There is a wonderful anecdote about Pope Francis visiting his optician in Rome. Emerging from the appointment, he faced a crowd of people who had gathered in anticipation of seeing him. When asked how the appointment went, the Pope replied, “My optician says I need new lenses. But I’m going to keep the same frames.”
Vatican watchers have speculated that in making such a statement, Pope Francis was offering us an insight into his papal ministry: he is not meddling with the Church’s fundamental doctrine (“the same frames”) but is urging us to see things through a new lens, the lens of mercy.
In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia), Pope Francis remarks how people sometimes feel that the Church’s message “does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal, yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery” (AL 38).
“In proposing values, we have to proceed slowly, taking into consideration…age and abilities, without presuming to apply rigid and inflexible methods. The valuable contributions of psychology and the educational sciences have shown that changing…behavior involves a gradual process.…” (AL 273). This approach is known as the law of gradualness.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori would often begin a reflection on moral issues with the statement: “Guardando la fragilita umana…” (“Looking at human fragility…”). He shows extraordinary sensitivity to the actual experience of people and their lived reality, “guardando la fragilita umana.” Alphonsus questioned the application of rigorous principles without any understanding of what lay at the root of certain practices among uneducated country shepherds. He took people as they were and worked from there. This is also an issue today as reactionaries criticize Pope Francis for his openness to dialog with people, listening to their stories, and understanding their human fragility. He asserts in Amoris Laetitia, “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the gospel.” A benign approach is rooted in one’s faith in a God of compassion and mercy.
Alphonsus would never attempt to impose on penitents something that they were not ready in good conscience to accept. Though he may not have used the same words, Alphonsus would identify with Pope Francis’ approach of “accompaniment, discernment, and integration of weakness.” Alphonsus, during his sixty years of ministry as a priest and later as a bishop, never refused anyone absolution, although sometimes he may have delayed it as part of the “accompaniment” and “discernment” phase until people were ready. He understood the laws of gradual growth and transformation, giving priority to bringing people to a deep knowledge of and relationship with the person of Jesus the Redeemer as the necessary foundation for following his teaching.
http://www.liguori.org/become-love.htmlAdapted from Become Love: Gradual Growth and Transformation from John to Francis, © 2019 Fr. Larry Kaufmann, CSsR, (a Redemptorist Pastoral Publication).
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