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In the world of theology, “reality is greater than ideas,” S+L producer tells alma mater at reunion

Salt + Light Media

Saturday, July 22, 2017

(Salt + Light producer and host Sebastian Gomes gave the keynote address during reunion weekend at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota on June 23rd, 2017. Photo courtesy of Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary)
"It was a great honor for me to return to my 'home away from home' in Minnesota and address the very people who taught me so much," said S+L's Sebastian Gomes, after giving the keynote address to kick off 2017 reunion weekend at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary. Since leaving the renowned Benedictine graduate school in Collegeville, MN, Sebastian has spent most of his professional years with Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto.
Thanks in large part to the relationships S+L has built with the institutional church over the past fifteen years, Sebastian has worked extensively with the Vatican and seen some dramatic developments up close since Pope Francis was elected. In his address to his alma mater, Sebastian warned of a kind of "normalization" of Pope Francis, whose ecclesiastical revolution goes much deeper than most people, including Catholics, think. The "hermeneutical key" to this papacy, he argued, is a simple phrase Francis uses: "reality is greater than ideas." It is a concept that theological schools and other Catholic institutions of higher education must contemplate and creatively integrate into the structures. How that develops, is yet to be seen...
Read more about the Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary reunion weekend here.
"Reality is Greater than Ideas": A Reflection on the Theology of Pope Francis for Theologians
Part I: Reality is Greater than Ideas
My reflection is titled: Reality is Greater than Ideas: A Reflection on the Theology of Pope Francis for Theologians. Following Pope Francis as closely as I do can be overwhelming and exhausting. And I’ve often asked myself, could there be a kind of Rosetta Stone for this pontificate? Is there a hermeneutical key by which we can open Francis’s papal program, and think about what it means for our lives and ministries? I think there is, and that will be the subject of my reflections this evening.
Since I left Saint John’s back in 2011 to return home to Canada, I’ve been on somewhat of a roller-coaster ride. I’ve been working in Catholic media, at an important charitable organization called Salt and Light, which was born out of the World Youth Day in Toronto 2002. And through this work I’ve found myself in some extraordinary situations, and in relationships with people I’d never dreamed of meeting, let alone befriending.
The ride really took off in March 2013, when I was asked to read the first reading during Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass in St. Peter’s Square, because of the work we had done with the English media for the Vatican during the papal transition. And my mom texting me afterwards, that my old college soccer coach, Pat Haws had called her in a frenzy of disbelief, when he saw me standing up there in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
I remember getting an unexpectedly thorough and hospitable tour of the Turner Broadcasting Center in New York from Anderson Cooper a year later, before interviewing him for our film “The Francis Effect”.
And meeting Katie Couric at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto in the summer of 2015, to give her some advice on covering Pope Francis in the United States, on what themes to look for and highlight.
And a few months prior, in April, waiting in America House, the old Jesuit residence and office of America Magazine in Manhattan, as Stephen Colbert walked in, with natural greying hair and a full goatee. No one had seen him since The Colbert Report had gone off the air months earlier. Greeting our team he got to me and said, “Hey Sebastian! I recognize you from TV.” And I thought to myself, “Isn’t that funny, I barely recognized you with that goatee.”
And then, just days before the Pope arrived in Washington D.C., meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders who had just launched his presidential campaign. We had reached out to his campaign team—mostly young adults, many Jesuit educated—for an interview about Pope Francis; the answer was immediately yes. The Senator, who is not a Christian, told me of the hostility he encountered from within the democratic establishment and other liberal circles, for speaking out so strongly in support of Pope Francis, for quoting his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” at length on the Senate floor, and tirelessly praising the Pope for giving to humanity Laudato Si’, the most direct and comprehensive moral imperative for immediately changing our attitude and behavior toward the environment.
And of course, the most meaningful encounter for me personally over these last five years has been with the Holy Father himself; from running into him in a backstreet of Rome a few days before the conclave, to working with him for weeks at a time as I did during the Synods of Bishops on the Family.
All of the encounters I just mentioned—and numerous others—are because of Pope Francis. It is because of him that such new dialogues and opportunities for collaboration have emerged; I’m fortunate to have witnessed this myself.
