Some months ago, a stir was caused by an interview in Italian with Pope Francis in which he commented on some of the words of the Our Father. The controversy came and went, but now the whole interview has been translated and published, along with some other reflections from Pope Francis over the past five years since he was elected on March 13, 2013. Gary Jansen is the editor of the English translation, which is being published today as Our Father: Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. He talks about the book and Pope Francis so far.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: So does the pope want to change the words of the Our Father? That’s what made headlines when this interview first hit the news.
Gary Jansen: I shouldn’t give away the answer because as an editor I want you to read the book, but no, the pope doesn’t want to change the words of the Our Father. He does think that the translation of the line we know as “lead us not into temptation” can be confusing. We know James in the New Testament writes that God “tempts no one.” The pope believes, and the Church teaches, that the “lead us not into temptation” line essentially means, God give me the strength not to fall into temptation. But people in the pews might not know this because it’s often not articulated by the witness of our day-to-day lives.
Lopez: It’s a brief book. Why was it worth turning into a whole book?
Jansen: A book doesn’t have to be long to transform your life. I remember years ago I began reading Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It’s a very short book, less than a hundred pages, but it had a profound impact on me not only as a writer, but also as a spiritual seeker. That book spoke to my heart and addressed a yearning and desire for God that I had difficulty articulating but Rilke described beautifully. I carried that little book around with me for years. And I’ve given out dozens as gifts in my lifetime. As an editor, I want to capture that experience and pass it along to others. So, I’m a huge fan of publishing gift books that are short, simple, and yet have a powerful message. Our Father is one of those books. I want readers to carry the book with them in their backpacks, pocketbooks, brief cases and pull it out when they’re in need of inspiration.
Lopez: You’ve published books by the Pope Emeritus Benedict, too. This is obviously very different from the Jesus of Nazareth series, which was directly responding to historians and theologians, in part. What do you make of that?
Jansen: I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve had the honor of meeting both men and both of them obviously have very different personalities. In broad strokes, Pope Emeritus Benedict is an academic and a professor. His writings are elegant and influential, but they appeal to a more scholarly type of reader (in general). Pope Francis worked as a bouncer when he was younger and learned Catholic theology in the midst of political and social upheaval in Argentina. Pope Francis speaks and writes simply and his style can appeal to a wide range of people. It’s the difference between your favorite teacher and your favorite sports coach. You can learn about life from both men, but you learn different things from each. Our Father has the Pope Francis style: He provides a number of universal messages that are at once simple and thought-provoking.
Lopez: Has being an editor of this book influenced your relationship with what’s often called “the Lord’s Prayer”?
Jansen: The Our Father may be the prayer I pray the most. It’s a familiar prayer, yet when fully embraced it’s a song of praise and humility that should be at the very foundation of our personal and collective faith. It was exciting to read the Pope’s reflections on this sacred prayer, which opened my eyes in new ways. The novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that he knew his wife so well that she was a mystery to him. I think the same can be said of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s something we know so well, but it remains a mystery to be appreciated.
Lopez: Has it had an impact on you as a father? Pope Francis talks a bit about fatherhood in the book.
Jansen: Great question. It did very much. In one part of the book the pope talks about the need for patience and forgiveness. Both qualities need to be perpetual and should spring from us as the patient and forgiving love of God is given to and through us. Most parents need to continually cultivate patience and forgiveness, which can be challenging in our fast-paced and hectic world. I know I do. Since becoming a father I understand what God must feel like sometimes when we as adults disobey or act inappropriately. Parents don’t normally talk about this, but often times our feelings are hurt by our children when they misbehave. Wow, if I feel hurt by something my son does, what does God feel like when I’m acting out and not following the commandments and Jesus’s teaching? Coming to that understanding has been life-changing.
Lopez: The pope says that “the world has lost the meaning of fatherhood. It is a world sick with orphanism.” Does that sound right to you?
Jansen: Fatherhood, in its ideal state, is a loving relationship between a father and his children. But collectively there does seem to be a fracturing of that relationship in modern-day society. Sometimes earthly fathers are absent or don’t pay attention to their children. They are not holding themselves up to a high standard and guiding their children in their lives. Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of good fathers who take care of their children, but oftentimes there can be a disconnect and this can happen across the board culturally and economically. Moreover, there is almost an Oedipal rejection of God the Father in what many now call a post-Christian world: This attempt to kill the Father in order to marry our own thoughts and experiences. As we learn from Oedipus, when this happens, we go blind and crazy.
Lopez: At one point, the pope says: “Jesus says to us that it will be the poor, the sinners, the prostitutes, the discarded who enter before you into the kingdom of heaven, all.” All?
