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The Pope, Jesuit mission and Eureka Street

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In a recent meeting Pope Francis met the editors of European Jesuit cultural magazines. As usual in such meetings he did not give an address but invited the participants to ask questions. The questions ranged across a wide area, reflecting the different readership and religious culture of the magazines. Underlying the Pope’s responses lay a challenging and coherent approach to the Jesuit mission and to communication that invites self-reflection also among Jesuit magazines and their readers outside Europe. 

In this article I shall follow a brief summary of Pope Francis with my own reflections on the positions he took. My opinions are personal and do not represent a Jesuit or a Eureka Street position.  

When asked about the mission of magazines, Pope Francis answered that it was to communicate in ways that took account of their different situations and cultures. Within that diversity, however, they should also see their Jesuit mission to lie, not in the abstract discussion of ideas, but in communicating a personal reality based in experience.  

The Society of Jesus should not be interested in communicating abstract ideas. It is interested, instead, in communicating human experience through ideas and reasoning, through experience. Ideas are to be discussed. Discussion is a good thing, but for me it is not enough. It is human reality that is to be discerned. Discernment is what really counts. The mission of a Jesuit publication cannot be only to discuss, but it must be above all able to help discernment that leads to action.

To illustrate this point he contrasted a theoretical discussion of slavery with the conversation among a group involved with victims of human trafficking. 

The stories and the experience gave the latter an energy for change lacking in the former. This is the principle that I wanted to tell you about and that I recommend to you: reality is superior to the idea, and therefore you must deal with ideas and reflections that arise from reality. When you enter the world of ideas alone and move away from reality you end up with what is ridiculous. Ideas are discussed, reality is discerned. Discernment is the charism of the Society.

In responding to questions reflecting local situations he developed the implications of this mission. When asked about examples of spiritual renewal, he contrasted a spirituality that is ‘a closed, rigid thinking, more instructive-ascetical than mystical’ with one that accepts the reality of the Second Vatican Council Council and uses it as the criterion of judgment.

The emphasis on reality and experience leads Pope Francis to emphasise the local context and the importance of listening and of exploration. To a question about how to evangelise in Sweden he says:

I don’t know how to answer your question, to tell you the truth. Because only those who live there, in that context, can understand and discover the right paths. I would like to point out, however, a man who is a model of guidance, Cardinal Anders Arborelius. He is not afraid of anything. He talks to everybody and is not against anybody. He always aims for the positive. I believe that a person like him can indicate the right path to follow.           

When asked about the conflict in the German Catholic Church about the authority of its synods and about an issue in the Cologne Church, he again stresses the space and freedom from pressure needed for discernment.

The problem arises when the synodal path comes from the intellectual, theological elites, and is much influenced by external pressures… What is happening (in Cologne) is that there are a lot of pressure groups, and under pressure it is not possible to discern…. To be able to discern, I am waiting until there is no pressure. The fact that there are different points of view is fine. The problem is when there is pressure. That does not help.

Pope Francis’ approach is best seen in his response to the editor of a Ukrainian magazine who asked how it should cover the war. Francis discouraged partisan representation of the war and urged the editor to attend to its complexity and to focus on the experience of those affected by it.

Here there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys, in an abstract sense. Something global is emerging, with elements that are very much intertwined…

What we are seeing is the brutality and ferocity with which this war is being carried out by the troops, generally mercenaries, used by the Russians…But the danger is that we only see this, which is monstrous, and we do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented. And note the interest in testing and selling weapons. It is very sad, but at the end of the day that is what is at stake.

He advises the Editor:  

I would like you to show the human drama of war. It is all very well to make a geopolitical calculation, to study things in depth. You must do so because that is your duty. But also try to convey the human drama of war: the human drama of those cemeteries, the human drama of the beaches…it’s a postman with a letter thanking her for having given a son to the country, who is a hero of the country. But she is then left alone. Reflecting on this would help humanity and the Church a great deal. Make your socio-political reflections, without however neglecting human reflection on war.

Pope Francis’ approach naturally leads us to reflect on how we members of the editorial team see our mission at Eureka Street and whether our description corresponds to the reality of what we do. His insistence that Jesuit magazines should encourage discernment certainly does offer words to describe what I would like Eureka Street to be. It names a goal and appropriately broad criteria to judge whether we reach it.

 

'We would not want to publish writing that is resentful, dismissive, polarizing, or which deals abstractly with issues without awareness of the experience of people involved in them.'

 

The reference to discernment makes central the ethical aspect of Jesuit magazines. They are about good communication, spelling out St Augustine’s remark that the only reason we speak to others is to make them better. For magazines, as for all communications, ‘better’ has many dimensions. Better informed, better thinking, better spirited, better disposed, for example. These various betterments coalesce in making us better as human beings.

Communication, of course, involves two parties – speakers or writers, and listeners. The relationships between them are central in any magazine. In the case of Jesuit magazines as Pope Francis sees them, these relationships take the form of discernment in which both parties are actively involved.  It is a mutual and shared commitment.

Discernment is not a product that we writers and editors sell to readers, but names a relationship in which all are involved in observing and engaging in the world. It assumes that initially we all are confronted by the complexity of the world and need to sort out our own conflicting presuppositions and responses. Through listening and speaking we then ideally come to see and to feel what matters, and so are freed to respond by appropriate action.

