Pope Francis and the Girardian Moment

The promulgation of the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate constitutes a decisive moment in the Magisterial teaching of the Church. Perhaps its most obvious contribution is breathing the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola into the hearts and minds of the faithful from the papacy itself; no longer merely “approved” by the Magisterium, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are now taught officially by the Pope. Moreover, there are many other gems for reflection in the text: a beautiful reflection on the “universal call to holiness,” a rhetorically striking journey through the beatitudes, a clear warning against modern forms of gnosticism and Pelagianism, and a provocative call to vigilance and self-examination in a world threatened by the evil one. However, I hold also that there is, in this exhortation, nothing short of a revolution in spiritual theology. In this essay, I aim to show how Pope Francis has solidified a “Girardian moment” for the Church and opened the Magisterial door to a development of homiletics and pastoral theology for the modern world.

Mimetic Theory

In order to understand the depth of Pope Francis’s insight in this apostolic exhortation, we need to gain some familiarity with the distinctive intellectual contribution that the work of René Girard has brought to the Church.1 For those familiar with Girard’s work, the phrase “mimetic desire” stands out as the key with which one may unlock his thought. In these two words, Girard tries to cement a neo-Aristotelian psychology that allows for a scientific read on human desire rooted in imitation. Nevertheless, since it is Aristotle who first proposed that “man is the most mimetic of the animals,”2 there isn’t much new in his thought if we focus only on the positive aspects of imitation.

The real “Girardian moment” comes when we see the possibilities for conflict that can result from mimetic desire. Precisely because we desire what others desire, we often find ourselves desiring something that is theirs alone: something which cannot be shared. The most basic example is found in observing little children in the play-space. With two children and ten toys, one can expect that there will be a fight over one toy. Is there something intrinsically attractive about that one toy that causes the conflict? No, it is the fact that the toy is desired by the friend-become-rival; imitation — or mimesis — causes both to desire what they cannot both have simultaneously.

Now take this into the world of young adults. Two young men, because they are the best of friends, often share the same desires for various activities: sports, games, music, books, movies, Youtube channels, and so forth. What happens when they now share the desire for the same woman? The very same process of imitation that has produced such amity in their relationship is now the cause of severe distress. The best of friends become the worst of enemies through the same process of mimesis.

Every time this kind of imitation of an admired other person takes place, we run the risk of having our love turn to hate. We desire to be that one person and want to imitate him/her; yet, that love can turn to loathing because he/she simultaneously blocks the fulfillment of the very desire he/she models. Whereas the little children in the play-space forget quickly their quarrel over the toy, the adolescent may harbor for quite some time his sense of rejection and affront from the rival who “stole” his girl. Girard thus coins the term, model/obstacle,3 to explain the role that the other person plays in stimulating and blocking our mimetic desire. Over time our experience of the model/obstacle frustrating us leads to the phenomenon of resentment, the beginnings of a desire for revenge that can, in the worst case scenario, erupt in violence.4

Hence, the same principle (mimesis) is at the heart of social stability as well as cultural breakdown. This, then, is Girard’s first and primary mimetic thesis: mimetic desire is a natural part of human social growth and development while simultaneously posing a constant threat to the integrity of human relations.

In the end, we are in strictly Girardian terrain when we are exploring mimetic conflict, mimetic rivalry, and even mimetic violence. And while these elements are certainly part of the consistent teaching of the Church when she describes and condemns sin, they are rarely, if ever, in Magisterial statements developed in the way Girard does.

Francis and the Mimetic Move

That’s where Francis steps in. Section 11 in Gaudete et exsultate demands a very careful reading and rereading from those interested in the Church’s understanding of the spiritual life and, above all, it forces us to take very seriously what Girard has shown about the positive and negative aspects of imitation. Before examining this section, let us look at the development in the letter.

In the apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis opens with countless examples of holiness whom the Church proposes as worthy of imitation: saints from the Old Testament, the martyrs, the canonized saints, the saints next door, and so on. Pope Francis suggests that receiving the call to holiness begins with a contemplation of holiness in others which “impels us to advance constantly towards the goal;”5 their “exemplary imitation of Christ” is “one worthy of the admiration of the faithful.”6 The Pope exhorts: “Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us.”7

It is through contemplation of holiness in others that we primarily begin to experience a deeper desire for holiness. Admiration of the holy model “spurs” us onward and “impels us” toward the object of our desire (in this case, holiness). Thus, in the thought of Pope Francis, imitation and desire — mimetic desire — are wed as an essential condition for spiritual growth.8

Yet — and the Pope uses this word! — “yet,” we are not called merely to the holiness as lived out in others. Rather, says Francis, we are encouraged to follow the Second Vatican Council’s most famous “universal call to holiness” and strive for sanctity “each in his or her own way.”9

The Holy Father says: “Yet with this Exhortation I would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you.”10

What is the meaning of this word, “yet?” This word must signal that the Pope realizes that unguided imitation can engender problems. What might these problems be? It is section 11 that details these problems.

