On June 19, 2023, the 400th anniversary of the birth of the brilliant French layman Blaise Pascal, Pope Francis published an apostolic exhortation reflecting on his life and work. The Latin title, “Sublimitas et Miseria Hominus,” translates into English as “The Grandeur and Misery of Man,” and it summarizes the writing of Pascal who was amazed at the fundamental contradiction that is at the heart of what it means to be human.
“In a century of great advances in many fields of science,” the Holy Father writes, “accompanied by a growing spirit of philosophical and religious skepticism, Blaise Pascal proved to be a tireless seeker of truth, a ‘restless’ spirit, open to ever new and greater horizons.” Pascal’s “brilliant and inquisitive mind” sought the truth in every realm — science, philosophy, art, politics and sociology and theology. He was a true man for all seasons who sincerely believed that human reason can only arrive at truth when it is informed by faith.
Pope Francis believes that Pascal, who underwent a dramatic religious conversion at the age of 31, just three years before his untimely death, can be an example for all who seek the truth regardless of their beliefs. For a mathematician to experience God as personal, not abstract or theoretical, is itself a powerful witness.
“This is not the abstract God or the cosmic God, no,” Pope Francis quotes Pascal. “This is the God of a person, of a call, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is certitude, who is sentiment, who is joy.”
No wonder Pope Francis, who so often speaks about the joy of the Gospel, is impressed with what this man of science and philosophy has to say about his encounter with the living God.
“Yet while faith is reasonable,” the pope writes, “it remains a gift of God and may not be imposed.
“We do not prove that we should be loved by setting out the reasons why; that would be ridiculous,” Pascal tells us with his subtle humor, comparing human love and the way that God beckons us. Like human love, “which proposes but never imposes — the love of God never imposes itself.”
Pope Francis concludes his reflection on the life and writing of this great man who possessed a lustrous, inquisitive mind in love with God with these words: “May the brilliant work of Blaise Pascal and the example of his life, so profoundly immersed in Jesus Christ, help us to persevere to the end on the path of truth, conversion and charity. For this life passes away in a moment: Everlasting joy in return for a single day’s effort on earth.”
The human condition, a consequence of original sin, makes all of us “restless spirits.” Let’s ask God to help us find true love and lasting joy in the person of Jesus Christ who has promised to lead us through “ever new and greater horizons” to the fullness of life in him.