For writers, readers and editors the magazine is part of a journey that constantly takes us from not-discerning to discerning. This understanding shapes the criteria for the selection of articles for Eureka Street. The process of selecting and of commissioning articles is itself an exercise of discernment, involving an editorial panel offering different perspectives to guide the editor’s decision. Ideally the articles chosen will be informative and eirenical, will leave space for other views, and will represent the experience of the people affected by the issues covered. We would not want to publish writing that is resentful, dismissive, polarizing, or which deals abstractly with issues without awareness of the experience of people involved in them. We would look for the same ideal qualities in the comments and postings on the articles.  

The call to be discerning also puts a high value of good writing. Care in the choice of words and for the elegance of language involves an exercise of discernment by the writer and also encourage it in the reader. Good writing invites a discerning cast of mind that stretches beyond its immediate topic to a habitual attention to the world. That is why finding space for poetry in Eureka Street has been so important. It respects complexity while seeking integrity.

Giving priority to discernment, of course, does not guarantee its practice. We are aware that discernment can sometimes be a messy process. There are often different opinions, even in our editorial panel, about whether something satisfies our criteria for publication. Our inherent biases, some from our Catholic background and some from our culture, can colour our judgments about what we should publish and limit our empathy with opinions that differ from our own. Such messiness reminds us that our magazine will not only sometimes offer our readers a model of discernment but also occasionally provide them with an object lesson in its lack.

 

'The most thought-provoking aspect of Pope Francis’ remarks was his commission to us as Jesuits and not simply as editors of magazines to focus on experience and the lived reality of our world, and to give this priority over abstract ideas.'

 

Lapses of judgment often also spring from undue haste. Discernment implies a pause between one’s immediate response and considered response, between passion and action. For that reason we do not seek to offer the first commentary on events nor to publish articles about people or issues on which polarised armies have mortars trained, ready to turn any article to ground zero. In that respect Pope Francis’ reference to pressure as the enemy of discernment and his own capacity for long silences in the midst of heated controversy are illuminating.

This prizing of space perhaps distinguishes Eureka Street from activist media, with which it however also has many affinities. In wishing to represent the world through the experience of those excluded from it and to make this experience salient to our readers, we necessarily give voice to their anger at the lack of respect they have suffered. Discernment, however, makes us attentive also to the feelings we bring to reflection on our world and encourages us to engage with those with whom we differ and whose support we shall need to change it.

The most thought-provoking aspect of Pope Francis’ remarks was his commission to us as Jesuits and not simply as editors of magazines to focus on experience and the lived reality of our world, and to give this priority over abstract ideas. Stated so baldly this might appear an anti-intellectual bias, at odds with the long history of Jesuits involved in research and in philosophy. It would also sit uneasily with the view of a recent Jesuit Superior General who described the great challenge of the modern world as the globalisation of superficiality. He sought to meet it by solid scholarship in the philosophies that underlie it.

Two remarks can be made. First, Pope Francis does not discount scholarship. His arguing partner is an intellectuality that does not recognise the impact of personal and social history on one’s ideas, but makes judgments on the basis of abstract principles with neither feel nor knowledge of the people affected by them. It ignores the complexity of human affairs. 

Second, Pope Francis takes for granted in this conversation the communal character of Jesuit and Catholic life. Like other Jesuit magazines, Eureka Street is linked to other Jesuits and their works, including those involved in research, those engaged in social outreach, education, policy and advocacy. It is also similarly linked to other small magazines in Australia and, of course, to you our readers.  Ideally in a community people speak about ideas, people and the world and bring together their different perspectives based on different experience in an informal process of discernment. Jesuit magazines need this informal community open to the past through scholarship, to the present through the experience of ordinary people, and to the future through discernment. It lends breadth to sympathy and depth to judgment.

 

 

 


 

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Pope Francis meeting editors of Jesuit magazines. (Vatican media)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Jesuit, Eureka Street, Media

 

 

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Existing comments

'His arguing partner is an intellectuality that does not recognise the impact of personal and social history on one’s ideas, but makes judgments on the basis of abstract principles with neither feel nor knowledge of the people affected by them. It ignores the complexity of human affairs.' Truly, words of wisdom. If only we all understood that all our philosophies and abstract intellectual principles are ultimately human constructions and therefore products of the environment in which they were developed and inevitably partial and incomplete at best.


Ginger Eggs | 14 July 2022  

The "complexity of human affairs", includes, thankfully, our human ability to discern defining characteristics of schools of thought - relativist, nominalist and determinist but a few among them - thereby contributing significantly to history' sense of narrative and our self-understanding as part of it.
A negation of language's conceptual ability to engage reality and express would, I think, short-change our desire for and pursuit of truth and its claim on our innate endeavours to make sense of experience and life itself, individually and communally.
Philosophy and poetry can enhance each other, and often do - and a humane praxis requires both.


John RD | 15 July 2022  

This is a stunning essay, not just deserving of a Jesuit or Catholic audience, but a human one. I feel humbled but also impelled to forward it to those I know who specialise in enhancing communication. Among these is an Oxford don, now retired and specialising in celebrating the profile of his university by composing encaenia in Latin to fete the conferring of honorary doctoral degrees on some of the world's illuminati. Naturally the reputations of such persons are carefully screened and the conferment of an honoris causa from such an eminent institution is not to be sneezed at because it usually comes at the end of a lifetime of service to some academic or humanitarian cause. However, the sub fusc of the occasion, involving a procession with musical interludes to break the tedium of the event does, in my view, little more than provide an excuse for showing off the Latinesque brilliance of the encomium. I shall send the encomiast, Jonathan Katz, Fellow of All Souls, a copy of Andy's address, not to alienate him, but for several better reasons, including his lavish praise of Campion Hall, which occupies a significant place in the life of Oxford University. Thanks!


Michael Furtado | 27 July 2022