Listen to the Holy Father:

“‘Each in his or her own way’ the Council says. We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.”11

I think that the profundity and importance of this passage could be overlooked by too cursory a reading. Do we see what has happened here? We are encouraged to contemplate holiness as a model for desire, and yet we must also find a way to see God’s specific plan for holiness in our own lives. We must imitate and not imitate simultaneously. Why? Because even in the spiritual life, mimetic desire can lead to mimetic conflict.

Let’s listen more closely to Francis. Some testimonies are not meant to be copied “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” Ah, but wait! There is more! It is not so much that we might just “stray off the path” in bad imitation; there is a suffering that can ensue: “We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable.” Well, even that could work I guess; I can get over a little discouragement. But then the bombshell: saint-imitators might end up “hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” From straying off God’s path to growing discouraged and finally hopelessness: this is what imitation can do. In sum, the Pope acknowledges that imitating the saints can lead to hopelessness!

And this is precisely what Girard spent his entire career from the mid-twentieth century onward explaining and exploring: the conflictual dimension of imitation. Even in the spiritual life, which depends to a large extent on imitation, we can find ourselves desiring the unattainable precisely because our role model desires things that we cannot obtain: a holy action that cannot, in a sense, be shared.

Let’s take some possible examples of this hopelessness. Let’s say I admire St. Therese of Lisieux and desire her holiness. But then I read that from the age of three she never refused God anything. How can I imitate that?! I have already lost. How about John Paul II? He was a pretty normal guy growing up; maybe I can copy him. Nope, he could read high-end philosophy books and follow a completely different conversation taking place in front of him at the same time. If I try to copy that, I will fail every time. What about St. Peter? He had some pretty awful sins like denial and doubt . . . maybe I can relate to him? Ah, but when I try to heal the sick man in the name of Jesus, I find my power nonexistent. And so forth.

Pope Francis has intuited something deeply problematic at the root of the Christian’s most fundamental modus operandi: imitation. It would seem that following and imitating the saints is “sacrosanct”; yet experience shows us otherwise. Imitation is not enough; it must be purified, cultivated, assisted on the road to authentic sanctity.

The solution for Francis entails a form of discernment, a word which must certainly stem from his training in Ignatian spirituality.12 On the one hand, as we have seen, Francis encourages imitation; as mimetic creatures, we need models for our desires. At the same time, this approach demands that we see that the source of many of our problems can be in that very imitation that directs our desires. Awareness of the good suggested by imitation should also entertain the understanding that imitation can lead to conflict; it must be purified into a proper imitation of God’s desire for us here and now. “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts.”13 And that plan is love: disinterested willing of the good of another. “The Father’s plan is Christ, and ourselves in him. In the end, it is Christ who loves in us, for ‘holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full,’”14 says Pope Francis, quoting Pope Benedict XVI.

Developing a Girardian Francis

To say that we should follow the saints but also accept God’s unique plan for us is no small advice. However, I believe that there is more for our edification if we follow the Holy Father’s lead along Girardian lines. As we have seen, Pope Francis encourages a contemplation and imitation of the saints next door.

He writes, “I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them ‘the middle class of holiness.’”15

Now, what will happen if I imitate the desire for holiness manifested in some action of my neighbor, but it is not possible to share success in completing that action? That is to say, what if the same problem emerges in the imitation of the “saint next door” that Pope Francis suggests could happen in imitating the saints in general? Remember, he has directed his attention to the possibility that “there are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” Imagine that the saintly action of my neighbor is precisely the thing that both inspires my imitation and blocks it simultaneously. If we follow Girard, we realize that, worse than a hopeless inability to imitate a dead saint, now my problem is a feeling of antagonism toward the one whom I admire, for he is blocking my access to the good that I desire. The one I admire becomes the one I despise. After all, there must be something admirable in my neighbor that leads me to want to imitate him in the first place. Whereas the impossible imitation of a super-saint’s radical holy actions leads to hopelessness, Girard suggests that the impossible imitation of my neighbor’s desire leads to envy, hatred, and even violence.

And there are countless ways that this can happen, not simply in the fact that I find myself admiring, say, patience in my neighbor. I can envy the money he gave to charity, the good will he showed to my friends, the attention and admiration he gets from his good works, or even the position he earned in the Church, and so on. These all turn the healthy imitation into foul imitation in one and the same desire.

