiCop, and there is no Kangaroo52 because there is no ban on using pen names to avoid personal harassment, which is also a violation of Disqus terms of use.

    If you were able to carry on an actual discussion based on facts and reason we would not be reading your post, which makes clear who the deluded nutcase, bigot, etc. really is.

    -xxxx

  • It is sad that you persist in creating new fake accounts

    https://disqus.com/by/jcarioca/

    https://disqus.com/by/jcarioca1/

    https://disqus.com/by/jcarioca2/

    after Disqus closes them one at a time for violating the prohibition against “Impersonation — misrepresents themselves as someone else”. Eventually Disqus will block your url and you’ll have to go to a public library to post.

    There is no Ben in Oakland, there is no Pope Hilarius II, there is no Moderator DC, there is no NoMoreBadTown, there is no PsiCop, and there is no Kangaroo52 because there is no ban on using pen names to avoid personal harassment, which is also a violation of Disqus terms of use.

    If you were able to carry on an actual discussion based on facts and reason we would not be reading your post, which makes clear who the deluded nutcase, bigot, etc. really is.

  • Robert Louis “Bob” Arnzen is a retired American basketball and baseball player. Born in Covington, Kentucky, Arnzen graduated from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1965. He then played collegiately for the University of Notre Dame. Source: Wikipedia

  • Robert Louis “Bob” Arnzen is a retired American basketball and baseball player. Born in Covington, Kentucky, Arnzen graduated from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1965. He then played collegiately for the University of Notre Dame. Source: Wikipedia

  • DISAGREED.

    Truth is: the Beatitudes are a mere description of the fired-up and die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation. Only they are:

    (1) “The poor in spirit”, because they constantly lack and look for “room for God’s word” – and never finding enough of it!

    (2) “The meek”, because, constantly recognizing their own “faults and limitations” in everything, they confess them to each other.

    (3) “Those who mourn”, because “painful situations” in their walk with God & Jesus NEVER go away!

    (4) “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, because there’s no “true justice” anywhere and anytime, and there’s no “pursuit of justice” by anyone!

    (5) “The merciful”, because from them for everybody undeserving, “forgiveness [requires no] understanding” whatsoever!

    (6) “The pure in heart”, because “real intentions” as such have all been purged and obliterated!

    (7) “The peacemakers”, because nothing available “is preferable to conflict”, seeing as only conflict exists, nothing else; but individually and collectively they’re all at peace with that!

    (8) “Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, because all human beings’ “struggle for justice” ends up persecuting these followers of THE Christ!

  • “The Bible uses the heart to describe our real intentions,” explains Francis, “the things we truly seek and desire, apart from all appearances.” This Beatitude “speaks of those whose hearts are simple, pure and undefiled, for a heart capable of love admits nothing that might harm, weaken or endanger that love.”

    “A heart that loves God and neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36-40), genuinely and not merely in words, is a pure heart,” writes Francis

    It’s a shame that Pope Francis hadn’t become aware of “. . . those whose hearts are simple, pure and undefiled,” as being an accurate description of the hearts–and bodies–of the precious children and youth who were defiled by the heinous acts of priests who used and destroyed them for their own pleasure. This pope was silent for far too long about this, and he hasn’t done enough yet to locate these criminals, remove them from the priesthood, and in the worst cases, report them to civil authorities for their arrests, trials, convictions and punishment. Instead, he’d rather go around making big public statements about the evils of the wealthy hiding their money off shore to avoid paying taxes on it here in the US, and how that harms the poor.

    Until this pope gets busy with this as one of his very top priorities, he has no standing with me, to be telling us about the Beatudes. His time would be better spent wiping out and preventing the growth in numbers of the “poor in spirit”–those precious children and youth who’re suffering the horrible scourge of pedophilia, and those who will suffer in the future if these steps are not taken soon.

  • Send me his phone number and we will discuss who needs to repent starting with sending his son to save sinners like you.

