In Him Alone Is Our Hope: The Church According to the Heart of Pope Francis
by Jorge Mario Bergoglio | Pope Francis
Magnificat — 135 pages — $15
Pope Francis sounds the battle cry — he enjoins us to fight in the great spiritual contest being waged even as you read this now. Meditate for a moment on the daily struggle between grace and sin in your own life. Now consider the battlefield writ large throughout the history of humanity: in one camp lie the soldiers of Christ, in the other the legion of the Evil One. This is no outdated theology, but the spiritual exercises of Pope Francis.
During Holy Week 2006, then-Cardinal Bergoglio led the bishops of Spain in a retreat. In Him Alone Is Our Hope is the transcript of Bergoglio’s “Spiritual Exercises Given to his Brother Bishops in the Manner of Saint Ignatius of Loyola” during that retreat. In them, the future pope awakens us to the reality of spiritual warfare in our daily lives: Satan is not some abstraction, sin is not dismissively innocuous — they are deadly and daily dangers. Leading us through twelve meditations on this epic battle, Bergoglio instructs us on the weapons available to combat sin and win the Kingdom of God.
Bergoglio’s meditations are modeled after Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; indeed, the whole structure of the retreat reflects Bergoglio’s Jesuit formation. Throughout the book he posits images and ideas that are intended to direct the retreatants to inner contemplation and colloquy. The most prevalent theme is the “Meditation on Two Standards,” which serves as the foundation for Bergoglio’s larger discussion of spiritual warfare. This meditation “takes the form of a plan — a battle plan” in which the Standard of Satan and the Standard of Christ are set in dramatic opposition to each other. Bergoglio sets the scene as follows: “the people of God is an ‘army corps,’ the Christian life is combat” and “the Lord is the great Commander-in-Chief who rallies his troops and leads them into battle.” Life, he says, “is a war waged ‘against the enemy of human nature’…by ‘the friend of human nature,’ the Lord Jesus.” Bergoglio believes that Christians fight a literal (albeit, not physical) battle against the forces of evil, and this combat continues incessantly. Indeed, he adds, “One has to consider the sometimes dramatic battles that Christians must wage every day in order to continue believing and acting according to the Gospel.”
Pope Francis warns, “We cannot sit down and ‘dialogue’ with the enemy of our salvation: we need to meet him head on, ready to combat his every intention,” and the “two battle plans [leave] no room for a no-man’s-land of ‘more or less.’ Only the law of contraries applies: either one or the other.” Of course, Bergoglio’s intransigence in the face of sin is in no way inconsistent with the charitable and pastoral approach that he has been so rightly praised for. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to hear the future pope praise none other than the Virgin Mary for her “combative hope”!
After sketching the violent scene before us, Bergoglio moves on to the particular weaponry employed by each side. “In his campaign to make us fall, the Demon always uses the same tactical approach: riches, vainglory, and pride.” That is to say, Satan tempts us with riches (financial or otherwise), which lead to some vain honors, which finally culminate in blasphemous pride. The corresponding counteroffensive, Bergoglio advises in Ignatian fashion, consists in poverty, desire for insults, and humility, respectively. The Lord also offers many other weapons to combat the Evil One: discernment, memory, and the Cross. Because “we cannot trust any and every spirit,” discernment enables us to decide which one comes from God. With respect to memory, Bergoglio invokes Mary, saying “The gaze of our Lady is combative when it comes to ‘remembering:’ nothing obscures or taints the past, the great things that the Lord has done.” Finally, “God’s most powerful weapon is the Cross. It is with these mighty arms that the Evil One suffered defeat once and for all.”
Although we are called to fight this battle, we do not do so alone. God “continually reinvigorates and comforts each and every one of us, because he knows the battle is hard, and the Evil One is cunning and ruthless.” The presence of God therefore reassures us “that Jesus has conquered every possible temptation”: we must simply have confidence in the fight. Yet, if God has already won the battle, both historically and eschatologically, why then must we continue to struggle? Here we must accept the “already, but not yet” paradox. That is to say, God’s victory over sin and death has vouchsafed our own, but the victory has not yet come to fruition. We live and fight amid this tension, sensing “deep down that ‘the battle is not ours but God’s,’ and that he is the one who is fighting for us.” As a result, this tension itself begets a “peace [that] determines our ‘style of combat.’”
In his papacy, Francis’ statements increasingly echo the language which he used during the retreat. While consecrating Vatican City to St. Michael, Francis stated, “Michael fights to re-establish divine justice; he defends the People of God from its enemies and above all of the enemy par excellence, the devil.” During the Feast of the Assumption, he said, “Mary accompanies us, struggles with us, sustains Christians in their fight against the forces of evil. Prayer with Mary, especially the rosary… has this ‘suffering’ dimension, that is of struggle, a sustaining prayer in the battle against the evil one and his accomplices.” Even in his discussion of specific sins, Pope Francis utilizes a metaphor of combat; while preaching against gossip, for example, he declares that gossip “is a war that is not waged with the weapons that we recognize: it is a war waged with the tongue.” Most recently, the Pope preached, “There is a battle and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation.” Slowly, Francis is utilizing the zealous argot of Bergoglio.
If, as Pope Francis says, Christ is our “Commander-in-Chief,” then, as the Vicar of Christ on Earth and the Servus Servorum Dei, it is reasonable to think that Catholics should look to Pope Francis for a battle plan to combat evil. In Him Alone Is Our Hope is Francis’ strategy for individual and corporate victory over the Evil One. At present, he seems to be adhering closely to it, but it is also our privilege to apply his battle plan to our daily lives.
- Matthew Dernbach