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Aggressive tenderness

Pope Francis' "Joy of the Gospel" is a 50,000-word treasure trove and arguably his blueprint for the church today, but two words have been ringing in my head ever since I first laid eyes on them: "aggressive tenderness." The words are addressed to all those who would like to share Christ's love today - but what do they look like in the life of a husband or father?

I know plenty of aggressive type-A guys and a few who could be described as nice and maybe even "tender," but "aggressively tender"?

So with my deadline for the Catholic Herald fast approaching, I did what any schlub would do: I tried to pass off my work on a handful of fellow dads by emailing them the question, together with the paragraph in which it appears. Fully expecting to hear crickets in response to my e-mail, I found 3,000 words of reflection in my inbox within one day.

Pope Francis seemed to have struck a nerve. But before I invite four of these dads to offer a guided mini-retreat on "aggressive tenderness," the context: Pope Francis deploys the phrase in a chapter entitled "No to a sterile pessimism." "Christian triumph," he writes, "is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil."

In the very next sentence, he cites two examples of evil's assault: "defeatism" and "the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds." Both of these evil spirits, he writes, are the "fruit of an anxious and self-centered lack of trust."

If your head is spinning, hang on. "Aggressive tenderness," we see, cannot be airlifted out of the text. Instead, it makes sense only in the close company of four realities: evil, defeatism, the temptation to separate, and the triumph of the cross. It seems to describe the manner by which we should carry the cross: without anxiety or self-centeredness.

"Someone once said," one dad responded to my question, "that there is a two-fold demonic dimension to our society: on the one hand, constant temptation to sin, like the constant exposure to pornography. On other hand, once you give in to temptation and sin: instant, irredeemable shame, condemnation and vilification."

"The evil one," he continued, "tempts with an apparent good and then condemns for the actual evil. 'Aggressive tenderness' is how to fight this demonic double-edged sword: Fight the good fight with everything you have, for yourself and your family. But if you or someone you love gives in to temptation or weakness, sins, falls away, then you respond with tenderness, asking for and giving forgiveness without hesitation, persevering in hope and returning to the fight."

A second friend observed that it is tempting to read "aggressive tenderness" as a synonym for tough love: "to approach those who are wrong and to speak the truth because, while it may be a hard message, it is ultimately 'tender' to share what is really good for them."

"Tempting interpretation," he continued, "but I think it misses the mark. Because tenderness is the focus here, we must constantly look and strive for ways to offer Christ's love and mercy rather than His judgment."

"'Aggressive' is a startling but perfect word here," wrote a third dad, "to contrast 'sitting idle' in our faith or not taking ownership for our individual role in evangelizing our world. We need to live with a zeal and aggressiveness that overwhelms the perceived absence of His love. We should start with 'aggressive tenderness' beginning in our own families."

"As dads," a fourth dad wrote, "we are called to combat evil in our world and to defend our families in daily sacrifices, examples and yes, corrections to our children's behavior or environment. 'Aggressive tenderness' suggests a response that is energetic and emphatic, but directed. The phrase emphasizes the need to do everything with love at the center."

I don't know what Pope Francis would think of this mini-retreat - guided by men in the worlds of nonprofit, high tech and customer service - on just two words of his apostolic exhortation, but a wake-up call emerges. "Now," as one dad wrote, speaking for us all, "if I could only put this into practice on a consistent basis."

The final word goes to my ever-amazing wife: "Aggressive pursuit of self-interest is so damaging that it needs aggressive tenderness to heal it. In today's world, people are so damaged by selfishness that they doubt love. They are full of shame, despair and self-loathing. In response, we have to be lavish in our tenderness. After all, God is aggressively merciful with us."

The only thing I can add is: "Amen."

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015