Pope Francis' take on 'the religious sense'

Many observers have commented already on the importance of Pope Francis’ choice of name and the remarkably “Franciscan” gestures he has made in the early days of his papacy. But too few have paid attention to another key element in the pope’s spiritual vision — namely, his connection to the thought world of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation ecclesial movement. 

I came across an extraordinary article that then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote in 2003 as a contribution to a book honoring the life and work of Msgr. Giussani. Cardinal Bergoglio developed the seminal idea in the writings of Giussani, which is to say, the religious sense — the intuition of God’s presence that is felt amidst the aspirations, disappointments and pressures of ordinary life.

Fundamental questions

Part of Msgr. Giussani’s genius, Cardinal Bergoglio argued, was that he did not often commence his discourse with explicitly dogmatic or doctrinal language, but rather with an awakening of the often implicit religious sensibility that every person possesses. This sensibility expresses itself in terms of the most fundamental questions: What is my ultimate origin? What is my final destiny? Is there a meaning or logic that runs through the universe? Why, precisely, is there something rather than nothing? These interrogations lead ineluctably to God, for God alone can answer them. St. Augustine knew this, and that is why he prayed, long ago: “Lord, you have made us for yourself; and therefore our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” 

What the future Pope Francis pointed out was that the suspension or covering over of these questions is the principle tragedy of ideological secularism. Postmodern people valorize scientific reason and economic freedom. This means that they tend to think that reality is limited to what empirical investigation delivers and that the good is simply a function of the satisfaction of immediate desires. Both attitudes effectively obviate the fundamental questions that constitute the religious sensibility. And this, he argued, does tremendous psychological and spiritual damage to the human person.

Setting aside diversions

In this regard, Pope Francis reminds me of the great 17th-century scientist and spiritual master Blaise Pascal, who feared that the rise of the physical sciences would, if unchecked, lead to a compromising of the religious dimension, or what he called “the heart.” In point of fact, one of Pascal’s most famous adages — “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not” — was an attempt to hold off an aggressive scientism.  

Pascal complained further that most human beings spend their time pursuing divertissements (diversions) in order to distract themselves from the hard and pressing questions that alone give their lives purpose. In his time, that meant gambling, hunting, eating and drinking, pursuing frivolous relationships, etc. In our time, all of those still function as diversions, but we now have a whole range of new distractions, from television and the Internet to Facebook and trivial texting. We have become absolute masters of divertissement.

Seek those on periphery

In a now famous intervention made during the General Congregations held in advance of the conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio said that the Church was too inward-turned, too preoccupied with its own life. The purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, he continued, is to go out to the wider world, especially to those on the periphery. By this evocative term (periferia in Italian), he meant not only those who are economically deprived or marginalized, but those who find themselves spiritually on the outs. The Church is meant to stir up and address the religious sensibility, especially in those who have largely lost it. This is why the pope’s powerful gestures have perhaps a wider valence than most had imagined. He washes the feet of young prisoners in Rome, but he wants also thereby to engage and elevate their spirits. 

In an address to priests, he said that a shepherd should smell like his sheep! By that memorable image, he insinuated that the agent of the New Evangelization should be close to his people, especially in day- to-day struggles. To be sure, part of that struggle is for economic and political justice, but no disciple of Msgr. Giussani would forget that a deeper part of the struggle is for meaning, purpose and spiritual beauty. 

Father Robert Barron is founder of Word On Fire Ministries.