2. Contemplative gaze

In what remains the foundational document on Pope Francis’ vision of the Church, Evangelii Gaudium, a close connection is made between mercy and contemplation. We have to see our situations contemplatively, it is argued, that is with ‘a gaze of faith’ that sees God dwelling in the midst of the cities we inhabit with our contemporaries, ‘in their homes, in their streets and squares.’[11] God’s presence cannot and should not be organized, enforced, cleverly brought into the situation. Efforts to do that could make us blind to the presence that, as the document states, 

accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice (no. 71).

This equals seeing the world, and especially other people, with love: ‘True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful’ (no. 199). Here, Pope Francis explicitly follows Thomas Aquinas, who writes that caritas allows one to see the high value and the preciousness of that which is loved, and thus enables one to put oneself in its service.[12] Thus the contemplative gaze of merciful love makes it possible to see people, who our culture may appear to be worthless, in their true, God-given value, inspiring us to seek their good (no. 199).[13]

Enabling this contemplative gaze is, according to Pope Francis, a very important contribution to contemporary culture. During his apostolic journey to Cuba and the United States of America in the second half of September 2015, Francis celebrated the Eucharist in Madison Square Garden in New York. His homily pointed out how in the contemporary megacities many people remain invisible: 

They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.

It is our duty to see these people and to be merciful to them, according to Pope Francis. However, this mercy is awakened by the contemplative awareness that in them Jesus is present. To see and be moved by their need is to see Jesus saving us from being lost and abandoned: 

Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. (…) A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as He continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city.[14]

Seeing the poor, the excluded and the invisible in our cities, is contemplating God and his merciful presence with us. ‘Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me’ (Mt. 25, 40). But because the acts of mercy are a response to God’s hidden presence, a dialogue begins with divine love that metamorphizes the whole city into the place of God’s dwelling.

[11] Pope Francis, apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 71This document officially draws the conclusions form the Synod of Bishop in October 2012, but states in fact the major themes of Francis’ pontificate. – From this point, references to Evangelii Gaudium are made by giving the number indicating a paragraph of this document in the text of the article in parentheses.

[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 26, a. 3. 

[13] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 110, a. 1.

[14] Pope Francis, homily at the Holy Mass at Madison Square Garden (25 September 2015).

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