  • Actually he has all his research in a single document and just cuts and pastes it in parts as convenient.

  • Catholic? Ding! Pedophilia, blah, blah, blah.

    I wonder why the fact that the rate was lower than among public school teachers – multiple times lower – and a host of other professions doesn’t lead to similar posts?

    Does it have anything to do with there being no anti-schoolism?

    In any case, they appear to have made strenuous efforts to find and correct problems and new reports are basically nil.

    One of the best moves they made was removing referrals to so-called mental health experts, who dusted offenders off and sent them back “cured”.

  • Jim. It sounds like that whole event is still a very sore point for you. I’m so sorry. For what it’s worth, I don’t interpret it that way. I can’t recall a single story where Jesus told someone they had used up their last allocated amount of mercy and were on their own.

  • No, that basketball Bob Arnzen is dead.

    Again, the deluded Christian nutcase, bigot, obvious hypocrite, lying sack of turds, and NRA shill presenting himself often in this thread as “Bob Arnzen” variously and dishonestly uses a variety of names on RNS such as Bob Arnzen, José Carioca, and others. However, there is actually no real Bob Arnzen, and there is no real José Carioca.

    It is recommended that you refer to him and reply to him stating his name as “Bobosé”, “BobbyJoe”, or just “snowflake”.

    The José Carioca account for this present post is used as a parody of “Bob Arnzen”.

  • Our firm’s attorneys are known for representing all types of clients successfully in their various litigation cases. At Arnzen,Storm & Turner P.S.C., our attorneys have worked with individuals and large corporations. We have provided legal representation for all types of litigation including:
    Breach of contract
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  • Our firm’s attorneys are known for representing all types of clients successfully in their various litigation cases. At Arnzen,Storm & Turner P.S.C., our attorneys have worked with individuals and large corporations. We have provided legal representation for all types of litigation including:
    Breach of contract
    Professional negligence
    Medical and Legal malpractice
    Personal injury
    Civil rights
    Commercial litigation

  • They didn’t CHOOSE anything. After their religious brainwashing (which I’m sure started at a very early age) they are psychologically incapable of thinking for themselves. They have been ” programmed “. Their humanness has been stripped from them.
    Tragic – but VERY common.

  • Many continue to say & believe…

    YA BUT
    – I want money & things more than I want faith & peace of mind
    – I can carry a gun & kill, if I am afraid
    – They are brown, illegal, don’t speak English & probably lazy
    – I want to go to the bars, drink & have fun like my friends
    – Everyone else says it, believed it, and does it.
    – Immigrants, refugees & non-Christians are not human like us.
    – Guns and being willing to kill , will make me less afraid & justified in the bible
    – Strength comes from power & control …and that takes $$$$$
    – Poor people deserve to be treated inhumanly, God is punishing them
    – My church is always right… So we should force it on everyone else with laws
    – My God, my religion, my particular sect should be taught to all children in public schools
    – If they don t believe as I do….. they are wrong
    – Killing , discrimination, anger, fear, and judgement are ok .I am doing God’s work
    – Look God rewarded me with a new car.

  • Oh, the irony, from Miss Fake Account herself, Bobby-Jo, our resident snowflake of many accounts.

    Note that the gun supporter, deluded Christian nutcase, bigot, and NRA shill presenting himself in this thread as “Bob Arnzen” variously and dishonestly uses a variety of names on RNS such as Bob Arnzen, José Carioca, and others. However, there is actually no real Bob Arnzen, and there is no real José Carioca.

    It is recommended that you refer to him and reply to him stating his name as “Bobosé”, “BobbyJoe”, or just “snowflake”.

    The José Carioca account for this present post is used as a parody of “Bob Arnzen”.

  • Wow, and here I’d thought Christians had left the Beatitudes behind, long ago … as in, by the end of the first century. They certainly don’t abide by them very much.  

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