The Holy Father's talk of "the God of surprises" makes some Catholics nervous
Once again this week Pope Francis spoke about the need to be open to the Holy Spirit and the need to be open to the new understandings into which the Spirit wants to lead the church. Time and again Pope Francis has spoken about “the God of surprises.” Already known as “the reformer pope” and widely touted as a progressive, some Catholics worry about the “surprises” Pope Francis has in mind for the church and are curious and concerned about the “new ways” he thinks the Spirit may be leading Catholics.
Like every pope before him, Pope Francis has to balance two strengths of the Catholic faith which can be summed up by St. Augustine’s famous words, “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!” The Catholic faith, like Beauty, is every ancient and ever new. Always fresh and up to date and yet always as ancient as the ages, the Catholic faith is at once permanent and unchanging and yet always supple, relevant, adaptable and alive. The Catholic Church changes where she must and does not change where she must not.
As the leader of the world’s Catholics the pope must always balance that which is fresh, new and often challenging with that which is rock solid, reliable and eternal. This tension between the ancient and the new has been part of the Church and part of the ministry of the pope from the beginning.
The fifth book of the New Testament— the Acts of the Apostles—is always relevant to the ministry of the pope because in it we see St. Peter, the first pope, struggling to learn his job and exercise his ministry. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and the primary preacher at Pentecost, Peter steps into the spirit-filled leadership role in the early church. An incident recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles reveals the tension between the challenge of the new and the reserve of the old.
St. Peter has a dream in which unclean animals are lowered down from heaven in a sheet. The unclean animals were beasts the Jews were forbidden to eat. A voice from heaven commands Peter, “Rise and eat.” St. Peter, knowing his Jewish law, refuses to be polluted by consuming such unclean meats. Three times the command comes, and when Peter wakes someone has come to visit him asking him to bring the gospel to a Gentile named Cornelius. The Jews regarded the Gentiles as unclean, and Peter took the dream about the beasts as a sign that he should take the gospel to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.
This was a radical innovation which had come from the “God of surprises.” The idea that they should embrace the Gentiles was shocking and disturbing. The other apostles were uncertain what to do. This command from heaven overturned everything they had regarded as good and true and part of God’s law. Suddenly they had to open up to something not only radically new, but radically unsettling. God wanted the gospel of his Son to be shared with the Gentile dogs! How could that be?
This passage from Sacred Scripture is often used by progressives to argue that their innovations (while seemingly threatening to the status quo) are actually from the Holy Spirit. So the proponents of women’s ordination, married priests, same-sex marriage and the whole progressive agenda argue that the Holy Spirit is always calling us to open up to what is new, to look again at what we thought was “unclean” and realize God is leading us to accept the changes. The problem with this argument is that it can be used to push most anything. How can we know what is an authentic change and what is bogus?
What should we do if some Catholics really believe that we should change Catholic doctrines or disciplines in response to the Holy Spirit, who always leads us into the fresh and new? The rest of the story in the Acts of the Apostles shows us how we should deal with these “surprises”.
St. Peter took his vision back to the other apostles at the Council of Jerusalem—recorded in Acts chapter fifteen. The inspiration for change did come to St. Peter, and it was validated by the other apostles. This sets the pattern for change within the Catholic Church. As the innovation came through Peter and was confirmed by the apostolic church, so authentic change in the Catholic Church comes through the successor of Peter working in harmony with the successors of the apostles—the bishops of the church. Any change which does not come through the successor of Peter and is not validated by the bishops is not authentic.
Pope Francis, therefore, must always balance the changes he wants and the “surprises” he envisions with the counsel and wisdom of the whole body of bishops around the world. While the Pope is the chief apostle, his ministry is rarely exercised alone. Instead he listens to the God of Surprises—the Holy Spirit—working in and through the whole church.
It is therefore part of Pope Francis’ role to, on the one hand, encourage us to be open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit’s leading while, on the other hand, exercising caution and restraint. He is always listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit while also testing all things to see if they are of God. So with the help of the Holy Spirit and the support of the whole church he encourages us to live that faith which is both “ever ancient and ever new.”
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