29 December 2022, The Tablet

Look for where the 'greatest love' is to be found urges Pope Francis

“We are challenged to be a Church that is outward-looking and free of all worldliness, even as we live in this world.”

Look for where the 'greatest love' is to be found urges Pope Francis

Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in in St Peter's square at the Vatican yesterday.
Independent Photo Agency/Alamy Live News

Pope Francis has urged Catholics to set aside worldliness for love in a new Apostolic Letter to mark the fourth centenary of the death of St Francis de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva.

In Totum Amoris Est, Pope Francis says one of the great insights of St Francis de Sales was understanding the importance of love.

Quoting the saint, he says: “It frequently happens that people are united to God as much in activity as in solitude; in the end, it always comes back to the question of where the greatest love is to be found.”

Pope Francis continues: “This, then, is the truly important thing, more important than any kind of useless rigidity or self-absorption: to keep asking at every moment, in every decision, in every situation in life, where the greatest love is to be found.”

The letter was published yesterday, the day Pope Francis asked for prayers for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI after there was a sudden deterioration in his health. The Vatican said today that the Pope Emeritus rested well overnight and although his condition remains serious, the situation was stable.

In his Apostolic Letter, Pope Francis says that the flexibility and “far-sighted vision” of Francis de Sales, who spent much of his ministry dealing with consequences of the Reformation, have much to say today. ‘Partly by God’s gift and partly thanks to his own character, but also by his steady cultivation of lived experience, Francis perceived clearly that the times were changing.”

He compares that era to the present age of epochal change. “We are challenged to be a Church that is outward-looking and free of all worldliness, even as we live in this world, share people’s lives and journey with them in attentive listening and acceptance. That is what Francis de Sales did when he discerned the events of his times with the help of God’s grace. Today he bids us set aside undue concern for ourselves, for our structures and for what society thinks about us, and consider instead the real spiritual needs and expectations of our people.”

Pope Francis also focuses on some of the saint’s comments on false religious faith and practice.  

Francis de Sales wrote: “Someone attached to fasting will consider himself devout because he doesn’t eat, even though his heart is filled with bitterness; and while, out of love for sobriety, he will not let a drop of wine, or even water, touch his tongue, he will not scruple to drench it in the blood of his neighbour through gossip and slander. Another will consider himself devout because all day long he mumbles a string of prayers, yet remains heedless of the evil, arrogant and hurtful words that his tongue hurls at his servants and neighbours. Yet another will readily open his purse to give alms to the poor, but cannot wring an ounce of mercy from his heart in order to forgive his enemies. Another still will pardon his enemies, yet never even think of paying his debts; it will take a lawsuit to make him do so.”

Pope Francis says: “The origin of true devotion is to be found elsewhere; its deepest roots are in God’s life dwelling within our hearts.”

He adds: “In the heart and through the heart, there comes about a subtle, intense and unifying process in which we come to know God and, at the same time, ourselves, our own origins and depths, and our fulfilment in the call to love. We discover that faith is no blind emotion, but primarily an attitude of the heart, whereby we entrust ourselves to a truth that appeals to our consciousness as a ‘sweet emotion’ and awakens in response, as he was wont to say, an enduring benevolence towards all of creation.”

To live in the midst of the secular city while nurturing the interior life, to combine the desire for perfection with every state of life, and to discover an interior peace that does not separate us from the world but teaches us how to live in it and to appreciate it, but also to maintain a proper detachment from it, was the aim of Francis de Sales, Pope Francis says. “It remains a valuable lesson for men and women in our own time.”



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