ROME – Any good teacher knows that education is one part creativity, and then lots of parts repetition. You present a creative idea once, and it’s fresh and original. After that, you repeat it over and over, getting your students to think about it, take it apart and put it back together again, until it becomes basically muscle memory.
From boot camp to advanced trigonometry, from Madison Avenue advertising to politicians on the stump, the lesson is the same – if you want people to remember something, you really can’t say it often enough.
The papacy is, in a sense, the biggest teaching gig in the world, and so it’s no surprise that popes too tend to roll out creative big ideas at the beginning, and then keep repeating them over and over until they become part of Catholic muscle memory.
Many signs suggest that as Pope Francis nears the five-year mark of his reign next month, we’ve entered the repetitive phase of his lesson plan. We got a reminder of the point on Thursday, when the pontiff traveled across Rome to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which once served as the seat of the papacy, to meet with priests and deacons from the Diocese of Rome.
The occasion was obviously important to Francis. He began by spending 45 minutes hearing their confessions, especially from young priests, and then passed over an hour answering questions, all extemporaneous and without notes. Later, he went over to the nearby Roman Seminary and had lunch with roughly 70 seminarians.
The event, like so many other things Francis does that really get him engaged, was structured in Q&A format. In this case, priests representing different stages in life – freshly ordained and young, middle-aged and elderly – asked questions, to which Francis responded.
Instead of a sort of “greatest hits” collection of all the pontiff’s main themes, what emerged was a strong focus on one core idea – the importance of dialogue, which has been a central feature of the pope’s message from the beginning. His insistence on dialogue with those who don’t share Catholic convictions has been reflected, for instance, in his exchanges with veteran Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, an avowed non-believer and frequent critic of Catholic positions on sensitive public policy questions.
We’ve heard Francis talk about dialogue a fair bit, so this was hardly a news flash. However, the fact that he would use his encounter with his front-line soldiers in Rome to talk about it again indicates how important it is that the Church absorb the lesson.
Among other things, he stressed the importance of dialogue with the world.
Speaking to elderly priests in particular, Francis urged them to dialogue with the world “without fear of the reality,” even if it’s different than the past, because it always contains “something good that comes from the Spirit.”
The pope also tipped his hand about what he regards that “something good” about the post-modern world to be.
“There’s a great consciousness of human rights and dignity,” he said. “Today, no one can impose their own ideas, people are more informed, there are the values of equality, tolerance and liberty to express oneself just as one is, and social coexistence is more sincere and spontaneous.”
The pope’s call to dialogue, however, didn’t end with the world. He also urged priests to “dialogue with their own limits” as part of a broader examination of conscience.
The right approach to coming to terms with sin, the pontiff said, isn’t to say, “Oh, yes, I had this problem, I confessed, and it ends there.”
“Forgiveness is there, but then but then you have to dialogue with that tendency that led you to a sin of pride, or vanity, or gossip,” the pope said. “What led me to this? Dialogue with your limits, and discern them.”
Further, the pope said, that dialogue can’t be entirely internal. It also has to unfold in the context of conversation with a spiritual guide.
“This dialogue, in order to be ecclesial, must take place before a witness, someone who helps me to discern,” the pope said. “Dialogue with the limits and discern them.”
As a footnote, the pope’s growing penchant for repetition also extends to his sense of humor. In speaking about confession, he advised the priests and deacons to seek a merciful confessor, and added, “it’s better if he’s deaf.”
Francis has used some version of that laugh line about a deaf confessor on multiple occasions, most recently in a speech to Vatican employees on Dec. 21, when he joked that “the best confessor is deaf, he doesn’t make you feel any shame.”
On the importance of dialogue, Francis said that “people today have the need to be listened to,” and called priests to a “pastoral approach of listening.”
None of that, of course, will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s heard Francis before. The very fact that he’s made it so familiar, however, probably indicates how determined he is to make sure it sticks.