What Is the Spirit Saying through Pope Francis?

Photo credit: Tania Rego/ABr. The photo has been cropped.

When I was in seminary, I learned in moral theology the importance of avoiding moralistic preaching. In short, moralistic preaching is when a priest simply states the rules. For example: a priest preaches that abortion is wrong and sinful; however, the preacher fails to put the sinfulness of abortion into the larger context of God’s plan for each person, that God wills and loves every human life, that each human life, created in God’s image and likeness, has dignity and inestimable value.

Sadly, the preacher does not speak of the love and mercy that God offers to the one who has chosen abortion, that God can, and desires, to forgive and renew us. The preacher ends, or even remains exclusively focused, on a note of judgment, rather than inviting his hearers into the fullness of God’s love, and, more importantly, inviting them to know that God’s love and mercy is infinite. To the hearer, moralistic preaching is judgmental, cold, and unfeeling. Moralistic preaching rarely, if ever, can lead the hearer to a genuine, life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, who is Love and Mercy incarnate.

This might explain why so many people throughout the world have been so attracted to Pope Francis, for his style is the antithesis of moralism. Francis came onto the world stage proclaiming that the Church and the world, more than anything else, need to be invited into a personal relationship with a God whose very essence is love and mercy, a God who desires that all people be saved.

To be clear, this was the same approach taken by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict; neither was moralistic in his approach. John Paul and Benedict both proclaimed God’s love and mercy, and the importance of friendship with Jesus. However, and sadly, the truth is that, for many, the face of the Church for some time now has been perceived as a face of judgment on immoral behaviors. And unfortunately, for many, perception is reality.

And this is where Pope Francis comes in, for maybe the Church and the world—and the media!—are in need of being shaken from this perception. Maybe the Church and the world are in need of a radical shift in approach, while at the same time remaining radically faithful to eternal truths. Maybe, for this reason, we must “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’” (The Joy of the Gospel, #33). Maybe the Holy Spirit has placed Francis in the Chair of Peter to lead the Church and the world into a deeper understanding of the love and mercy of God.

I believe journalist and author John Allen summarized Francis’s approach best when he wrote, “… Francis is well aware that as a minister of the Christian Gospel, he’s obligated to pronounce both God’s mercy and God’s judgment on a fallen world. Both are essential pieces of the picture, and offering one without the other would falsify the Christian message. Francis’s calculation, however, seems to be that the world has heard the Church’s judgment with crystal clarity, and now it’s time for the world to hear—and to see, and to taste—its mercy” (Against the Tide: The Radical Leadership of Pope Francis).

Francis’s approach is to preach the Kerygma, which is the proclamation of salvation in Christ. The best summary of the Kerygma is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” True, each pope before Francis has preached the Kerygma, for how could they preach anything but salvation in Christ? Francis, however, has taken this to another level by his words and style, because in our time he is attempting to steer the Church away from moralism and toward evangelization through encounter, attraction, and accompaniment. Therefore, he has shifted the tone and the focus away from some of the hot-button issues of our time, such as abortion and gay marriage, and he has placed heavy emphasis on service to the poor. After all, what’s more universally appealing to people of good will than serving those most in need? That’s evangelization through attraction, especially when the Vicar of Christ is leading the way.

Most people know that the Church opposes abortion and gay marriage; many do not understand the moral reasoning behind it. The message the Church seems to have failed to get out (partly because of the media) is that God loves each and every person, regardless of what they have done. True, God does not like each action we choose, and it is important for the Church to continue to teach that certain moral acts are sinful and harmful to the human person. But Francis perceives that the Church cannot lead or connect with this message as a primary proclamation. This is why Francis has issued such forceful challenges to priests who daily preach the Word of God.

If the Church is to cast her net far and wide, to go out to the ends of the earth and invite people into salvation through a relationship with Christ, then what message will attract them? A Church with the face of judgment, or a Church with the face of love and mercy that leads with the Kerygma, and witnesses through service?

Fr. Robert Barron, always a voice of clarity, uses the analogy of baseball. If I want to introduce a young boy to the game of baseball, and, hopefully, help him to love the game, then one of the first things I do is take him to a game (I’ll never forget my first trip to Fenway Park!). I let him experience the culture of baseball, the excitement of being in the ballpark, the awe of looking at the field. I explain to him the big picture, that the team with the most runs wins, that one team takes the field, while the other team tries to hit the ball. The point is, that I introduce him to the beauty and culture of the game, and let him get taken up into it. I do not, on the other hand, begin by explaining to him the infield fly rule. He won’t be able to grasp this rule without understanding the big picture.

The same is true for the Church. We cannot lead with laws and obligation. We cannot lead and connect with people through moralism. We must be a Church of the Kerygma, inviting people to fall in love with Jesus Christ, whose only desire is to love, forgive, and save us. It is then that hearts are opened to moral and doctrinal formation. Witnessing to the joy that comes from friendship with Jesus is the best way to lead people to Jesus. In Francis’s words, “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’ ” (The Joy of the Gospel, #14).

Francis’s approach, which has not been met with universal approval, is about evangelization through encounter, attraction, and accompaniment; an approach which finds its perfect paradigm in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well.

When Jesus meets the woman at the well, he does not begin by calling out her sins. It is, first and foremost, about an encounter with the woman. He meets her where she is, in her moral and spiritual life. He engages her in dialogue. He does not first lay down the law. The woman sees sincerity in Jesus. She feels safe with him, and she knows he loves her and cares for her. In the presence of Jesus, she is awakened to her own dignity and her thirst for love.

