This evening my Facebook feed lit up with the headlines, “Pope: Church must not turn priests into ‘little monsters'” and “Pope Francis warns priests can be ‘little monsters’ if not trained properly.” The news stories concern a “conversation” Pope Francis apparently had with a large group of religious superiors general back on November 29, 2013, and they are peppered with heartening remarks like: “We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps” and “The ghost to fight against is the image of religious life understood as an escape or hiding place in face of an ‘external’ difficult and complex world.”
Even though this is two months old, the headlines are cropping up tonight because the Pope’s remarks were posted only just today, January 3rd, by the Jesuit publication Civilta Cattolica, under the title “Wake up the World!”. (This is the journal which published Francis’s September interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the English translation of which appeared in America Magazine as “A Big Heart Open to God”). Luckily for English speakers, Civilta Cattolica has posted an English translation (PDF) done by Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ, in addition to Italian and Spanish.
I am still reading through the 15-page document, but one part in particular caught my attention:
“Great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. It is a hermeneutical question: reality is understood only when it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps to see and to understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches.
It is not a good strategy to be at the center of a sphere. To understand we ought to move around, to see reality from various viewpoints. We ought to get used to thinking. I often refer to a letter of Father Pedro Arrupe, who had been General for the Society of Jesus. It was a letter directed to the Centros de Investigación y Acción Social (CIAS). In this letter Father Arrupe spoke of poverty and said that some time of real contact with the poor is necessary. This is really very important to me: the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.” (pp. 3–4)
Though I think Pope Francis’s theology is actually more conservative than most of the media understand it, I find the above quote pretty close to radical, at least within a papal context. Is the epistemic privileging of “the margins” over “the center” not similar to the “hermeneutic of suspicion” advocated by many feminist and postcolonial thinkers? To be sure, the way Francis uses the term “ideological” is not how it’s used in feminist/postcolonial theory, so there is that. And the above quotation might take on a different coloring by the end of the document. What do our readers think? How “radical” do you find remarks to religious superiors general, if at all?