If we want to unlock the mystery that is the mind of our Holy Father Pope Francis, at some point we have to wrap our own minds around the phrase “time is greater than space.”
That enigmatic expression is there in his first and second encyclicals, Lumen Fidei and Laudato Si’. It’s also there in both of his apostolic exhortations, Evangelii Gaudium and the still-new Amoris Laetitia. More than just an odd turn of phrase, it’s a fundamental principle residing inextricably in the very fabric of the pope’s deeply-held vision of how we need to live. It’s also a key to understanding his intention in writing his synod-summarizing exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
In Lumen Fidei (no. 57), Francis tells us: “Let us refuse to be robbed of hope, or to allow our hope to be dimmed by facile answers and solutions which block our progress, ‘fragmenting’ time and changing it into space. Time is always much greater than space. Space hardens processes, whereas time propels towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope.”
For Pope Francis, time is greater than space because the pathway to authentic human progress is “process,” which is itself a function of time. Because time is fluid and in motion, it represents the key to avoiding getting “stuck” in space, so to speak. If we try to fill space with short-term solutions and stark and static answers to problems with no thought of how we can really move forward from that point, we short-circuit time itself and cut off ourselves from a more hope-filled future.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis gives us his most detailed thinking on what he means by “time is greater than space”:
- A constant tension exists between fullness and limitation. Fullness evokes the desire for complete possession, while limitation is a wall set before us. Broadly speaking, “time” has to do with fullness as an expression of the horizon which constantly opens before us, while each individual moment has to do with limitation as an expression of enclosure. People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space.
- This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time. One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.
It is clear in the above paragraphs that Francis wants us to avoid attempting to merely “possess” spaces—grabbing for power and control in the present moment—and instead work to build up people, which is always a more complicated and longer-term project.
This idea comes through quite explicitly in Laudato Si’, his encyclical on “care for our common home.” There, he writes: The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments. Thus we forget that “time is greater than space,” that we are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power. [paragraph 178]
The Holy Father also has expressed this contrast between “space” and “time” in other speeches and addresses—it’s not merely an occasional cliché or catch-phrase.
Having gotten a glimpse of this vision, only now are we really equipped to examine “time is greater than space” as it’s found in Amoris Laetitia. While the expression makes its most prominent appearance in paragraph 3, let’s look first at what he says all the way down in paragraph 261 (on parenting), because the latter paragraph will help us better understand what he really means in the earlier one:
- Obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience. Here it remains true that “time is greater than space.” In other words, it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces.
That last sentence is essential to our properly understanding his meaning here, in his introduction:
- Since “time is greater than space,” I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does.
Here is the bottom line—our Holy Father is a process-starter and not a space-dominator. And all the hand-wringing in the world is not going to budge him an inch closer to dominating “spaces” by simply—and statically—issuing additional “space-filling” decrees or re-statements of existing teaching or practice (such as, for example, the non-reception of Holy Communion by the divorced-remarried-not-annulled). That’s just not what he does or even tries to do. Clearly, Amoris Laetitia is a “process-building” document—it’s a summary of the two-year-long synodal process. It’s not an attempt to fill spaces.
And we need to accept it as such.
Meanwhile, on this point, the cues and clues keep coming from Pope Francis himself. In his May 17 interview with “La Croix,” he says: “In the post-synodal exhortation [Amoris Laetitia], I sought to respect the Synod to the maximum. You won’t find canonical prescriptions there about what one may or may not do…. It is a serene, peaceful reflection on the beauty of love, how to educate the children, to prepare for marriage … It emphasizes responsibilities that could be developed by the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the form of guidelines.”
Here is a pope who works “slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results.” And it seems to me that he wants all of us to do the same. Give it a try. Slow down and walk with him rather than in front of him (or, God forbid, over him). Give “a priority to time.” Let time be greater than space.
Deacon Jim Russell is a “cradle” Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the diaconate in 2002, Russell serves as Family Life Coordinator for the Office of Laity and Family Life in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.