“Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers,” St. Benedict admonishes in Chapter 38 of his Rule for Monasteries. “Let there be complete silence,” he decrees. “No whispering, no speaking – only the reader’s voice should be heard there.”
In the refectory at St. John’s Abbey, we’re reading Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium these days. And the monks are not doing so well with St. Benedict’s directions to keep silent. It’s rather hard to restrain oneself when the reading is explosive as Pope Francis’s words.
Words like this, for example, from dinner last night:
“Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed… [T]he message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”
“[I]n preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained… [A]n imbalance results… when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.”
“Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us… If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.”
“Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”
“With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give [the faithful] a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger. Let us never forget that ‘the expression of truth can take different forms’.”
“In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’.”
Last night, at the pope’s positive reference to “differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice,” an older monk walking by my table whispered loudly in mock condemnation, ” HERESY!” The table laughed heartily.