Perhaps the most unexpected and eye-opening encounter I’ve had was with Senator Sanders, who I just mentioned. No politician in Canada or the United States, Catholic or non-Catholic, has publicly acknowledged, quoted, referenced, promoted—and dare I say, comprehended—the deep truths Pope Francis has spoken to our world, than Senator Bernie Sanders. That is simply a fact. They do not agree on everything, I can assure you. They would admit as much. But, in our day and age, considering the current political climate, there is all the more reason to recognize the sincerity of those who see in our current Pope a beacon of light and hope, and a partner in dialogue.
As Francis encouraged the Bishops of the United States during his visit to Washington, D.C.: (September 23, 2015)
“Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.”
These bold principles for authentic dialogue, and openness to mutual encounter, are notably absent from the degenerate political reality we are living through today. And the fear of many citizens of this country—and mine—is that this reality will become “normalized”; that the daily flood of breaking news, often scandalous and incoherent, will eventually lead to a civic paralysis and inability to uphold the reasonable demands of accountability, civility, truth, freedom, justice and promotion of the common good.
I do not wish to add to that political flood, but I mention it because I think an analogy can be made here with Pope Francis, for precisely the opposite reason: Francis speaks so plainly and so often, we risk a kind of “normalization” of his ecclesiastical revolution. The novelty of a pope, who lives in a bustling hotel, gives unscripted speeches and airborne press conferences—and yes, Tweets regularly, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning (although that’s because of the time difference in Rome!)—that novelty begins to wear off, and the gravity of his words, rather than provoking honest reflection and action, is missed, or even consciously dismissed.
Francis has given us enough material to grasp his pastoral program for the universal church. But to avoid “normalization”, we must highlight what is essential to the message. This is an analytical challenge that every student of the School of Theology/Seminary here at Saint John’s is familiar with: How can we capture the essence of the Holy Father’s vision? What is that hermeneutical key by which his papal program can be opened, articulated to the people of our time, and used for practical steps towards implementation?
The simple—if unsatisfactory—answer is that Francis is a man of the Gospel. But what does that mean for the people of today? As Pope John XXIII famously said:
“The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”
I would like to suggest a key-phrase Francis uses, often and in various circumstances, that unlocks the essential character of his ministry, is an antidote to normalization, and requires today’s theologians and pastoral ministers to calibrate their evangelical efforts accordingly: “Reality is greater than ideas.”
There is nothing more revolutionary in Francis’ lexicon, and with greater consequence for the Church at this moment, than those five simple words. This is what draws people to Francis, Catholics and non-Catholics: they know he sees and cares about reality, in all its complexity, more than anything else. “Reality is greater than ideas.”
Francis explained this principle in his 2013 exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”:
“Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bi-millennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.” (EG 233)
Since 2013, Francis has continually invoked this principle. Here we should avoid the obvious irony in discussing only the theological justification for a principle which, at its core, seeks to move beyond and into reality.
January 18th, 2015: Pope Francis met with 30,000 young people on a sports field at Santo Tomás University in Manila, Philippines. He listened attentively to the testimony of a 12-year-old girl named Glyzelle Palomar, who couldn’t hold back tears as she recounted her young life spent foraging for food in the garbage dumps of the city, and sleeping on cardboard in the street. Covering her face with her hands she sobbed and asked the Pope, “Why did God let this happen to us?”
Francis put aside his prepared English text and responded in his native Spanish: “This girl has asked the one question that doesn’t have an answer,” he said. “And she couldn’t say it in words. She had to say it with tears.
“Only when our hearts can ask this question and weep, can we begin to understand.”
“Dear young men and women, our world today needs weeping. The marginalized weep, those who are neglected weep, the scorned weep, but those of us who have relatively comfortable lives, we don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears.”
“Jesus wept.” Jesus weeps with us.
And he concluded, “Pardon me that I read practically nothing of what I had prepared. But there is a phrase which gives me a little bit of consolation: “Realities are greater than ideas”. And the reality [which the young people who spoke] described, your reality, is greater than the ideas which I had prepared.”
