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The Power of a Positive Pope

© Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 10/01/15

Pope Francis's ministry shows that best way to overcome evil is to build up all that is beautiful, good and true.

What was the greatest takeaway from Pope Francis’ visit to America? It was simply that he seemed to be a happy person. He laughed without being flippant or sarcastic. He was relaxed without being laid back. He was profound without being pompous. He was loving without being sentimental and confident without being arrogant. In a world of controlled messages, artificiality, political cunning and cynical spin, everything Pope Francis said and did was natural, transparent, simple and authentically positive.

Where does Pope Francis’ positive outlook come from? Is he just a nice grandfatherly figure, or is there more to it than that?

In a fascinating blog post Dr. Christopher Kazcor explains the roots of Pope Francis’ positive outlook and behaviors. It is in his training as a Jesuit, and the wisdom of Jesuit saint Ignatius Loyola. “If we wonder,” Kazcor asks, “ ‘What makes Pope Francis tick?’ the answer is found in the spirituality of Ignatius. This spiritual path finds a surprising confirmation in the findings of contemporary psychology.”

Kazcor explains, “In his classic work The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggested paths to deepening love of God and neighbor. Ignatius advised people to make decisions out of a spirit of consolation rather than desolation. He understood a spirit of consolation as a sense of peace, harmony, and joy. A spirit of desolation is one of anxiety, fear, and despair.”

Beneath Francis’ happiness is his Jesuit training in the power of positive prayer. Kazcor continues, “St. Ignatius’s advice finds vindication in the findings of contemporary psychology. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that, ‘Your awareness narrows with negative emotions and broadens with positive ones. It is when feeling good, then, that you’re best equipped to see holistically and come up with creative and practical solutions to the problems you and others are facing.’ “

Some critics of Francis have been disappointed that he did not more explicitly condemn same sex marriage, abortion and other contemporary evils. Francis’ emphasis on mercy and his reluctance to harangue with hellfire and brimstone condemnations is part of his deeper positive perspective.

Francis knows that an emphasis on the positive aspects of the gospel bear much greater fruit and a much more positive result. Kazcor agrees, “There are many other ways in which positive psychology confirms the wisdom of traditional spiritual practices such as prayer, forgiveness, humility, and service to those in need.”

There is, however, an even deeper reason for the Pope’s positive message, and this penetrates to the historic Catholic understanding of good and evil. The fourth century theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the first to formulate a thoroughgoing understanding of evil. He wrote, “No evil exists of its own substance.” What Gregory means is that evil has no positive or original value. Evil is only ever a distortion, denial or absence of what is beautiful, good and true.

A good way to understand this is to say that evil is to good what darkness is to light and cold is to heat. Darkness and cold are the absence of light and heat. They are nothing in themselves. Likewise, evil—though its effects are real—is not positive and original in itself.

To spend all one’s time, therefore lamenting and lambasting evil is not actually the best way to overcome evil. The best way to overcome evil is to build up all that is beautiful, good and true. This is the positive way forward, and it is exactly what we see in the ministry and message of Pope Francis. Rather than blast the breakdown of marriage and heap condemnation on those wallowing in immorality, the Pope builds up marriage with enthusiasm and encouragement.

The power of the positive Pope is seen in the ecstatic welcome he received in America. People respond positively to a positive presence. Where there was sadness he brought joy. Where there was division he brought reconciliation. Where there was immorality he pointed the way to the beautiful and true love of the family. Where there was heartbreak he brought healing. Where there was anger and violence he brought laughter and peace.

This is the not only the power of a positive papacy, it is the positive message of the Christian gospel. The witness of Pope Francis shows the way for all Christians. If we are to proclaim the gospel then we need to do so not so much with anger and blame, but with the good news of Jesus Christ—the positive attraction of everything that is beautiful, good and true.

Read Fr Longenecker’s blog, follow him on Twitter, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

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