Finally, then, we are drawn ineluctably to the Girardian conclusion that any type of mimetic desire can be the source of conflict if it aligns on an object that cannot be shared. Thus, even when I am desiring my neighbor’s donkey or cow or sheep . . or wife, I run the risk of conflict because this person I admire is already implicitly now my possible-rival. Pope Francis leads us, as does Girard, right back to the heart of Church’s moral teaching: the 10 Commandments. After all, when we fall slave to the desire for our neighbor’s prestige, possessions, or wife, we are immediately led down the path of temptation to lie, steal or commit adultery. Should the rivalry go too far, the fifth commandment stares us in the face as well. At the same time, this model-admiration-turned-hatred already masks an idolatry of the other that will quickly manifest itself in temptations to violate the first half of the Decalogue. This parallels Girard’s own explanation of the Scriptures.16

A Modern Homiletics: Admiring Holiness in the Despised

Putting this all together suggests a special plan for homiletics and pastoral work in our time. To develop Pope Francis along Girardian lines is, in a sense, to develop St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises for the modern world.

The Holy Father is unambiguous in his reliance on St. Ignatius for developing a spirituality of mimetic contemplation. He writes, “At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love. The contemplation of these mysteries, as Saint Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, leads us to incarnate them in our choices and attitudes.”17 This approach — contemplative imitation as incarnation of Christ within — is almost certainly what moves the Pope to contemplate holiness in his neighbor. And this, in itself, is already a development of the Ignatian method.

What the Girardian moment means, however, is that there may be many others “next door” whose sanctity remains hidden to us by the forces of mimesis. According to Girard, the movement of our heart to desire the Being of God (goodness, truth or beauty) leads us to discover that being in others. As we have seen, because of the conflict-laden possibilities in imitation-admiration of our neighbor, the one I admire might very well end up being the one I envy, despise, or hate; thus, it is no less true that the one I envy, despise, and hate may be one whom I admire. Discernment, then, means unpacking the holiness that attracts me in the one who, as result of mimetic conflict, I now hate! The Pope’s Girardian moment means that the call to contemplate the holiness next door is implicitly also a call to find holiness in the one I despise next door!

What might this look like concretely? In addition to one’s regular contemplation of the face of Christ in the Gospels, Eucharist or lives of the canonized saints (or even saints next door), one might also ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to one’s conscious mind that person whom one subconsciously admires though now envies, despises, or resents. This discernment can assist us in finding those hidden people whom the soul is being called to contemplate for imitation and spiritual growth. My colleague in the Parish whose presence fills me with negativity is really the one that my soul admires and is naturally drawn to learn from and to imitate. Providence has put this person in my life with special gifts to edify me through contemplation-imitation. And it is precisely because that person shares so much in common with me that I am at once caught in mimetic troubles with him/her while simultaneously standing in need of learning from him/her. The Girardian moment means that I can trust my own negative experiences of mimetic interference as a sign pointing me to the hidden saint next door, the one who can be that unique guide in helping me reach the next level of holiness in my particular vocation.

It is important to note that the Holy Father’s spiritual advice for properly imitating-and-not-imitating saints is still relevant even in situations where mimetic conflict reached severely debilitating levels. Again, section 11 of the apostolic exhortation speaks volumes about the role of discernment in guiding mimetic desire along the right path: “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path . . . rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” It is still the right approach to discern one’s relationship to the “hated other” to gain edification from the good-in-the-other while not succumbing to the deceptive idea that we must imitate everything in our model/obstacle’s life.

Moreover, it is still relevant to follow the Pope’s lead in seeking the face of Christ in others to incarnate the Lord’s “attitudes and intentions.” At this point, though, Girard’s own insight into imitatio Christi is particularly instructive. He writes: “Why does Jesus regard the Father and himself as the best model for all humans? Because neither the Father nor the Son desires greedily, egotistically. God ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and he sends his rain on the just and on the unjust.’ God gives to us without counting, without marking the least difference between us. He lets the weeds grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. If we imitate the detached generosity of God, then the trap of mimetic rivalries will never close over us.’”18 Thus, wherever we find the face of Christ, we should allow His modeling of our desire to incarnate within us a detached generosity, the only desire that remains free of mimetic conflicts.

Conclusion

Because of its ever-increasing “equality of conditions” or social “undifferentiation,”19 modernity holds out to each of us many possible role models who draw us to them, and, as Pope Francis shows, we must work to share their desires without becoming discouraged when literal imitation becomes impossible. For the Ignatian Pope, imitating holiness in others is an imitatio Christi that allows us to incarnate Christ within. Girard complements this insight and helps us see what desire looks like in this incarnation: it leads to a perfection within our hearts of God’s detached generosity that “sends his rain on the just and unjust.”

