‘Novus Mentis Habitus’

When Pope John Paul II promulgated the current Code of Canon Law, he referred to the call of the Second Vatican Council to develop a novus mentis habitus, a “new way of thinking.” He was referring specifically to a new way of approaching the law of the Church, but certainly thinking creatively about our lives of ministry transcends such categories.

As we now find ourselves in August and facing the fall “ramp-up” of ministries: fresh faces beginning the RCIA inquiry phase, schools and catechetical programs making last-minute preparations for students, staff people and clergy alike. There is a sense of an imminent new beginning. It is with all of this in mind that I found Pope Francis once again to be modeling for us, not simply a new way of thinking, but a new way of being and acting.

At a recent gathering of young students from Jesuit schools in Italy and Albania, the Pope spoke candidly and spontaneously about many things. Of course his comments were never intended to be read and studied with the great theological precision found in other recent papacies. However, the way Pope Francis is choosing to exercise the Petrine ministry can give the rest of us reason to look at how we choose to exercise our own work in the Lord’s vineyard.

I also remember reading shortly after the conclave that certain cardinal–electors had been a bit concerned over the rather serious Cardinal Bergoglio’s potential for connecting with youth. The videos of this event should allay any reservations on that score!

As the pope prepares to give his prepared speech, you can see him make the decision to change directions, to adapt to his audience. He refers to his prepared text as “long and a little boring,” and says, “Let’s do something different.” He then takes questions from a number of the students and answers them frankly. He jumps up to greet each questioner with an embrace and a kiss, then returns to his chair for the next question.

As he gives “a little summary” of his prepared text, it is interesting that his first point refers to the balance that educators and parents must find in combining security in education with risk of reaching out into the unknown. Notice how he has found a creative way to do exactly what he is now challenging these students, their teachers and their parents to do. He has left the security of the prepared text and scripted event, taken a risk and made himself personally vulnerable to the impossible-to-predict nature of the questions these young people might ask.

“Don’t always be in the place of security,” the Holy Father says. He specifically calls on the teachers to find unconventional ways and means of teaching. And when he finishes his summary, he tells the crowd that he is ready for questions, adding (perhaps with a little trepidation), “Please help me with this!”

The reflection for us as clergy might well center around these points: How open are we to make ourselves vulnerable to the unexpected, to speak honestly and frankly about our own doubts and struggles along the way (“The thing about the art of the journey,” the pope said, “is not to avoid falling, but not to stay fallen. We must get up quickly and return to the journey.”) Is our own faith strong enough to “throw away the script” and simply be with the people we serve and be vulnerable to them and their questions?

It has been interesting, in these early months of Francis’s papacy, to see the reactions of the aides assisting him and their own attempts at following his lead and adjusting their roles to accommodate his more spontaneous style of ministry. Perhaps now is a good time for us to think, act and be in “new ways” of service, to balance the place of security in our lives with a willingness to risk for others. TP 

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.