In this encounter with Jesus, she is attracted to the truth he teaches; or rather, she is attracted to Jesus who is Truth. He listens to her; he answers her questions. She listens to him, and she begins to open her heart to him. Once her heart is open, Jesus begins to call her to deeper conversion. Jesus accompanies her in this conversion of mind and heart.

Encounter, attraction, and accompaniment. Francis understands that this is what people need. Members of the Church, particularly priests, must listen to the Holy Spirit inviting us into this paradigm of evangelization. The temptation for many of us is to, first and foremost, teach moral truth, rather than to acknowledge the dignity of the person before us, and to acknowledge that God loves them and is inviting them into a life-transforming friendship. The temptation is to first convert, rather than to accompany the person through dialogue, or to accompany them in their pain and suffering.

If we fall more deeply in love with Jesus and allow the joy of the Gospel to fill our hearts, people will be attracted to Jesus through us. Then we can share with them about his love and mercy and his desire to be in a relationship with us. And then, as they open their hearts to Christ, we can answer their questions and lead them more deeply into the beauty of the Truth.

Fr. Michael Najim About Fr. Michael Najim

Fr. Michael Najim is a priest of the Diocese of Providence. He is the director of spiritual formation at Our Lady of Providence Seminary, and chaplain at La Salle Academy, a coed Catholic high school. He is the author of Radical Surrender: Letters to Seminarians, published by The Institute for Priestly Formation.


  1. Avatar Micha Elyi says:

    When I was in seminary, I learned in moral theology the importance of avoiding moralistic preaching.
    –Fr. Michael Najim

    Post-ordination, such seminary training seems to become stripped down operationally to the simple maxim of avoid preaching morals. Sigh. Thus I hear many homilies in my parish and others that boil down to the babyish mush the character Nikki on the television show Blue Bloods once complained about at Sunday dinner, (I paraphrase from memory) “Be good and be nice to each other”.

    Most people know that the Church opposes abortion and gay marriage; many do not understand the moral reasoning behind it. The message the Church seems to have failed to get out (partly because of the media) is that God loves each and every person, regardless of what they have done.

    Yes, the Establishment Media is an obstacle. However the media does not mediate between the priest and the faithful during the homily. A homilist who can do as you suggest, Father Najim, leavens the world by sending forth Christians who can call the media on its distortions and explain to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and bystanders what the media is getting wrong when it passes on dezinformatsiya about the Christian faith and the Church.

  2. Avatar Martin B Drew says:

    Yes, as Jesus was at the well with the Samaritan women, and as I have done, let the other person talk to you first with an insight to her life. When Jesus knew her then through love of God and others Jesus shows us how to love others and help them with any problems. One then must read Pope Francis quite carefully as regards the Faith and truth which is found in the source of salvation, the Catholic Church

  3. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    ‘If we fall more deeply in love with Jesus and allow the joy of the Gospel to fill our hearts, people will be attracted to Jesus through us.’

    I believe you are right, except, might it not be the case that some (even many) will be repelled too, but then what we have on our hands is genuine persecution?

    For, it seems to me that, many times when people cry they’re being ‘persecuted’, isn’t it actually ‘self-inflicted’ as a result of their own moralistic, self-righteous disdain towards others?

  4. Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    Fr Michael Najim, you have wisely identified the core characteristic of Francis, Bishop of Rome, and why he has a 95% approval rating among Catholics. He can only due so much. The rest is up to those of us who sit in the pews. As I travel and hear homilies in different Catholic Churches, it seems the moralism you speak of is still a heavy part of what the weekly homily. When I have discussed the section on the homily, from the Joy of the Gospel with ordinary folk, they get excited and talk about what they desire to hear from the priest. We, the laity, need to comment to the priest after Mass. Affirm what is good and helpful and give critique to what is moralistic and not helpful. Is lay participation in transforming the homily into a dynamic proclamation of the Kerygma a realistic hope?

  5. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    A belief system and mode of preaching that says, “There is a God, He loves us all, He wants us to be happy and do good, and He forgives us when we sin.” already exists in a number of faith traditions. The problem comes when folks have to decide what is ‘not good’ or constitutes ‘sinful matter’. The number of homilies that I have heard since Vatican II that emphasize Doctrine I can count on one hand. No homilist in the Northeast preaches that way since the majority of the folks in the pews support one or most of the following, certain abortions, contraception, enhanced fertility techniques, woman priests, co-habitation before marriage, gay marriage, and so on. They have decided it is not sinful or aberrant behavior and don’t want to be told that as Catholics they do not have this choice. They vote with their feet and then justify skipping Sunday Mass… and the collections go down… and the Bishop starts to complain that the parish is not paying its way.. and the Pastor gets transferred. The Homilist avoids Doctrine, everyone in the church goes to Communion and no one goes to Confession and everyone believes that they are just surrounded with love.
    The article offers a false choice, either hammer doctrine and forget love, or hammer love and forget doctrine. Christ led with Love and closed with ” Go and sin no more”. With the example of the woman at the well He drew her in with conversation but was quite specific about her multiple husbands and the current one that was not. It is fine to lead with a message of forgiveness and love but if you don’t clearly identify the sin and suggest resolution your effort is most likely in vain.
    Like it or not, Evangelization (Homilies) is a form of sales. You lead with the features and benefits and then close by asking for the order. Salesman (homilists) that do not ask for the order go hungry.

    • Thanks for your comment. If you think my article offers a false choice, you’ve misread the article. No where do I state that we should avoid preaching sin. The evidence you give about Catholics not living the Faith is because they have not been invited into a personal, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. The priest must have a personal, loving friendship with Jesus and then invite people into that friendship. Certainly we must preach doctrine, particularly the doctrines of who Jesus Christ is. It is then that moral formation can happen. Evangelization takes time. It’s not a sales game.
      Peace and blessings to you.