Part II: The Painting
My first big expedition at Salt + Light was to the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland in the summer of 2012. I was one of our correspondents: covering the main events, telling stories of the people who came from around the world, and of the rich Irish Catholic heritage. I also attended workshops, seminars, and visited the exhibitions. One exhibition in particular I will never forget.
It was called, “Through the Eyes of the Apostles,” a three-dimensional recreation of Capernaum—the village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus lived during his public ministry. Visitors walked through the exhibition, smelling the trees, hearing the waves off the lake and faint voices from another time. It was a sensual and spiritual experience, to look through the eyes of the Apostles, when Jesus strolled through the town.
At the end of the exhibit was a recreated 1st century tomb and hanging on the wall outside was this painting, by Eugène Burnand called, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection.” I was mesmerized by it.
Burnand was a 19th century Swiss painter and a devout Christian. This is probably his most famous painting from 1898; the original hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Burnand was a realist and a naturalist, for whom the honest depiction of landscapes and his subjects was paramount. He was fascinated by photography—a developing art of his day—because a photograph captured a reality. In fact, his paintings were often criticized for being “too photographic” in nature. For Burnand, reality was greater than ideas.
When I first looked at the painting I recalled the words of GK Chesterton, writing on Christian art, specifically on the implicative difference between Christian and Buddhist art. He observes:
“The Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The Christian saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive.” (Orthodoxy, 138)
We could say that the eyes of the Christian saint are open and alive because they are staring directly at reality. Only the prospect of an inexplicable and scandalous occurrence, like the theft of a dead body, on top of the emotional and psychological pain consuming those closest to the man killed, could induce the uncertainty, anxiety and desperation we see on the faces of Peter and John. The painting evokes a powerfully human connection. Whatever is happening to them, it is real.
It finally occurred to me why the curators displayed Burnand’s painting at the end of this exhibit: it is through the eyes of the Apostles that we experience the miraculous resurrection of Jesus. Faithful to our scriptural tradition, Burnand suggests that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is presented to us, not as an objective, unfiltered, emotionless historical record, but as a personal encounter shared by Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and others, whose lives were thrust in a new and decisive direction on Easter morning. We sometimes forget that everything we know about Jesus comes to us through the testimony of those men and women who followed him in real life.
This is a resurrection painting in which the resurrection isn’t painted. We don’t see what Peter and John see. We only see the very human reaction of ordinary men, to a supernatural event. But that is the point. When we look at this painting, we know, intuitively on a human level, that they are staring at reality. And reality is greater than ideas.
Let me read the corresponding passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 20:
“On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have put Him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out, and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the burial cloths lying there, but did not go in. And when Simon Peter arrived after him, he entered the tomb; and he saw the burial cloths lying there, and the cloth which had covered his head rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple who had first come to the tomb also entered, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture, that he had to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned home.”
In this beautifully intense scene, we have the youngest and the oldest of Jesus’ disciples together: the two most frequently cited disciples in the fourth Gospel. Their juxtaposition in various scenes throughout the narrative reveals an apparent rivalry or tension, most likely on the matter of precedence, or at least equivalence, in relation to Jesus. Most of the time, it is the young, Beloved Disciple, who is especially attuned to Jesus’ mind and heart, and exhibits steadfast faith; while Peter rambunctiously shuffles along, often confused; he denies and abandons his teacher, and must be rehabilitated by the risen Jesus over brunch.
Peter’s presence in John’s Gospel is thorny: he’s a bit of a pain, but you can’t get rid of him. But no matter how you draw it up, the fact remains, the story of Jesus can’t be told without Peter. The two disciples must run alongside each other, as Burnand depicted.
Part III: Consolation and Challenge
There is a rather creative theological interpretation of this ‘competitive race’ that speaks to our theme, and what Francis’ vision requires of us, here, at the School of Theology/Seminary.
John’s Gospel is known for its rich symbolism and detail. Did the younger, fitter Beloved Disciple simply outrun Peter? Or does this scene, like others in John’s narrative, expose the real tension between two disciples, two communities, two distinct theological streams of the early church?
