From a spherical vision to polyhedral vision…. in some sense, it symbolizes Pope Francis’ vision for the church, which includes terms like synodality, authenticity or no-hypocrisy, unity in diversity, poor church, shepherd with the smell of the sheep etc. Pope Francis has used this symbol constantly; Evangelii Gaudium (published in 2013; Num: 235–237) may have the first occurence of it. During his In-flight press Conference of January 2015, Pope Francis says,
Can I dismiss it as a statement on global polity? I think, NO. It has everything to do with the Church — a really global Church, where the differences of believers (with much of its craziness) is preserved.
A Quick look into the History
A quick glance on the Church history shows that differences always exist in the church; there were also trends to create uniformity. These two trends co-existed in some form. A big blow to this trend of co-existence happened with the Protestant reformation in the Church. When you have an opponent(Muslims were opponents in the time of crusades, but there was no doctrinal problems), you try to close yourself to the outside. You try to become uniform, that opponenet is attacked easily. To some extend, this happened with the Church too. Sphere fits in that category of understanding.
The Centre of sphere is definitely Christ, and nothing else. But Christ is best understood by the Church, and all of us (believers) maintain same distance from the centre. There is a certain sense of uniformity. I won’t say it was perfectly uniform, but major differences would make some one a heretic.
Protestant Reformation is a thing of the past, though divisions continue to exist. We had many occasions to interact with one-another, understanding the past struggles and errors, and to look forward with much greater sense of hope and unity — without forgetting the existing differences.
Philosophy and world-view has changed. Colonialist mindset is no more accepted (though it does exist). The western culture is no more the best culture, but one of the many cultures. There are movements for equality of all people, beyond class, caste, colour etc. We moved from Newtonian science (where everything could be predicted perfectly) to an Einsteinian and Quantum Science (where absolute objectivity is a questionable thing). With latest trends in philosophy and culture, especially in the form of post-modernism, the individual (and opinions, likes, desires) become extremely significant.
Religion or spirituality didn’t die off as predicted by some thinkers of the early 20th century. In the midst of the trend of leaving the institutionalized religion, people are seeking for spirituality. And they also forms innumerable groups where the people with similar experiences come together. These groups may or may not be associated with established religions.
When we continue to critique the contemporary period for its individualism, examples of “autonomous individual” who is not against communitarianism (or being part of groups) are plenty. Human being, who is seen more as autonomous individual, still looks to communities. They are happy with belonging to groups (not any group). Many activist groups for global causes like climate crisis, refugee crisis, gender issues etc can be also looked in these lines.
In such a scenario, Pope Francis’ proposal called polyhedron makes sense. It is a better symbol and image for the Church and the Society than that of sphere. He is not the pioneer in proposing such an idea. Vatican Council II, many other former Popes and influential church leaders, have proposed similar ideas in the Church circles. We might get many more examples in the cultural and political scenarios.
Where we start this model called polyhedron? It starts from each individual (with all of his or her context) who is having a personal relationship with Jesus.
But there is no unique (single) way of having a relationship with Jesus. Each of us, have a unique and singular way of being in relationship with Jesus. Polyhedron of the Church is the community of these unique, singular individuals.
Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential. Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of people who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone. (Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium)
As God respects and relates with us in our individuality and singularity, each one of us have a responsibility to do the same with others. That’s the only way of making a polyhedron like community.
One question that can be immediately asked is…. does it mean anything can go? I don’t think so; it goes according to the gospel which leads to myriads of inspirations in different people; plurality is very much there. God, one God, works in each one, in the midst of their singularity.
Such a polyhedron where each person occupies one’s own unique place is under the dynamic guidance of the Holy Spirit. Trusting this guidance of Spirit is not easy, but much needed. Such a system needs continous process of discernment; decisions can’t be imposed as in a sphere, from the centre. (In a sphere, everthing on the surface was in equal distance). This means, things won’t be smooth; it will be complicated; there will be struggles to arrive at the decision; there is the possibility of wrong decisions. But again, there is that Spirit, who will bring it back to the right track, if we are willing to listen.
Another interesting dynamics of this polyhedron is about the decision making and synodality. There will still be priests and other responsible persons in the Church. I may have experiences in spiritual life, church administration or in theology. They add beauty and flavour to the discernement. But my relationship with God (or my style of life, or my thinking) is just one of the infinite possible ways of relating to God. It doesn’t occupy the central place in any sense. It is no more superior, even if I am a responsible person in the Church.
Being a pastor or animator, my responsibility is to continue to build the local community, where there are people whose style of relating with Jesus is very different from me. The task of the animator and pastors are to help in building the polyhedron where, all are connected to God in their singularity and all are connected to many others in the polyhedron too. (No forgetting the two commandements).
In such a sense, synodality is an invitation to build the church (a grand polyhedron) which does have many other local churches (again polyhedrons), where the singularity of each individual is accepted. How those singularities can be respected, is a question, each community should struggle and struggle, under the guidance of the Spirit. Here Synodality is not a tool, but something very much fundamental to the Church.
Was the Church of the Acts of the Apostles like that? I do think so. It did have the presence of disciples, who had the experience of living with Jesus. But change, transformation and evolution happened a lot there. Many of the Christian dogmas were not yet defined. They trusted in the Holy Spirit. With all the experiences of living with Jesus, the apostles didn’t neglect the experiences of Paul or other new disciples. Their experiences with Jesus never became a reason for the superiority or to define them as the centre. Belief in the guiding Spirit of God, who inspires everyone (and anyone) was the central idea…. and I think Synodality do echoes the same sentiment.
The famous philosophical principle, which is also repeated by Pope Francis, as one of his four principles, is a fitting conclusion. Polyhedron of the Church, which is a community of people in their singularity, created by the active work of Holy Spirit, and the co-operation of all makes a Church which is much more than a group of individuals. The Whole we create, is much more than a mathematical sum of individuals.
***Special thanks to Patrick Goujon SJ, whose class (12 November) as part of the course in “Spiritual Theology” inspired this short piece.