Sense and Nonsense: The Exciting Task

I am often astonished at what the Holy Father says. On December 4, 2001, Pope John Paul II gave an audience to the bishops of Honduras, in which he recalled the fifth centenary of the first Mass on the American continent. The pope did not hesitate to declare that this Mass was a great event for everyone. I read this particular address because of its title: “Promote the social doctrine of the Church to improve the social order.” According to the December 12 L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy Father thinks the social order can be improved “by promoting greater justice and structures that favour a more equitable distribution of goods. It is primarily necessary to avoid having a few citizens with so many resources to the detriment of the great majority.”

On first reading these remarks, I was somewhat annoyed. Here is the old “distribution” fallacy again, I thought. All we have to do is take from the rich and give to the poor and all will be well. But as a colleague of mine pointed out, though it is easy to read these lines in that manner, the Holy Father does not say anything about how we might go about correcting the imbalance, if that is the right word. That is, if there is a wide disparity of goods, it can point to some correctable disorder, but the question of what to do when such a disparity exists is another matter. The simple political or socialist redistribution of available goods would no doubt end up making everyone poorer, especially the poorest. The pope has shown in Centesimus Annus (1991) that he does understand the importance of innovation, of growth. The way to help the poor, I think, is usually to enable everyone to grow, including the rich. Due to preferences of taste, to differences of talent and personal energy, to differences in what is considered important, there will always be a legitimate and valuable difference in goods distribution and accumulation in any healthy society. Some societies have bad distribution of goods because of governmental philosophy or policy; religious concepts; lack of understanding of money, market, taxation, and private property; and moral corruption.

As I read on in this short speech, the Holy Father moved to other topics. He talked about marriage and family life, specifically the spirituality of communion, the laity, and the consecrated life. Then he added some comments about vocations and the need to foster them. This Holy Father has often called our attention to the story of the rich young man in the gospels—the young man who wanted to know what “good” he could yet do. When he found out, he went away sad. The pope’s concept of a vocation, like Christ’s, has really very little to do with any narrow or restricted concept of the human venture.

John Paul II actually tells these no doubt astonished Central American bishops that in their plan to foster vocations to the priesthood, they have “the exciting task of provoking profound unrest in the hearts of youth and preparing them to welcome the invitation of the Lord…” (emphasis added). The pope deliberately seeks to provoke unrest in the hearts of Christians, especially Christian youth. A pope foments unrest in dull human hearts!

What obviously bothers this pope about our youth, whom he loves dearly and who in fact often listen to him, is their narrow view of the choices ahead of them. Such words are no doubt meant to remind us of St. Augustine, who warns us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Augustine knew the truth. Do we have a world, I wonder, full of hearts too much at rest?

The Holy Father hints that the priesthood is not exactly a job. It is not designed for those who see too little but rather for those who suspect how much there is yet to see. “The first response to vocation is only the beginning of the journey.” That is really the right word for this exciting task—journey. This is an exhortation that all of us, priests and laity alike, would do well to heed. Let us not be among those who are so unaware of what this world is about that we need to be provoked to unrest to see what is really there.

But if we do need such incitement, John Paul is there to provide it for us.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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