Perhaps the younger, charismatic John, with his spirited sense of God, encountered the mystery of the resurrection first, as prophets often do. And Peter, the rock and protector of the tradition, cautious of each step he takes along the road, is necessarily delayed. I wonder if the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan had this scripture in mind when he aptly noted, “The church inevitably arrives on the scene, often late and out of breath.”
And yet, upon arriving at the tomb and seeing the burial cloths, the Beloved Disciple does not enter. He displays a kind of intuitive deference, allowing the laboring Peter to catch up and examine the scene.
And while it is Peter, representing the institutional charism, who first validates the Easter revelation, it is John, representing a more evangelical charism, who first believes it, according to the Evangelist.
These charisms: of Peter and John, of the institutional and the evangelical, of authority and prophecy, of security and impetuosity have been wedded in the Catholic Church ever since. At times the relationship has been strained, when, for example, those filled with one charism, believe they can exist without the other.
So isn’t it remarkable when a pope like Francis comes along? And it seems to many theologians and pastoral ministers that Peter has not only caught up, but has pulled ahead.
His prophetic words and actions; his openness and docility to the Holy Spirit; his spiritual freedom and spontaneity; his inspired energy and enthusiasm; his longing for a church that is not caught up in its own security, or lost in the clouds of theological speculation, or shackled by doctrinal scrupulosity. These are not traits we in the field of theology have typically associated with the Petrine ministry.
Francis himself has been questioned or criticized by some Catholic media, theologians and canon lawyers for confusing, or even compromising, long-standing church teachings; of doing exactly what—in their minds—Peter was divinely tasked with condemning.
And despite claims to the contrary, Francis has responded to these often-veiled criticisms. In fact, he anticipates them. In Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 for example, after laying out a more open process for pastoral discernment of complex situations, Francis writes:
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”. (AL 308)
Francis is clear that he will not allow this vision of a church immersed in reality to be obscured.
To countless other theologians and pastoral ministers, Francis’s papacy has been an unexpected spiritual consolation. Perhaps you have felt, as I have, time and again these past four years, moments of profound connection with the Holy Father, as if we took the same class or read the same textbook. He seems to embody the kind of theology and ministry we’ve always been most inspired and challenged by; a theology and ministry we pursued without the assurance of success, or even a job, but one that would impel us—despite our limitations and weakness—“to put the Word into practice.” A theology rooted in reality.
For this we must recognize Saint John’s and the School of Theology and Seminary, as one of those communities in the Church where reality is greater than ideas. Here the intellectual pursuit and the pastoral practice are integrated. It is a long and rich history, which includes intellectual giants on whose shoulders we stand: Fr. Virgil Michael and Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, who taught us that the supreme act of worship in the liturgy—however beautiful and transcendent—does not serve the Christian God unless it leads out of the sanctuary and puts down roots in the soil of human experience.
So… what does this principle—reality is greater than ideas—mean for the School of Theology and Seminary today?
We often use a simple phrase to explain the difference and complementarity between Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI: “Benedict is a theologian, and Francis is a pastor.” But in light of our reflection, and considering the countless points of convergence between Francis’s pastoral vision and the theological endeavor, can we consider Pope Francis, the theologian? What might a theology of reality look like in our time?
Just one month ago, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego gave a commencement speech to graduates of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. Speaking on this very topic, he said:
“There has emerged in the last four years a vibrantly transformed branch of Catholic theology which is rightfully claiming its place as a central element of Catholic doctrine and practice, that is, the pastoral theology which is contained in the teachings of Pope Francis…
“It demands that moral theology proceed from the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ, which does not first demand a change of life, but begins with an embrace of divine love, proceeds to the action of healing, and only then requires a conversion of action in responsible conscience…
“The pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects a notion of law which can be blind to the uniqueness of concrete human situations, human suffering and human limitation…
“It will be one of the greatest theological projects of our age to understand how this new theological tradition should be formed—how it can bring unity, energy and insight into the intersection of Catholic faith and the modern world.”
I can think of no better place to begin such an exciting theological enterprise than here at Saint John’s and the School of Theology and Seminary. But for now, let us continue celebrating this joyful occasion, remembering that the reality of our encounter here as a community this weekend is greater than all the books we’ve read and exams we’ve written.
Thank you.

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