We have been blessed with the writings of many popes, and despite the availability of their writings, many of us are unfamiliar with them.   Perhaps, we assume that their writings are too complicated.   On the contrary, many of their writings are simple and clear and applicable to our lives.   The three most recent popes have had a lot to say to us.  Their writings reflect common themes that we should understand and live by.

For example, in his apostolic letter at the close of the Jubilee Year 2000, Novo Millennio Ineunte, pope St. John Paul II described his vision of the Church as “the home and the school of communion.”[1]  The pope affirms that communion is both God’s plan and the deepest yearning of the world.           According to the pope, a spirituality of communion begins with “the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling within us.”  When we have come to appreciate the Trinity within us, we begin to see the dwelling of the Trinity in the faces of our brothers and sisters.[2]  This indwelling makes us part of the mystical body of Christ, and only when we accept the reality of the mystical body may we come to understand that our brothers and sisters in faith are “part of me.”  This mystical connection in the body of Christ allows us to “share the joys and sufferings of others,” “sense their desires” and “attend to their needs.”  It allows us to offer them “deep and genuine friendship.”

Moreover, a spirituality of communion gives us the ability “to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it, but also as a ‘gift for me’.”  The pope explains it this way:

A spirituality of communion means knowing how to “make room” for our brothers and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.

The theme of “communion” continues in his 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata where the pope writes: “Consecrated persons are asked to be true experts of communion and to practice the spirituality of communion…”[3]

Pope Benedict XVI continued this theme of communion in his 2011 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Africae Munus, where he invites us to “live reconciliation between individuals and communities and to promote peace and justice in truth for all.”[4]  For the pope, reconciliation begins within each person: “all of us, as members of the Church, should be aware that peace and justice come first from the reconciliation of each human being with himself and with God.  Christ himself is the one true ‘Prince of Peace’.”  The pope continues; “this peace does not come from us but from God.   It is what the pope calls “the messianic gift par excellence.”[5]

Benedict asks that we make an effort to change the way that we respond to people and situations.  He explains that “Christ calls constantly for metanoia or conversion.”[6]  In this way the pope reminds us that reconciliation is intrinsic to the “spirituality of communion” about which John Paul II spoke.[7]   Pope Benedict urges all Christians to promote actively the work of reconciliation: “all Christians are admonished to be reconciled to God… to become agents of reconciliation within the ecclesial and social communities in which they live and work.”  The new evangelization presumes that “Christians are reconciled with God and with one another. “[8]

Consecrated persons in Africa are called especially to be agents of reconciliation and signs of reconciliation to others.  Thus the pope writes:

Community life shows us that it is possible to live as brothers and sisters and to be united even when coming from different ethnic or racial backgrounds.  It can and must enable people to see and believe that today in Africa, those men and women who follow Christ Jesus find in him the secret of living happily together: mutual love and fraternal communion, strengthened daily by the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. [9]

Finally, our current pope, Francis, in his announcement of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, stated: “Jesus asks us to forgive and to give, to be instruments of mercy, because it was we who first received mercy from God, to be generous with others, knowing that God showers His goodness upon us with immense generosity.”[10]  Believing that God has a plan for unity, Pope Francis explained in his apostolic letter addressed specifically to religious, Witnesses of Joy: “Living the present with passion means becoming ‘experts in communion.’… we are called to offer a concrete model of community which, by acknowledging the dignity of each person and sharing our respective gifts, makes it possible to live as brothers and sisters.”[11]

Pope Francis appeals to the ideal of community proposed by Saint John Paul:

Pope Francis taught that all consecrated persons are “experts in communion.”  He expressed his hope that a “spirituality of communion,” emphasized by John Paul II, “will become a reality and that religious will be in the forefront of responding to ‘the great challenge facing us’ in this new millennium, namely to make the Church the home and the school of communion.”[12]  The pope invites all of us to this communion when he writes: “No one contributes to the future in isolation, by his or her efforts alone, but by seeing himself or herself as part of a true communion which is constantly open to encounter, dialogue, attentive listening and mutual assistance.  Such a communion inoculates us from the disease of self-absorption.”[13]  Religious are especially called to promote communion: “Consecrated men and women are also called to true synergy with all other vocations in the Church, beginning with priests and the lay faithful, in order to ‘spread the spirituality of communion, first of all in their internal life and then in the ecclesial community, and even beyond its boundaries.”[14]   Such communion begins by seeking communion in our own houses: “Communion is lived first and foremost within the respective communities of each institute.  To this end, I would ask you to think about my frequent comments about criticism, gossip, envy, jealousy, hostility as ways of acting which have no place in our houses.”[15]  Even where there are problems Francis wants us to build up community:

Build friendship between yourselves, family life, love among you. May the monastery not be a Purgatory but a family. There are and there will be problems but like in a family, with love, search for a solution with love; do not destroy this to resolve that; do not enter competitions. Build community life, because in the life of a community it is this way, like a family, and it is the very Holy Spirit who is in the middle of the community. And community life always with a big heart. Let things go, do not brag, be patient with everything, smile from the heart. And a sign of this is joy.[16]

Pope Francis admits that being men and women of communion means being present in conflict.   For this reason, he exhorts us: “be men and women of communion! Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one (cf. Jn 17:21).”[17]

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.


[1] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43, www.vatican.va/…/hf_jp-ii_apl_20010106_novomillennioineunte_en.

[2] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43, www.vatican.va/…/hf_jp-ii_apl_20010106_novomillennioineunte_en.

[3] John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 46.

[4] Benedict XVI, Africae Munus, 1.

[5] Benedict XVI, Africae Munus, 99.

[6] Benedict XVI, Africae Munus, 32.

[7] Benedict XVI, Africae Munus, 34.

[8] Benedict XVI, Africae Munus, 169.

[9] Benedict XVI, Africae Munus, 171.

[10] Pope Francis, “The Face of Mercy,” 14.

[11] Francis, Witnesses of Joy, 2.

[12] Francis, Witnesses of Joy, 3.

[13] Francis, Witnesses of Joy, 3.

[14] Francis, Witnesses of Joy, 3.

[15] Francis, Witnesses of Joy, 3.

[16] Francis, Address to the Cloistered Nuns, Assisi (Perugia), 4 October 2013.

[17] Francis, Witnesses of Joy, 3.