Pope Francis and Blaise Pascal, two brothers across the centuries

Pope Francis and Blaise Pascal, two brothers across the centuries

Why did Pope Francis write an apostolic letter for Blaise Pascal’s 400th birthday?

That a Jesuit pope is interested in this athlete of thought that is Pascal is not surprising. After all, the disciples of Ignatius of Loyola are skilled in introspection, and the sharp pen of the great philosopher – who was once their adversary, in Letters that have remained famous* – joins their natural propensity to debate ideas. But between now and publishing an apostolic message intended for 1.3 billion Catholics, here is what is more surprising, so much the prose of Pascal, lively but demanding, remains of an austerity in the image of the Jansenist 12th century which was born. No doubt one would have imagined more Benedict XVI, so concerned to promote the fruitful relationship between science and faith, confronting the multifaceted work of this genius who approached mathematics, physics, geometry or theological questions with equal appetite.

So yes, why did François want to give the world his reading of a philosopher who is both famous for his quotes – the man, “thinking reed” – and probably not widely read? The 400 years of his birth, June 19, 1623, are only a rather thin pretext. In Pascal, writes the pope, it is first of all “basic attitude” which seduced him, this “astonished openness to reality. Openness to other dimensions of knowledge and existence, openness to others, openness to society”. And François patiently educates about it in this text, which is as brief (50 pages) as it is accessible.

Harsh moralist buthumble witness» divine tenderness

Here we find the didactic side of Professor Bergoglio, who liked to converse without ceremony with his Argentinian students. Hard, Pascal? “A lover of Christ who speaks to everyone,” replies the pope. A high-flying intellectual, detached from the contingencies of reality? Far from “substituting the idea for the real”, Pascal, continues François, lucidly points out the dangers of a disembodied thought, with this formula that has remained famous: “Who wants to be the angel is the beast.” A severe moralist, recalling that no entertainment can escape the tragedy of existence? Certainly, agrees the pope, but also a “humble witness” of divine tenderness, forever upset by his personal encounter with Christ, experienced during a mystical night.

This complicity does not erase the theological differences, and certainly differences of temperament, between the two thinkers. But beyond the decades, the philosopher of the 17th century pinning down the vain quest for glory, and the pastor of the 21st, so eager to awaken those who let themselves be absorbed by “worldliness”, respond to each other in an astonishing way. When Pascal offers his contemporaries, jostled by the “uncertain and fluctuating” world that followed the Renaissance, the compass of absolute trust in God, how can one not think of this joy of responding to the call of a infinitely loving, which Francis made a major focus of his pontificate? “Pascal, wrote the pope again, never resigned himself to the fact that some of his fellow human beings disdained (…) to take the Gospel seriously. For it is in Jesus Christ that their life is played out.” This is undoubtedly the fine point of the complicity between the two men: the passion to make Christ known, and with it, the first urgency of charity. In the secret of the long hours of prayer torn from the night, there is no doubt that a fervent dialogue made them brothers.

*The Provincials, 1657.

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