People as a Mythical Concept for Pope Francis, Reader of Dostoyevsky

Issue 1809

30 August 2018

There is a work by Romano Guardini that was well known to Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was rector of the faculties of philosophy and theology at San Miguel in Buenos Aires. It is Religiöse Gestalten in Dostojewskijs Werk (Religious Figures in Dostoyevsky’s Work), in which the master from the Rhine analyzes the world of the characters of the Russian writer.[1] Bergoglio in that period recommended the reading of this monograph, which already circulated among the students.[2] His personal reading of the Russian novelist was enriched by the study of Guardini and his synthetic and systematic reflection on the “religious world” present in the works of the Russian author. It is interesting to understand how the reflection of Guardini on Dostoyevsky had an influence on Francis, leading him to affirm that “people is a mythical concept.”

The pope has repeated this affirmation on various occasions and in numerous interviews. In a conversation with our director, he said: “There is a word that is much misused: one speaks a lot about populism, populist politics, a populist program. But this is an error. ‘People’ is not a logical or mystical category, if we mean it in the sense that everything that a people does is good, or in the sense that the people is an angelic category. No! It is a mythical concept, if anything. I repeat: ‘mythical.’ People is a historical and mythical category. A people comes to be in a process, with an endeavor in view of an objective or common project. History is constructed by this procession of generations succeeding one another within a people. One needs a myth to understand a people. When you explain what a people is, you use logical categories because you have to explain it: it is necessary, of course. But you do not explain in this way the sense of belonging to the people. The word ‘people’ has something more that cannot be explained logically. To be part of a people is to be part of a common identity made of social and cultural bonds. And this is not something automatic. On the contrary, it is a slow, difficult process … toward a common project.”[3]

And recently in another interview, the pope said: “To comprehend a people it is necessary to enter into the spirit, the heart, the work, the history and into the myth of the tradition. Only in this way will we understand what the values of that people are. This point is indeed the basis of the ‘theology of the people.’ The idea is to go with the people, to see how it expresses itself.”[4] Therefore, even to “preach to the people it is necessary to look, to know how to look, and to know how to listen, to enter into the process which it lives, immerse yourself.”[5]

In these words of the pope we find some elements to make us think: the distinction between “logical category” and “mythical category,” a distinction that induces us to reflect on method; expressions that permit us to enter into the heart of a people and determine the object of the reflection; and the necessity of “going with the people,” which indicates the theological place of the reflection.

At the beginning of his study of Dostoyevsky, Guardini affirms the same thing we hear being said by Bergoglio: “People is a mythical being” (15). But what does it mean that people is a “mythical category,” “a mythical being”?

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