I should have known better than to get my information about the content and tenor of America Magazine‘s now famous interview with Pope Francis from the folks on Twitter. It’s surprising that I went so long without reading the full text of the interview, choosing instead to get my information in 140-character nuggets from the Twitterati. Considering that I have a great obsession with all things papal, and more than a mild distaste for Twitter, probably my best bet is to claim temporary insanity, consider this article my mea culpa, and move forward.
Before I give my thoughts about the content of Pope Francis’s responses to the interviewer, let’s talk about the strangeness of the whole thing. Everything we knew (or thought we knew) about popes has changed. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing from our popes from balconies, during televised masses, and in formal papal decrees and encyclicals. But, that was so seven months ago. The Second Vatican Council was supposed to “throw open the doors and windows of the church.” Until now, those doors and windows appeared to have been stuck.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been huge changes and reforms since Vatican II. For one, I enjoy understanding the words of Mass in my mother tongue. I like not being essentially fenced off from the altar. And the ecumenism that followed the Second Vatican Council has also been a mostly pleasant experience. But despite these and many other reforms, there has persisted an image of the pope himself as a man set apart, elevated (which is the term we use when a new guy takes the job) above the majority of we lay plebeians, talking about faith, hope, and love, and then returning to his private chapel in his apostolic palace where he, presumably, prays and signs his name a lot. That model of a holy father has served us (more or less) well for the past two millennia. Then along came Francis.
Here is a pope who tweets, gives impromptu press conferences, picks up the phone and calls random strangers who have written him letters, gives up the fancy Mercedes and BMWs, requests a Ford Focus, settles for a used 1984 Renault, washes the feet not of his brother priests, but of juvenile offenders, and who, we now know, sees fit to sit down for a six hour interview where he speaks not only candidly, but passionately. (And all this with one lung?!) To that, I say, Viva Pope Francis!
The interview under consideration was conducted with an interviewer from a Jesuit magazine in Italy. The project (i.e., interviewing the pope) was the brainchild of multiple Jesuit-run magazines and publications who collaboratively collected and submitted questions to the interviewer who ultimately landed the interview. The English translation of the article was the responsibility (and is now the property of) America magazine in the United States. If you have not yet read the full text of the interview, I encourage you do so. (The interview is available here online and here as a downloadable eBook.)
According to Twitter and the mainstream media, and depending on who you are paying attention to: The pope is a liberal! The pope is a conservative! The pope is changing the Church! The pope isn’t changing anything! Indeed, as is too frequently the case with the Bible itself, you can select any passage out of the interview to prove whatever point you’d like to make. All of the above statements are true, as far as one can tell, if you read selections from the interview out of context. I hope this reflection is a little different. Like all the others, I also want to focus on just a few quotes. But the quotes I have selected are not the “headline-grabbing” sound bytes you may have already read, with whatever spin was put on them from your news source. These are quotes that I believe are the foundation of the entire interview, informing us about who Pope Francis is, and on what all his other responses are built upon.
“I am a sinner.”
Right out of the gate, this is where the interview begins. Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” His response, after a little thought, was that he was a sinner. Think of all the official appellations we typically attach to the pope: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God. But when Pope Francis is asked who he is, he doesn’t cite any of these, saying rather, “I am a sinner.” Immediately, we are set on level ground. It’s almost as if we can all be set immediately at ease: “Phew! So am I!” we think.
Consider for a moment what this means. It is imperative to distinguish between two ways of thinking about sin and sinners. On the one hand, there are those who would say, “I sin, so therefore I am a sinner.” I consider this a finger-pointing, accusatory way of thinking about sin. To think of sin in this way is to set oneself apart from others. Now flip that statement around and we come closer to the Church’s understanding of sin: “I am a sinner, so therefore I sin.” All the same words, but a world of difference. Our natural condition as human beings is to be sinners. We are naturally inclined toward sin. It is not: This person over here is a sinner because he sinned. It is: We are all sinners, so we’re all prone to sin. Pope Francis, in responding to the question in this way, emphasized the Church’s teaching on the matter, and brought the truth of it home by referring to himself as a sinner. The emphasis becomes the unity of humanity that stems from the human condition that unites us all. Pope Francis may be the head of the Mystical Body of Christ, but he, just like all the other parts of that Body (including you and I), is a sinner.
“God is to be encountered in the world of today.”
God is, according to Pope Francis, available to be encountered in the world, today, in everyone. Certainly God has been present in the past, and, we have been promised, will be present in the future. But our point of contact with God is today: in the lives we lead, in our interactions with one another and with nature. Have we fallen away from an idealized relationship that we had with God in the past? Perhaps. Are we worse off than we hope to be in the future? Almost certainly. And yet, we encounter God today. He is with us now. We have no control over the past, and the future is a destination that is always on the horizon and out of our grasp.
In making this point, Pope Francis points us toward compassion, brotherhood (and sisterhood), stewardship, fraternal charity, and love. The point (which can’t be missed if you read the article in its entirety) is that it does us no good, and is entirely inaccurate, to run around filled with worry and doubt about our present condition. This, Pope Francis maintains, leads us to withdraw inward, focuses on “discipline,” hopes to “conserve” what we think we (and the Church) should be or used to be, and alienates everyone in the process. Pope Francis wants compassion. Pope Francis wants a big church, made up of all of the people of God. Pope Francis recognizes that all of us, himself included, are sinners, deserving of the same mercy from one another that we know we will receive from God. Pope Francis wants the Church to be like a “field hospital after after battle,” one that focuses on “healing wounds” and “warming hearts.”
“We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”
The context of this quote from Pope Francis is in response to a question about ecumenism between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic churches. But in light of everything else he said in this interview, Pope Francis means this in all contexts. We are all members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Clearly, we all don’t see everything the same way, but we are united in that Body. Politically speaking, are there liberal Catholics? Yes. Are there conservative Catholics? Yes. Are there Catholics who seem capable of separating their politics from their faith? There are indeed. But the common denominator is that we are all Catholic. We are all members of the Mystical Body of Christ. We must “walk united with our differences.” This includes, Pope Francis makes clear, the clergy. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” Francis says. We all – the laity and the ordained – have our own views. Frequently, instead of trying to determine what informs our varying views, we become defensive and our hearts become embittered toward one another. This is not a way forward. This is judgment and stagnation. To walk with one another is the only way forward, the “only way to become one.” And it is, Pope Francis reminds us, “the way of Jesus.”
These three quotes are the essence of Pope Francis’s remarks. The interview itself is long, and Pope Francis certainly gets more specific than the quotes I have chosen to focus on. But ultimately, all his responses are founded on the concepts that he evokes in these three quotes.
I would be remiss if I ended this reflection without pointing out the Emeritus in the room. How weird is it that we have two living popes? How bizarre that one basically lives in the Vatican equivalent of an Extended Stay America hotel, and the other lives in what used to be his backyard? How jarring is the difference in their styles?
And yet, how beautiful? How remarkable is it that one pope, recognizing his own infirmity, can step aside and make way for his own successor? How wonderful that the two can live peacefully and harmoniously despite their differences? How timely that two men, very different, but both faithful Catholics, can demonstrate to us what it is like to walk united with our differences, leading us forward on the path that is “the way of Jesus?”