If Pope Francis has implicitly initiated a Girardian moment for the Church, then a homiletic and pastoral response to this teaching means that we see the signs of our modern times as a pressing call to discern the ones we resent that we might find the Christ within them. We resent them because we admire them.20 Surrender to the grace of discernment and conversion to purify this resentment into the fullness of love: “That,” Pope Francis would say, “is holiness.”21

  1. Although Deceit, Desire, and the Novel; Violence and the Sacred; and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World form the primary triptych of Girard’s anthropology and theory of religion, the best place to start to learn his theory from a Christian standpoint is I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.
  2. Aristotle, The Poetics, 4.
  3. For Girard, the New Testament Greek word skandalon represents this principle exactly.
  4. In some respects, resentment is the quintessential face of original sin in the modern world. Girard’s analysis of Dostoevsky’s Underground as well as his reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are very helpful for seeing this reality (see Resurrection from the Underground; Deceit, Desire and the Novel; and A Theater of Envy). Note also that the opening quote from Bill Wilson suggests that many other modern “prophets” cite resentment as a leading cause of modern man’s malaise.
  5. Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate, 3.
  6. GeE, 5.
  7. GeE, 8.
  8. In the Holy Father’s most recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, he explicitly uses imitative desire twice: “A shallow and pathetic desire to imitate others leads to copying and consuming in place of creating” (FT 51); “The desire to imitate God’s own way of acting gradually replaced the tendency to think only of those nearest us” (FT 59).
  9. GeE, 10-11. cf. LG 11.
  10. GeE, 10.
  11. GeE, 11.
  12. Please see my previous essay in HPR for elaboration of this point: “Pope Francis and the Purification of Heroic Desire” (March 10, 2019), www.hprweb.com/2019/03/pope-francis-and-the-purification-of-heroic-desire/.
  13. GeE, 11.
  14. GeE, 21.
  15. GeE, 7.
  16. See René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknowll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), chapter 1.
  17. GeE, 20.
  18. Girard, I See Satan, 14.
  19. The “equality of conditions” is a term from Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous description of the early United States. It suggests how modernity levels the playing the field and allows for fluidity in social advancement; hence, as Girard says, it undifferentiates.
  20. To be sure, some experiences of resentment are a reaction to real criminal injustice suffered by an innocent self or other. Here one must go to the mystical Body of Christ which suffers on the Cross with non-retaliating desire for the good of the criminal. The merciful love of the crucified Creator models for us the path to forgiveness and a desire for the conversion of the sinner. Moreover, the desire for Christ to be born in the evildoer may be the only desire that one may contemplate in this case.
  21. In his section on the Beatitudes in Gaudete et exsultate, the Pope’s common refrain is this phrase.
E. Tyler Graham About E. Tyler Graham

Mr. Tyler Graham has been teaching high school for over 20 years and has a humanities B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. in religion from Syracuse, and a Master's in Theological Studies from Ave Maria University. He currently lives in Ave Maria, Florida, with his wife and 6 children. There, both spouses teach at — and all 6 children attend — Donahue Academy, a Catholic classical school.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Mr Tyler Graham,

    Thank God for Pope Francis. I appreciate your explanation of Paragraph 11 in “Universal Call to Holiness”. I will return to the document. With your help, I am sure to get more from it.

    You present in this article an understanding of spirituality missing from our common experience in the Catholic Church. Spirituality is often identified with devotions and going to Mass. Discerning a unique way to live out the Paschal Mystery is often unavailable. There is a great search for deeper spirituality. You and those who help people discover the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises bring so much freedom to the way of imitating Christ. Please keep up the good work.

  2. Avatar Paul Turnley says:

    Absolutely spot on!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for so clearly explaining what had been rummaging around in the back of my mind for years… excellent. Much appreciated!!! Peace and prayers.

  3. There were so many thoughts flashing through my mind as I read this written work on the goal to attain holiness. One, I agree that holiness is the desire to incarnate Christ within us through our attitudes and dispositions. Two, I believe that holiness is about being good through doing good. Three, detached generosity of heart. That is a hard one but, it is a must to do act of being disposed to God our neighbors.

    Having said all of that, what underlies this mimetic desire for holiness and our individual path to holiness designed by God comes out of the exodus experience of the Hebrews from out of Egypt entering into the promise land.

    It is getting out of the wilderness or distraction of mind and becoming aware or awakened to why we have been held up in Egypt is crucial.

    This journey is depicted by Saint John of the Cross as the dark night of the soul moving out to an illuminated, unitive state of being in covenantal relationship with God. What is key in guiding us through this assiduous journey of life is God who said that He Himself will be our Passover. He said we have not made this journey before. He said it is winding and torturous with many deep valley and mountains. God said, The life maintained throughout this journey depends upon the rain He sends from heaven.

    This whole journey of the soul becoming holy is based on Word of God becoming flesh in Us: shown
    by our attitudes, intentions and detached generosity to our fellow men. One last thought involves the imagination, which should not be solely dependent on mimetic desire for holiness. It is guarding our imaginations from deceptive words or idols or graven images of God. The use of imagination is a sole work of God impressing upon our mind His Word.

    Thank you
    Bernadette.

    S
    AST

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