Book helps people explore pope’s teaching on belonging

By Cindy Wooden | Catholic News Service
Wednesday, February 14, 2024

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’s concern for migrants and refugees, his focus on ecology, his calls to “go out” to share the good news of salvation, even his support for the controversial possibility of informally blessing LGBTQ+ couples flow from his conviction that people need to know they belong to God, to one another and to creation.

“All the life-threatening crises that beset us around the world, from the ecological crisis to the wars, the injustices against the poor and vulnerable, have their roots in this rejection of our belonging to God and to each other,” the pope wrote in a foreword to “First Belong to God: A Retreat with Pope Francis,” a book released Feb. 13, the day before the beginning of Lent.

To understand Pope Francis and his teaching, it is helpful to understand — and even experience — the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that have shaped his spirituality since he joined the Jesuits in 1958, said Austen Ivereigh, author of the new book.

Ivereigh, who has written two biographies of the pope, has woven together a classic eight-day preached version of the Spiritual Exercises with five decades of spiritual reflections by Pope Francis in the book, which was published in Ireland by Messenger Publications and in the United States by Loyola Press.

“The big overall theme is belonging, or the crisis of belonging to which the pontificate is, in many ways, a response,” Ivereigh said.

Pope Francis continually returns to the theme, insisting each person was created by God, is loved by God and is called to recognize that he or she belongs to God.

Remembering that first belonging inspires humility and gratitude but also frees people from erroneously thinking they can or should be able to control everything and everyone around them.

The pope’s repeated reminder to young people at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, that there is room in the church for “todos, todos, todos” — everyone, everyone, everyone — also flows from that basic conviction that every person is loved by God. That love comes first — before a person acts on it or even accepts it.

“What Pope Francis has done with his bold ‘the church is for everyone’ message is show that the church exists to communicate the unconditional love of God for all his creatures, and that our conversion begins with embracing that truth,” Ivereigh told Catholic News Service.

“We do not earn God’s love by changing but change by accepting God’s love,” he said. “That’s hard for us, because we prefer to believe that what is of value must be earned or deserved.”

That temptation, he said, can be seen “in much of the reaction to ‘Fiducia Supplicans,’” the document of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that opened the possibility for priests and other ministers to give non-liturgical blessings to gay and other couples not married in the church.

“People find it hard to accept that we are all blessable,” he said, thinking instead that “we must first change in order to belong.”

But, Ivereigh said, “like St. Ignatius, Pope Francis goes the other way. No, he says: First you belong. Then, as you absorb that truth, you will change.”

Ivereigh pairs major documents by the pope with each part of the “belonging,” showing a progressive development of the theme throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate: the 2013 “The Joy of the Gospel” emphasizing belonging to God; the 2015 “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” about belonging to creation; and the 2020 “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” exploring how people belong to each other.

In his foreword, Pope Francis wrote that to help people resist the temptation to reject “our belonging to God and to each other,” the church offers prayers and spiritual practices, including confession, the regular celebration of the Eucharist and spiritual retreats.

In the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Ivereigh said, the saint “urges weekly confession and Eucharist,” but he also dedicates the whole first week “to meditating on sin and God’s mercy,” themes that stand out in Pope Francis’ personal journey of faith and in his preaching.

“We meditate on these not to ‘wallow’ but the opposite: to realize that we need our Savior, and that God’s mercy is the real power in this world,” Ivereigh said.

The book also includes repeated references to Pope Francis’ homilies during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and how he used them to emphasize humanity’s belonging to God, to each other and to the created world.

Grasping those connections, the pope had said, would determine whether humanity would come out of the pandemic better or worse off than before.

“I don’t think anyone would say that the world is better now than in 2019,” Ivereigh told CNS. “I think most people, including Pope Francis, would say the opposite. We seem to be in a dark time that is set to get darker, and in many ways, we’ve doubled down and gone backward.”

“But I think Francis would also want to point to some of the signs of hope: for example, the awakening to abuse, the concern for our common home, the awareness of suffering and inequality — all these were maybe helped by COVID,” he said.

“But in any case, our hope as Christians doesn’t assume that the world will get better,” Ivereigh said. The last chapter of his book, focused on Jesus’ passion and death, “is called ‘The Triumph of Failure’ because in human, worldly terms we might not see success at all, but God will use our apparently fruitless actions to bring about redemption.”


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