A Good Shepherd of Human Dignity

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

What did Pope Francis say to a 90-something atheist writer? That is a leading question of the day following this weekend’s publication of long piece in the Italian newspaper, La Republica. It is said to be based on a conversation between Eugenio Scalfari and Pope Francis. Scalfari, former editor and founder of the paper, doesn’t take notes or record his conversations, however. So quotes he attributes to Pope Francis aren’t actually quotes. It’s impossible to know what the pope said and what he didn’t based on Scalfari’s recollection of the conversation.

Much of what Pope Francis is said to have said sounds like him. He weeps — a word he u​ses often — and urges all members of the Church to weep in penance for evil done to children. The Church has a zero-tolerance policy against abuse of children, but even with as much progress as has been made – and it has – nothing will ever be enough. The Church perseveres in reform and radical conversion to the Gospels of Jesus Christ.

The reform is real and has been documented. The bit about radical conversion to Christ is the journey of the Christian and is the theme of authenticity that overwhelms this papacy.

As pertains to the La Republica piece, headlines turn on some very specific things reported with quotation marks that shouldn’t have had them, as the Vatican has pointed out.

Why ever would Pope Francis talk to this man, who has been guilty of journalistic malpractice with him in the past? I think it has entirely to do with Pope Francis as we have come to know him. He’s a pastor concerned with authenticity, invitations, and gestures. He wants an old man who doesn’t believe in God to know he has time for him because it is God who created Eugenio Scalfari and still has use for him, even as the world may be waning in its interest in the aging journalist. He is demonstrating that every life has value, even that of the journalist who, in the eyes of the media-minded, has burned the pope before. Perhaps what Pope Francis has prioritized is the delivery of this message: Whoever you are, whatever you do, you have human dignity and worth. And there is also the invitation for the Christian to impart: Eugenio, a door is open for you to believe.

These conversations may have less to do with media relations or any of the topics purportedly discussed than with the very heart of God and His longing for the receptivity of every man and woman alive. And here Pope Francis begins with a man who perhaps he uniquely can get through to. Though, as with other interviews, Scalfari’s record of the conversation may be off, Pope Francis may just pray that even in the imprecision, seeds are planted . . . God’s grace has been known to work miracles, even in the media, even in headlines.

One man matters. Every man matters. No one is disposable. These are themes of Pope Francis’s preaching and teaching. The pope knows that we live at a time when hearts are closed. They are closed because of evil. They are closed because of pain. They are closed because of misunderstandings and misperceptions. And someone has to be opening doors so that men and women in need of healing may see and hear and consider the Good News and the sacraments.

Christianity is a faith with a missionary mandate. To stop reaching out to the periphery — including inviting this particular man, a known atheist (who clearly has a respect for the pope), to his home — and to cease showing the way in to sacramental encounter with Christ in the Church would simply not be Christian. I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.

Pope Francis may just be modeling a necessary approach in the present day: to have agenda-less, non-utilitarian, even gratuitous conversations, full of love, honesty, and information. And pray to God that his work and mercy is done. Even with bad journalism. 

I haven’t talked with the pope about it, so my guess is as good as anyone else’s. But when I interview the pope, I will take notes and bring my recorder along, I promise.

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