Pope Francis has called for a ‘revolution of tenderness.’
What does the pope means by this? And how does tenderness relate to the message of the gospel? What does a ‘theology of tenderness,’ as the pope puts it, look like?
The Oxford English Dictionary identifies three aspects of tenderness, two of which are relevant here:
- 1. Gentleness and kindness; kindliness.
- 1.1 Feelings of deep affection.
- 2. Sensitivity to pain; soreness.
Conceptually, the two are linked. People who feel deep affection for others are in pain when their loved ones are in pain—we might call them tenderhearted. Such a person rejoices with the joyful and weeps with those who are in sorrow, to paraphrase St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:15. There is thus a dual aspect to tenderness when we use the term in the context of relationships: it refers both to the affection for the others and the pain we feel when they suffer. People who are tenderhearted have a great capacity to be wounded for others.
This is why Pope Francis sees the cross as the defining moment of Jesus’ tenderness for us:
In this sense, tenderness refers to the Passion. The Cross is in fact the seal of divine tenderness, which is drawn from the wounds of the Lord. His visible wounds are the windows that open onto His invisible love” (Audience on September 13, 2018).
For us, to be tender for others is to be compassionate with them—to suffer with them, to cry with them, to be pained when they suffer. But divine tenderness goes beyond this. So great was Jesus’ tenderness for us that our wounds became His wounds; He assumed our suffering.
The cross is the key to the revolution of tenderness. Its deep influence can be seen in how the pope himself defined tenderness in a TED talk:
And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands.
Pope Francis’ definition takes on added meaning when we consider the wounds of Christ and His Sacred Heart, the center of His Passion. As Pope Francis himself put it in his audience:
Feeling we are loved. It is a message that has come to us more strongly in recent times: from the Sacred Heart, from Merciful Jesus, from mercy as an essential property of the Trinity and of Christian life. Today the liturgy reminds us of Jesus’ word: “Be merciful, just as your Father is” (Lk 6: 36). Tenderness can indicate precisely our way of receiving divine mercy today.
In this context, we can understand tenderness as the touch of God’s mercy. Just how do we experience this healing touch? Through our union to Christ crucified—really and substantially in the Eucharist and spiritually in our hearts whenever we offer our wounds to Him.
But something strange and wonderful happens we do this. True, we are healed by His wounds, but we also receive His wounds. We become wounded with Him—‘wounded by divine love,’ as Pope Francis said in his audience. Pope Francis added: “His visible wounds are the windows that open onto His invisible love. His Passion invites us to transform our heart of stone into a heart of flesh, to become passionate about God. And about man, for the love of God.”
Thanks to the cross, we can become tenderhearted towards others in a radically new and deeper way.
In taking on Christ’s wounds then, we are opened up not only to God, but also to our fellow man—we share in His tenderness for others. As Pope Francis said in his TED talk: “Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”
In this definition we hear echoes of many of the works of mercy. We thus become a means through which God’s mercy touches people.
Tenderness also becomes an essential characteristic of our relationship with God. As Pope Francis said at TED: “Tenderness is the language of the young children, of those who need the other. A child’s love for mom and dad grows through their touch, their gaze, their voice, their tenderness” (see also his discussion of tenderness in Amoris Laetitia).
Just as our faith in God must be like that of children (see Mark 10:15) so also must be our love for Him. Tenderness is the warmth of love—it is the caress of the heart as it gazes on its Savior, the way we cling to Him in hope and faith, and the simple and heartfelt manner in which we pray. To paraphrase Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, without tenderness our love and trust in God are at risk of becoming “dry and lifeless.”
On the cross God showed us perfect tenderness and we are called to, through His grace, to respond to Him through our own tenderness.