Jansen: Again, in broad strokes the kingdom of God or heaven is like a hierarchy. There’s an order. When we keep to that order we are acting with a certain level of humility. Problems arise when someone tries to go above God. True repentant sinners express a humility, which is a key to entry into the kingdom. So will all sinners go to heaven? I’m not God and I’m not the pope, but the pope’s and Jesus’s words from scripture state that the truly humble are first in line to enter.
Lopez: What do you think the pope is getting at when he says, “We often live like people who do not believe either in God or in man”? Does that resonate with you?
Jansen: It does. Sometimes I feel like that. I wish I could say that my faith is working at 100 percent all the time, but that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s really hard to believe in God and sometimes it’s equally hard to believe in the best in people. When I don’t believe in anything, that’s when I feel the worst. I think a lot of people can relate. It’s obviously not a good way to live. Dante called these type of people the lukewarm. They just wander around like T. S. Eliot’s hollow men. They have little energy to love and even little energy to sin: “Shape without form, shade without color/Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”
Lopez: Do you have a favorite insight from the interview? Especially as someone who has done some extensive writing yourself — including in your new book, Life Everlasting — about prayer?
Jansen: I love the personal stories that the pope shares, especially the one about him falling asleep while praying. He likens it to a child falling asleep in God’s hands. It’s such a beautiful image. Plus, it makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who falls asleep when I pray!
Lopez: He says that “it is indispensable that, in a society that is merciless at times, there should be places, like the family, where we can learn to forgive one another.” I was reminded of when he visited the U.S. for the World Meeting of Families. There’s so much need for renewal of family life and for the Church being more attentive to taking in orphans. Do you think we’re making progress? Or, at the very least, that his words could help light a fire under us for healing?
Jansen: I might be naïve, but I think every day we are getting closer to the Kingdom of God. I know there are studies that say people are leaving the Church in droves. That might be the case, but I do think we exist at a higher state of consciousness now in some ways and that we are collectively a little more aware of the challenges we all face — more so now, than, say, 30 years ago. Is the Church always the most inviting? No, and I personally know quite a few people who feel hurt by the Church and have walked away. I feel compassion for them, and to be honest I sometimes feel rejected by a Church that I’m dedicated to. But I know the Church is more than what I may be feeling at any given moment. I think as a whole, we are progressing in terms of being open to communicating and trying to figure out how to help people. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of work to be done or that we don’t face great challenges, but rather that people are becoming more and more aware of the social, political, economic, and environmental challenges we all face and are taking small steps to help.
Lopez: Pope Francis writes that it takes courage to pray the Our Father. Can that really be true? I ask that especially as we live in a culture where the idea of praying has been derided, on the cover of a paper in New York, for instance. That prayer takes courage might sound ridiculous to many who would rather see, say, legislation, and who see it as perhaps the antithesis of taking action.
Jansen: Yeah, legislation has a great track record for taking right action. True prayer opens a line of communication. What does that mean? An exchange of information, feelings, and emotions. It’s almost like talking to a coach who then gives you guidance. That guidance might be to stay still or to do something. It all depends on the situation. But prayer is most helpful regardless of what secularists say. Secularists and newspapers like the one you are referring to are participating in a Luciferic role. Non serviam. God’s great angel refuses to serve. Lucifer essentially thinks he knows better than God. There is a great line at the end of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Daedalus, about to finally embark on his journey into adulthood says, “I will not serve in that which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” Though written almost a hundred years ago it articulates the rejection of the Church today. So to honestly pray the Our Father, to praise God, and to live from a place of humility, goes against the cultural grain of our times. Yes, it does take courage.
Lopez: Has the Church changed since Francis was elected five years ago?
Jansen: The Church is eternal and does not change, but how we understand our Church evolves over time. The church I lector at now is still the same church I attended five years ago (but people in the pews have a little more gray hair). The pope has been a diplomat for hope and mercy and he’s given us some very important writings and sermons to ponder. Some have been welcomed and embraced; others have caused quite a bit of controversy, which isn’t necessarily bad. It gets people talking. But I always fear controversy will often distract people from what’s really important. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI intellectually honed our understanding of the Church to an almost razor-like precision. Pope Francis is different. He’s been trying to help us to realize how we can take this great intellectual foundation and apply it to day-to-day living. That can be difficult and challenging, and has often led to quite a bit of hard feelings across ideological lines. Personally speaking, I think Pope Francis has helped me to lead with more mercy (though I’m far from perfect), so as a member of the body of the Church, I do think it’s changed me for the better.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.