Reflections on God’s Providence

Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family

November always begins with our remembering what true life in Christ looks like—All Saints—and ends with our anticipation of a new chance at that same rejuvenation—Advent. In the Christian calendar, November is the month of transition: the light becomes dusk, the warm winds turn into blustery gusts, the morning’s dew turns to frost, and Christ the King is once again revealed as a helpless Babe. The older I get, the more the natural movements of God’s earth speak to me of its Maker: the sunlight often strikes me as the clarity and the warmth of truth, the darkness invites a certain surrender and intimacy that all is well, even though I may not yet understand. Meeting the divine in nature is not uniquely Christian, as even the pagans tried to unite heaven and earth. But only in the Church’s revelation do we know that all creation is good, that God himself assumed human flesh to himself, and that the end will not be the cessation of creation, but its perfection.

When asked what God was up to, the ever-timely Job told his friend, Zophar, to “ask the beasts, and let them teach you; and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you. Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; and let the fish of the sea declare to you …” (Job 12:7-8). The Psalmist, too, knew that all of creation can praise the Lord because all things are made in the ever-spoken Word. The New Testament, too, is full of invitations to see the mystery of God in the very mundane encounters of our day: “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom 1:20). Before the turn of the first century, Pope Clement (c. 88-98) recognized how the natural seasons are God’s invitations for us to see his providence at work, even in the most common of experiences. All things can speak to us of our new life in Christ if we simply ask for the eyes to see:

Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which he has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How, and in what manner, does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grow and bring forth fruit. (Pope Clement, Letter to the Corinthians 24:1–6, A.D. 80)

Perhaps before the snows set in, or even when they do, each of us could take a prayerful walk and ask the Creator of all things, to open our eyes evermore to his silent workings in the world around us. At a time when most of us are overstressed, overstimulated, and over-cynical, we can ask the Lord of the Harvest (Mt 9:38) to show us how he plays in his creation and invites us to see him dwelling in all things

More recently, another Holy Father has asked us to examine our own rises and falls, our own attitudes to encountering God in the other. This is proving to be a more serious issue, as many of us are probably still trying to answer questions about the recent Synod on the Family. As I read of the events and exchanges between our Church’s leaders in the news and on the blogs these past few weeks, I could not help but see the same dynamic that every autumn occasions: there is light and there is dark, there is warmth and there are some cold snaps, sun and chill, the eventual resistances and acceptances of what I cannot ultimately control, but all things can praise the Lord!

In his closing synodal address, Pope Francis thanked those gathered, for their willingness to travel together (the root meaning of syn-od, odos meaning “the way” in Greek, as in the first name given for the following of Jesus—see Acts 9:2) and to engage in frank and forthright dialogue. Here is a Holy Father who is not afraid of the Truth. Here is Peter who invites all Christ’s people to reveal how we see things, trusting that the Holy Spirit will work through the cacophony of human opinion to bring all people of good will (and intellectual humility) to the way God sees things: “But, Peter, who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29; Mt 16:15).

Pope Francis went on to caricature the two extremes he sees every ecclesial “camp” tending. There is the person who makes his or her camp, on one side marked by a “temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know, and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous, and of the so-called—today—‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals.” Toward the other extreme, there is the person who is marked by a “temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness that, in the name of a deceptive mercy, binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms, and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.’” How honest, how refreshing, to hear the divisions within the Body of Christ put so clearly. How many of us similarly teeter between a misplaced charity and a blind legalism? We cannot have tradition without mercy, and there can be no real mercy without truth. This is the challenge of not only this autumn’s synod, but the call to every human soul who wants to be conformed more and more to the death and life of Jesus Christ.

God’s Church is nothing other than Christ dwelling in man, the extension of the Son’s incarnation. As such, the Church is unable to go astray; she cannot teach anything she has not first heard from the saving Spirit. We need to trust that Francis knows this, and is neither naïve nor intentionally sloppy in his speaking. He knows Truth will ever emerge victorious, and he trusts that, in the dialogue of people who pray, the darkness will give way to light, and the Christ will be born anew. Stay tuned!

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Avatar John James says:

    I watched some segments from the Prelates press conferences held during the synod.
    They were painful.
    Confusion reigned, perhaps best exemplified by the ‘early Relatio’, purporting to be a summary of the early deliberations of the Synod Fathers which a Cardinal, from South Africa, chairing the Press briefings, indicated the Synod Fathers had not seen before its release.
    For whatever reason, Pope Francis’ pontificate has been marked by ‘confusion’.
    I cannot recall the Vatican having to release so many clarifications.
    For the sake of the Faithful , that must be rectified.

  2. Ummm, no. “For the sake of the faithful, this must be rectified” should read, “For the sake of the world, the faithful must learn.” I.e., The ‘faithful’ must learn to be faith-filled. To live with our eyes on the Holy Spirit and not on protecting our own little piece of the Kingdom.

    The point of this post is to illustrate that change doesn’t equal “confusion”. We can even see that in nature. Job could see it. Paul could see it. Blessed Mother could see it when Gabriel came to her. Yes, God was asking her for change, for surrender to Him. This surrender to a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit found a place inside Mary because her heart was pure and focused on God’s way, not her own way. There’s no confusion when we stay focused on Him and not on ourselves.

    • Ummm, no. Two ‘little’ points. Change itself is not the problem, but what kind of change may very well be. Some changes do equal confusion. Second, the Holy Spirit does guarantee Christ’s promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church, but definitely does not guarantee that we always hear the Holy Spirit aright, or are willing to follow his counsels faithfully. That is why some very corrupt or incompetent Popes have been elected in Church History. One final note, Christ did not come to save the world, but the faithful who remain loyal to his Word till the end. Many are called, but few are chosen.

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Ummm, maybe. Certainly the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to teach error but pastoral mis-steps can sow confusion and even inappropriate (sinful) personal conduct within an individual lifetime. Resolving the same over a hundred years or so won’t disturb the two thousand year flow of the Church but can sure cause error for the individual faithful that are caught in the interim. Free and open discussion of church teachings, not promptly resolved, among the well catechized may be fine and beneficial in a closed Jesuit environment, but in a hostile secular environment can have a very negative result amongst the poorly catechized and those we wish to evangelize. Relying on God to correct the ‘dumb’ things we might do in the ‘short term’ is not a very good strategy. We need only look to the recent past to see the effects of decisions made by naieve, incompetent or calculating Bishops in the sex scandals for evidence of disastrous consequences for poor ‘pastoral’ decision making.

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