‘I want the Church to go out into the streets,” Pope Francis told a cheering crowd gathered for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, four months after he was elected pope. “¡Hagan lío!” he exhorted them, in the spirit of creative destruction: Make a mess! Take care, he added, not to become “closed in on” yourselves. On other occasions, he has urged priests to leave “the stale air of closed rooms” and has characterized traditional Catholics as “self-absorbed.” An extrovert, Francis attaches a positive moral value to extroversion — and, as if it followed by some logical necessity, a negative moral value to extroversion’s complement, introversion.
“Pope Francis has said that he does not want a church that is introverted,” Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, describing the pope’s “achievements,” explained bluntly last July in an article for the Catholic News Agency. Two weeks later in the Los Angeles Times, an admiring Amy Hubbard included in her list of lessons that we should take from Francis: “Do not be an introvert. That’s just putrid.”
“This is no century for introverts,” Kathleen Parker remarked on the occasion of Francis’s elevation to the papacy two years ago today. In our age, yes, “introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” as Susan Cain writes in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. To “disappointment” and “pathology” we should add, if we follow Pope Francis on this question, “character flaw” and “moral failing.”
More grandly than any other figure on the world stage today, Francis, entering the third year of his pontificate, exemplifies what Cain calls “the Extrovert Ideal”:
We like to believe that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual — the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” . . . Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent — even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.
In fairness to Pope Francis, we should remember that, though he is quick to chastise introverts, they have been quick to reciprocate. The primary reason that he disappoints many Catholics who delight in cultivating their interior life is not that he leans left in his politics and theology but that he’s shallow or at least presents himself as such. He has little apparent interest in the life of the mind. He lacks the patience to think slowly. Cain quotes a venture capitalist telling her, “I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas.” Bingo.
Francis tends to speak in platitudes, sometimes strung together rhetorically when they don’t cohere logically. Consider more closely his “Make a mess” speech at World Youth Day in 2013:
I want the Church to go out into the streets. I want us to defend ourselves against all worldliness, opposition to progress, from what is comfortable, from what is clericalism, from all that means being closed in on ourselves. Parishes, schools, institutions are made in order to go out. . . . If they do not do this, they become a non-governmental organization, and the Church must not be an NGO.
What a brain-bruising knot of contradictions: Go out into the streets — that is, the world — to defend yourself against worldliness. Church institutions must go out into the world! Many already do, such as Catholic Relief Services, arguably the Church’s premier NGO. If other Church institutions don’t do likewise, they’ll become NGOs. They must not become NGOs!
In the original Spanish, the key word in Francis’s phrase “what is comfortable” is “instalación,” derived from medieval Latin. A “stall” was a fixed place, and “installation” was, and remains, an ecclesiastical term for the assignment of a prelate to his place — of a bishop, for example, to his “cathedra,” or “chair.” A bishop should be stable, like a tree, rooted in the soil of his diocese. Episcopal “absenteeism” (a bishop’s failure to reside in the diocese where he has his chair) was once common, but the Church has condemned it since the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Francis himself has disparaged “airport bishops,” although in doing so he seems to contradict his message that the Church’s missionary (Latin: “sent out”) or apostolic (Greek: “sent out”) character is preeminent.
The word “missionary,” of course, is now associated with colonialism and has fallen out of fashion. And “apostolic” sounds churchy and formal. In contemporary Catholicism, the new word for the Extrovert Ideal is “evangelical,” as in “the New Evangelization.” You know the drill: Leave the fortress and sally forth into town. Drop that sourpuss, Counter-Reformation stance contra mundum. Engage the world with a smile. Let’s dialogue.
That’s the music, from circa 1965, to which the lyrics of the New Evangelization have been set. The term originated during the pontificate of John Paul II, and Benedict XVI formally recognized the concept in 2010, when he created the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Benedict charged it with “the specific task of promoting a renewed evangelization in countries where the first proclamation of the faith already resounded, and where Churches are present of ancient foundation, but which are going through a progressive secularization of society and a sort of ‘eclipse of the sense of God.’” It was a serious objective nobly articulated.
In the Francis era, sadly, the New Evangelization is sometimes made to sound like a program for shaming introverted Catholics into leaving their conversation with the Lord so they can go help in the kitchen. Concern with liturgy, for example, the public prayer of the Church, is dismissed as “the Church . . . being obsessed with itself.”
Remember, Mary chose “the better part” and “the one thing necessary.” Jesus’ teaching in Bethany stands in obvious creative tension, however, with his instruction to his disciples to go forth, teach all nations, and baptize them. All Christians are called to contribute to the Great Commission, but the nature of the contribution will vary from individual to individual, as the body of Christ has many members, each with a different function. “Are all apostles?” Saint Paul asks rhetorically (1 Cor. 12:29).
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wanted to “go forth” in the obvious way, by traveling to far-off lands where she could bring the good news to people who had never heard it. Her health prevented her, as did her religious superiors, but no problem: From her convent, she joined the work of the missionaries by praying for them. She did so at first as a Carmelite nun and does so now in her capacity as their patroness. To the naïve observer, intercessory prayer appears to be a form of talking to oneself. Those who know better recognize that no act is more profoundly social, or other-directed.
And no act requires more concentration, which usually benefits from apparent solitude — I say “apparent” because communion with God or the saints, whether still on earth or already in heaven, is the most extreme form of relatedness and intimacy. Concentration requires stillness as well, and hence the monastic virtue of stabilitas, or stability not only in one’s moral and spiritual affairs but in the literal sense of standing still in one place. “Monastics have to become ‘lovers of the place,’” Sister Mary Catharine Perry, O.P., a cloistered nun, explained in her interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez earlier this week. The Dominican sister belongs to a long line of holy and intentionally obscure individuals who have dedicated their lives to contemplative prayer, which supports the Church. To support them in return, the Church since at least the fourth century has set aside cloisters — from the Latin claustra, meaning exactly “closed spaces.”
From the gospels, we know that Jesus in his own life integrated solitary prayer with the busyness of his public ministry. The pattern was for the former to precede the latter. He fasted in solitude for 40 days in the desert before beginning to preach. Before he gathered his disciples to choose from their number the Twelve, his inner circle, he spent the night in prayer on a mountain. Before the ordeal of his blood sacrifice of himself — his trial, torture, and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate — he spent the night in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Private prayer was never an add-on for Jesus; it was the foundation on which he built his most momentous undertakings.
Prayer of that depth is the breath and the blood, the very life of the Church, which in the West, at least (Africa is a different story), is clearly winded and anemic. I will go out on a limb and say that it’s not as palpably holy as it was for our grandparents. We may not be able to define holiness, but if you have ever felt its presence, you would know when it’s absent from places where and from occasions on which you had come to expect it.
The body of Christ needs among its members some reservoir of introversion if it is to create a culture — sacred architecture, sacred music, lectio divina — capable of expressing holiness, and if it is to sustain a congregation capable of slowing down long enough to discern it. Michelangelo, Gregory the Great, John of the Cross — these were not exactly party animals. In our drive to conform to the Extrovert Ideal, the spiritual fruits of their labor have become invisible to us, inaudible, unintelligible.
Godspeed to Pope Francis in his mission to draw people to the Church — but not in his attempt to discourage those who are only laboring to keep the oil burning in the sanctuary lamp. The flame is guttering.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.