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The Pope Francis Generation
What’s in the name?
I’m too young to have been really aware of John Paul II. He died before I cared about Jesus or Catholicism much, let alone the pope. However, the JPII Generation were the ones who formed me in the faith.
When I was in college, Christopher West’s version of Theology of the Body was new and exciting. The leaders of the young adult group I attended experienced their personal conversion because of JPII. I cheered when George Weigel came to my alma mater. I regularly read First Things.
John Paul II’s fingerprints were all over every aspect of my Catholic formation.
However, while I don’t believe JPII’s teachings were insufficient, the Catholic culture that venerated him, the culture I was raised in, had some very real flaws.
Bishop Barron, during his talk at the 2018 World Meeting of Families, summed up the differences he sees between the JPII generation and the teaching of Pope Francis. He said:
“I taught in seminary for many years….I love the John Paul II generation. A lot of the kids that I taught for many years were inspired by John Paul II. They came to the seminary because of his heroic ideal. And he’s my hero, I’ve got a picture of John Paul in my chapel in California.
But if I can say this, the shadow side of the John Paul II generation of seminarians was they often got deeply frustrated when they fell short of the ideal. You know because he was such a heroic figure (indeed he was) and held out such a heroic ideal (indeed he did), and they properly were called to follow it. But then what do you do when you fail? I think they struggled with that. And I read Francis as being sensitive to that fact, that part of our pastoral experience. What do we do when people fail? And he prefers the path of mercy and reinstatement to the path of exclusion. And I think that strikes me as right.”
I think Bishop Barron is exactly right.
The spirituality that I inherited from members of the John Paul II generation contained a lot of fear.
The turmoil of the culture—especially from the threat of Communism and the aftermath of the sexual revolution—I think provoked a tendency to see the Church and her teaching in a defensive way. The Church and her teaching we set up as objective, unchanging bulwarks in opposition to the changing culture.
But this defensiveness came at a cost. It turned the outside world into something to be feared instead of persons to be loved. The comfort of the objective ideal left little room for the weak who were unable to live the moral law. It created a tendency to fill in the grey areas of Church teaching with clear black and white answers of our own making.
I think the JPII generation took the heroism of John Paul II’s life and teaching and subtly turned it into a Pelagianism that made us, and not God, the primary actors in our growth in holiness. At least, that’s what was passed on to me.
For much of my young adulthood I had a “performance mentality” when it came to my relationship with God. In other words, as long as I performed well (didn’t sin and followed the rules) I was in God’s good graces, but when I sinned I lost my relationship with God and had to go to Confession to get it back.
My faith life became merely sin management. It reduced the adventure of holiness to simply not sinning. It also twisted my relationship with God to being all about me. I had to follow the rules to stay in God’s good graces. I had to go back to God for his forgiveness after I sinned. I was the primary actor in this relationship, not God.
This performance mentality turned me into the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, you know, the son that felt entitled, angry, and bitter. The son that didn’t know his own identity because he didn’t know how much his Father loved him.
I was rigid and scrupulous, fearful that one mistake would cut me off from God and send me to Hell. I saw God as a judge who probably only really cared about me when I followed all the rules. Then once I had successfully managed my sins (or at least the ones I thought were most serious) I felt like I had earned my relationship with God.
I felt self-righteous and comfortable. But I was also bored. Deep down I longed for a more powerful relationship with God.
This mentality almost led me away from God and the Church. I experienced a season of real depression and spiritual desolation, and I didn’t know how to process it. I treated my relationship with God like a vending machine where I paid in with piety and following all the rules and He paid out with grace. I had managed my sins, so why was this happening to me? I did everything God asked of me. I was the obedient son. So why was I going through this suffering?
God eventually broke through though. He showed me how good He is. He gave me new freedom.
God showed me that my relationship with Him isn’t about me following the rules or managing my sin, but first and foremost it is about God chasing after me.
In the parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus said that the shepherd chases after his lost sheep “until he finds it.” God is relentlessly pursuing me. God desperately desires to have a relationship with me. God wants to heal me of my sin and transform me into something divine, and I don’t have to convince Him or perform for Him. I just have to let Him catch me, heal me, free me, and transform me.
During the year of mercy I read Francis’s book, “The Name of God is Mercy” and fell deeply in love with this pope. That book was the start of a long process, a process that continues now, of shedding the pelagianism that I thought was authentic Catholicism.
Francis’s spiritual legacy is mercy. We don’t have enemies in a culture war, we have brothers and sisters who, like us, have been wounded by sin and need to be shown mercy. Francis wants us to meet others where they are at, to show them the love of the Father, and accompany them, step by step, back to Jesus and the Church. We are not soldiers fighting a war, we are field medics in search of the wounded and suffering.
I inherited the theological foundation of John Paul II without having to experience much of the cultural turmoil that provoked it. Now I look back on it and see the flaws in how it was understood, taught, and, at times, manipulated. Flaws that distorted my own faith for so long.
Reflecting on my own experiences as a young adult, I can say that while I was probably doing the best I could with what I had, I was also wrong. I was wrong to let fear drive so much of my faith.
I believe Pope Francis’s teaching shows us a way out of that fear.
Mercy over power. Grace of performance. Love over fear. Those are the marks of the Pope Francis Generation, and I’m excited to be a part of it.