The New York Times headline reads: “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.” Believe it or not, though, he talked about more than sex.
He talks bluntly about the urgency of a depth of discernment with Christ in decision-making, about the peace and darkness that overcame him when he realized he might be elected pope, too.
In a long interview, Pope Francis has given his first extensive look into who this new pope, who just marked his sixth month in Rome, is. The English translation is in America magazine. He’s a man who has in his room an icon of St. Francis, a statue of Mary, a crucifix, and a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. The Church, as he sees it, is about faces — each person with his dignity – in whom he sees the face of Christ.
When asked directly, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?,” his name before his chosen Francis, “I am a sinner,” he replied. “It is a not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Mentioning Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” he reflects, ”That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” He says, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” He continues: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.
He talks about his vocational calling. He talks about needing community — his reason for living in the Vatican guesthouse, he says.
He talks at length about discernment, teaching through his interview one of the great gifts of Ignatian spirituality (the Jesuits having been founded by St. Ignatius Loyola). He shares that he is averse to making hasty decisions, because “the first thing that comes to my mind . . . is usually the wrong thing.”
“The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong,” the pope says.
On the hot-button issues of so much interest to we media folk, he said:
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
This reads very much like his interviews as bishop of Buenos Aires — very consistent and most urgently needed. Christianity is about telling the truth and always with love and mercy and justice.
He goes on to talk about abortion, in the context of mercy as a woman seeks forgiveness and God’s grace, explaining, “The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.”
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
The Francis factor, so to speak, is his focus on opening doors. How will anyone be open to Catholicism if they cannot get past knowledge of some of the prohibitions, without knowledge of the context, without invitation, without a love that compels them radiating from Christians?
Or, as he puts it:
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”
That’s very much the Evangelical Catholicism George Weigel talks about, using that same Emmaus-road image, by my quick read. It’s the call of the Catholic to know Christ and make Him known, to set hearts ablaze. In this interview and by his daily witness and words, that’s what this pope is witnessing to, fascinating the world — which may misunderstand at times, as he reproposes some fundamentals and open doors of introduction and renewal.
Pope Francis, in the interview, talks about the healing that the world needs. People need to know about Divine Mercy — a theme consistent with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, JPII having largely introduced and emphasized that devotion.
“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
Everything he says can be heard with so much of what he has said as pontif as the background music. During his first Angelus address — with people gathered down from St. Peter’s Square to the Tiber – and again and again thereafter: God never tires of granting mercy; never tire of asking for His mercy, he says.
“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
Teach Church teaching with love and mercy and justice, he is saying. Bring the Gospel message to those who are in the Church, out of the Church, and have left the Church. The Gospel message is about salvation. How can every man and woman come to know what the Church proposes?
Pope Francis says: “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.” That was very much the emphasis of much of his leadership in South America. To truly bring the Gospel to the world as it is today. So that no one is left out. And to weep for those forgotten, as he’s said, to never forget them, and to pray and work harder so that everyone hears about and sees, truly encounters, Christ. (The heart of the Christian life.)
There will be much more said and to say. For now, here’s the interview.