A friend of mine, Theresa, loaned me her copy of the Pope’s new book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. In it Pope Francis explores some of the ways the Covid crisis can teach us to handle upheaval in our lives. In this reflection I would like to share one of the Pope’s personal failures or mistakes in his life and what he says he learned from it.
In 1973, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, was named to two important leadership ministries consecutively. First, he served as Provincial Superior of the Jesuits and later as Rector of the Seminary. But something was not right during this time. It was the way he exercised his leadership that was wrong. “I could be very harsh,” he admits. He doesn’t go into detail, but whatever he did, it was serious enough to have the “higher ups” abruptly remove him from office and send him to the mountain city of Cordoba in central Argentina. He was only in his mid-fifties when this happened. He says, “In Cordoba they made me pay and they were right to do so.”
The future pope spent “a year, ten months, and thirteen days” living in the Jesuit residence there. (Was he counting the days?) He celebrated Mass, heard confessions, and gave spiritual direction. But he hardly went anywhere—except perhaps to the post office. He describes this period as “a kind of lockdown.” It is not an exaggeration to say he was living in “exile.” As difficult and as painful as this time was for him, he cites several blessings he received during this period. For example, he developed a greater capacity for prayer. And (“weirdest of all” he says), he felt drawn to read all thirty-seven volumes of Ludwig Pastor’s History of the Popes! (Was God preparing him for the papacy?!)
He cites other fruits of this time of “purification.” He writes, “It gave me greater tolerance, understanding, the ability to forgive, and a fresh empathy for the powerless.” It also gave him greater patience. He realized that “important things need time… and there are limits we have to work within while keeping our eyes on the horizon.” He adds, “Like Jesus, I learned the importance of seeing the big in the little things, and attending to the little in big things.” He compares the growth he experienced to “new growth that happens after a harsh pruning.” He summarizes this painful time in his life in these words: “What I learned was that you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out better. But if you dig in, you come out worse.”
How humiliating it must have been for the Holy Father to be removed from a leadership position. (The mistakes one makes while in leadership are often very public!) I was impressed by his humility. It takes self-knowledge and honesty to admit you failed at something or did something wrong—and then to learn from it! And it’s a special grace to do all of this (as the Holy Father seems to have done) without becoming bitter.
So what does this have to do with you and me? We too experience failures and we make mistakes. What do we do with them? Do we hide them.. deny them… dig in and allow them to fester? Or do we acknowledge them… face them… learn from them and allow them to make us better? As Sr. Joyce Rupp said, “What we saw as our failure was really our teacher.” And someone else wisely said, “Mistakes should be reasons for growth—not excuses for discouragement.”
Writer Rachel Held Evens makes this interesting observation: “It’s strange that Christians so rarely talk about failure when we claim to follow a guy whose three-year ministry was cut short by his crucifixion.” So, today I suggest we reflect on the role that failures and mistakes have played in our lives. I offer these questions as a starting point:
Did you ever fail in a significant way or make a big mistake and grow because of it? Have you ever felt you were sent into “exile” because of something you did? How did you respond? Name some of the “virtues” your failures and mistakes have nurtured in you. Can you think of any other well-known individual who failed or made mistakes and grew through them?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat for the Pittsburgh Benedictine Sisters. And I want to thank these Sisters for their warm hospitality at their new priory in Bakerstown. Special thanks to Shelly and her team for inviting me to give this retreat and to all the Sisters who assisted me and made me feel so much at home!
I came across this song while looking for another one. It’s by Micah Tyler and it’s called “(Your Mercies Are) New Today.” My two favorite lines are “I can rest on your shoulders/ There is grace to start over.” And “Show me how I can forgive myself…” I hope this song brings you encouragement and consolation today.
I welcome your comments—especially your responses to any of the questions. I also encourage anything else you may want to say about this reflection, the pictures, or the song. Thank you for sharing!