What Pope Francis asks of artists

The Pope signed the preface to the volume published by Marsilio “A divine plot. Gesù in controcampo”, by Father Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civiltà Cattolica. We are publishing the full version of the text, which came out this morning as a preview in Repubblica’s “Robinson”.

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For his contemporaries, Jesus could have fit the paradigm of the misfit, the person who doesn’t fit in, the misfit, who doesn’t fit the obvious. It is enough to read in the Gospels the reactions provoked by his gestures. In Marcos we see that «his own went out to look for him; They said: “He is out of his mind.” Some then openly declared, as Matthew tells us: “Behold, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Sometimes Jesus has harsh and indignant reactions: for example, he throws up the tables of the merchants in the temple. He doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t settle.

Following Jesus on his journey, we see him leave Nazareth, his “homeland.” He protests against those who feel so included that they exclude others, against those who believe they see so clearly that they have become blind, those who are so self-sufficient in the administration of the law that they have become unjust.

A divine storyline accompanies us in the search for Jesus who walks, who meets people along the way, and becomes hard-faced looking towards his goal: Jerusalem. Who is it? What is it that he wants? Jesus goes through the streets of the towns teaching, healing the sick, consoling the afflicted. People are amazed and wonder who he is. As he did with his disciples, he looks us in the eye and asks us: «But you, who do you say that I am?». I feel like he asks me. Before the story of Jesus, this continues to be the fundamental question, which I feel echoing in the very pages of this volume.

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by images of Jesus that, in reality, are more figurines than effective portraits. We tend to tame Jesus, to make him lovable, but in such a way that his message is unnecessarily sweet. He gives peace, comforts, he is “soft light”, like Saint John Henry

Newman, but it doesn’t numb with easy singing, especially it doesn’t anaesthetize. The unsatisfied healthy restlessness, together with the astonishment of the novelty, opens the way to audacity. Therefore, we do not need uplifting tales, especially in the difficult times in which we live. This book banishes them, often highlighting the chiaroscuro, the harshness of the Gospel accounts. Jesus came to bring fire to earth. If he brings light, he does not fear the shadows. And, on the other hand, it is true that those who grow up in a world of ashes do not easily sustain the fire of great desires.

We must not lose the fire of the encounter with Jesus. That is why we observe the Master, we follow him on his path without losing sight of him. Everyone can do it, even if it is not always easy to understand God, to foresee his path. It is good to let yourself be understood by Him and let yourself be guided. Let’s learn to remove the dust accumulated on the pages of the Gospel, let’s rediscover its intense flavor. And this is the path we are called to take: listening to the tone of voice of the one who pronounced the beatitudes, of the one who shared the bread among the crowd, of the one who healed the sick, of the one who forgave sinners, of the one who sat down at the the table with the publicans.

The story of Jesus is intertwined with the history of men and women, awakening and empowering hidden energies, the dormant passion for truth and justice, the flashes of fullness that love has produced in our path, but also the ability to face failure and pain, to exorcise the demons of bitterness and resentment.

The plot is typical of the story. There is no story without plot. God has entered the fabric of human affairs with a story that can be told. The plot is a weaving of threads. Jesus has woven himself into this fabric. No thread is the same as another and, sometimes, the threads get knotted. It is in the web of human affairs where we recognize him “at work”, as Saint Ignatius wrote: Jesus moves, approaches, touches pain and death and transforms them into life. Reading the story of Jesus does not take us away from the fabric of our existence. On the contrary, he calls us to look at our history, to meet it again without running away.

We must “see” this Jesus, feel his touch on our skin, otherwise the Son of God, the Master, becomes an abstraction, an idea, a utopia, an ideology. A game of looks takes place with him, but not only: all the senses are involved. Jesus is sprayed with perfume by a woman, he eats and shares bread and fish, touches and heals, listens and responds to her interlocutors.

Opening the Gospels is like looking through a camera that allows us to see Jesus in action. The look with which A divine plot helps us to read them seems to be that of the cinema. Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises asks us to contemplate the Gospels with the eyes of the imagination: with our eyes, not with mental abstraction. In doing so, the story of Jesus enters into ours. We look at it in the light of our lives, we see the faces, the events, the characters…. We can even imagine entering the story of Jesus, seeing him, his places, his movements, listening to the words of his living voice. That is why the Gospel moves us deeply.

The gestures of Jesus are inclusive: he associates with himself the poorest, the oppressed, the blind, making them participants in his new vision of things. His is not a welfare gaze. He does not heal the blind so that they can enjoy the media spectacle of this world, but so that they are able to see God’s action in history. The Lord does not come to free the oppressed just to make them feel good, but to send them into action.

Jesus trusts in the best of the human spirit. Meeting him means regaining energy, strength, courage. Faced with reality, the Master does not lose himself in complaints, he does not issue a paralyzing judgment: on the contrary, he invites us to a passionate commitment. The vulnerability of the people, for whom the Lord feels compassion, does not lead them to a prudent calculation of our limited possibilities, as the apostles suggest: instead, it exhorts them to the overflowing superabundance of the Gospel, as happened in the multiplication of the loaves.

A divine account, in this sense, clearly highlights the different judgment capacity of Jesus and that of his disciples. Let us not be afraid to see Jesus often misunderstood even by his own, difficult to accept. Let us question, in any case, our own capacity for judgment and understanding of the Gospel.

Finally: how to talk about Jesus? What language to use? How to present this “character” who changed the history of the world? This is one of the challenges of the book. Certainly not in the language of custom. The language of true tradition is alive, vital, capable of the future and poetry. The language of custom, on the other hand, is stale, boring, ceremonious, obvious. The Church must be careful not to fall into the trap of banal language, of mechanically and tiredly repeated phrases.

The Gospel must be a source of brilliance, of surprise, capable of shaking to the core. The worst that can happen is to translate the power of evangelical language into cotton candy: soften the impact of the words, soften the angles of the sentences, tame the meaning of the speech. How important are words! Artists and writers, precisely because of the nature of their inspiration, are capable of guarding the power of evangelical discourse.

Today an “echo of lead” resounds in the world, to use an expression of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. I make an appeal: in this time of crisis of the world order, of wars and great polarizations, of rigid paradigms, of serious climatic and economic challenges, we need the brightness of a new language, of powerful stories and images, of writers, poets, artists capable of shouting to the world the message of the Gospel, of making us see Jesus.

What Pope Francis asks of artists