By Michael M. Canaris
I’ve been following Pope Francis’ schedule and speeches quite carefully lately, and this week I read something which seemed to serve as an interpretive key in my mind to unlocking a dimension of his vision and aspirations for the church. One Italian word (“uscire”) seemed to leap off the page to me. And as it bounced around in my head all week, I began to think that perhaps it could serve as a thread tying together so much of what this pope seems to be about. I began to wrestle with what such a “theology nell’uscire” would look like, and whether it was an apt description of his pontificate.
First, the best and most simple translation of “uscire” is “to go out.” I think the pope is, however, using the word in a different context than I first learned it when studying Italian as an undergrad in Florence. Somehow he seems far from the bars and discoteche with which it was usually then associated. Yet, I am coming to believe the term does provide a unique perspective through which to view his ministry and self-identity.
Here is a translation of his words to some members of the Focolare movement with whom he met this week:
“The second word [in a list of three] — very important because it expresses the movement of evangelization — is to go out (uscire). To go out as Jesus went out from the bosom of the Father to proclaim the Word of love to all, to the point of giving himself on the wood of the cross… To do this, we must become experts in that art that is called ‘dialogue’ and that is not learned cheaply. We cannot be content with half measures, we cannot dally, but rather, with God’s help, we must aim high and widen our perspective! And to do this, we must ‘go forth to Him’ with courage ‘outside the camp, bearing abuse for Him’ (Hebrews 13:13). He awaits us in the trials and groaning of our brothers, in the wounds of society and in the questions of the culture of our time…. We must go out! (Dobbiamo uscire!) Because — I have said it at other times — the church seems like a field hospital. And when one goes to a field hospital, the first task is to cure the wounds, not to analyze the dosage of cholesterol … that comes later. Is this clear?”
From his very first day as pope, when on the balcony he alluded to the fact that his brother cardinals had “gone out to the ends of the earth” to find the next Bishop of Rome, this has been a repeated theme in his teachings.
He has claimed a “self-referential” and “navel-gazing” church that does not leave the ivory tower is one that gets sick. He has called us to carry forth the “joy of the Gospel” to all the world. He has made immigrants, refugees and the outcast priorities. He has thrust himself into crowds unannounced and physically embraced the suffering (who can forget some of those images of him hugging the infirmed?) and even sipped his national yerba mate tea offered to him by strangers to the dismay of his security forces.
He has fearlessly “gone outside” of some of the familiar traditions of his predecessors, while still remaining in his words, “a loyal son of the church.” He has likewise referenced Abraham, the prophets, and the first disciples as people to whom God would not leave well enough alone, “locked up within” the lives they previously knew so well. Rather he inspired them to “go out” of their surroundings.
Just last week, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass memorializing the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Jesuits after their suppression in 1773. During it, he told the Superior General of the Order to embody the words St. Ignatius once spoke to St. Francis Xavier, “Go out, and set the world ablaze.”
In the same weekend’s Sunday Gospel parable, Jesus tells of the Father who instructs his sons to “go out” and work in the vineyard. One agrees, but “dallies.” The other initially refuses, but relents and follows through. Francis seems to be telling (and showing) us that neither son is the perfect model. While we all have shortcomings and failures and cannot perhaps live up to the demand in every instance, in an ideal world we would say yes without fear or indolence and “go out” willingly, even eagerly, to labor for the good of our Father and our entire human family.
While I doubt it is conscious, Francis seems repeatedly to employ words, themes, and images related to a “theology of going out,” that is to say, of crossing over boundaries of comfort and familiarity to experience something entirely new, albeit often with many related challenges. And in so doing, the pope seems to say, we can find God there both pushing us out of ourselves and drawing us further than we ever envisioned we could go alone. As I settle into my new life in Rome, all I can do is hope he is correct.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.