by Sheila Liaugminas
In the first weeks and months after Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took the Chair of Peter, the Church and secular world media included followed him with fascination. Many of them delighted in his very different persona and pastoral style and spontaneity, different from his immediate predecessors. Different even from John XXIII, happy and outgoing as he was. Though they didn’t look into who he was and how that made him different in style, tone, and approach.
This is the first “American” pope, with his ebullient embrace of life in spontaneous encounter everywhere and all the time. From the beginning of his pontificate, he broke out of Vatican protocol and into the sea of people around him, even getting out of the Popemobile to walk and to embrace people along the way, especially the disabled and infirm and those seemingly marginalized by society.
And the more he’s done so, the more we can picture the original Peter, a very earthy fisherman, probably unprepared for the mission bestowed upon him by the Lord Himself. He was so human in his robust embrace of his encounter with Jesus. And so flawed in his fear of the consequences of that embrace.
Which gets to who Jorge Bergoglio is. That was the first thing Antonio Spadaro, SJ asked the pope in the famous interview published in September in La Civiltà Cattolica and simultaneously in several other Jesuit journals around the world. The English version was carried by America magazine.1 The pope’s considered, reflective response was: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner ... I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
Vatican expert George Weigel2 pointed to that and the pope’s fuller response to that question as the key to understanding him and his pontificate.
That is who Jorge Mario Bergoglio is: a radically converted Christian disciple who has felt the mercy of God in his own life and who describes himself, without intending any dramatic effect, as “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Having heard the call to conversion and responded to it, Bergoglio wants to facilitate others’ hearing of that call, which never ceases to come from God through Christ and the Church.
And that, Bergoglio insists, is what the Church is for: The Church is for evangelization and conversion. Those who have found the new pope’s criticism of a “self-referential Church” puzzling, and those who will find something shockingly new in his critical comments, in his recent interview, about a Church reduced “to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” haven’t been paying sufficient attention. Six years ago, when the Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean met at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida to consider the future, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio, was one of the principal intellectual architects of the bishops’ call to put evangelization at the center of Catholic life, and to put Jesus Christ at the center of evangelization. The Latin American Church, long used to being “kept,” once by legal establishment and then by cultural tradition, had to rediscover missionary zeal by rediscovering the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the Latin American bishops, led by Bergoglio, made in their final report a dramatic proposal that amounted to a stinging challenge to decades, if not centuries, of ecclesiastical complacency:
“The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission.... It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats.... What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel ... out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries....”
Thus Pope Francis, the pastor who is urging a new pastoral style on his fellow bishops and fellow priests, insists that every time the Church says “no,” it does so on the basis of a higher and more compelling “yes”: yes to the dignity and value of every human life, which the Church affirms because it has embraced Jesus as Lord and proclaims him to a world increasingly tempted to measure human beings by their utility rather than their dignity.
Sooner or later, that world may “get” Pope Francis’s message and meaning. But as soon as this interview hit the press, it kept reverberating through the media world including the Catholic media and the social networking media. They were filled with analyses, reactions, explanations, and plenty of spin. Pope Francis was being hijacked by a lot of people, misunderstood by many, and distorted by a great many. But he got their attention, with the basic Gospel message and teaching of the Magisterium and fundamentals from the Catechism and documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Francis showed the world Christ, and they didn’t know how to take it, or him.
Father Robert Barron founder of the global media ministry Word On Fire and the groundbreaking Catholicism series has been devoted to that very project for many years, showing the world Christ and His mercy, calling the world to a personal encounter with Him through unprecedented new evangelization outreach. His insight3 on Pope Francis as pastor and new evangelist is lively and engaging.
To judge by the headlines in The New York Times and on CNN, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a moral and doctrinal revolution, led by a maverick Pope bent on dragging the old institution into the modern world. I might recommend that everyone take a deep breath and prayerfully (or at least thoughtfully) read what Pope Francis actually said. For what he actually said is beautiful, lyrical, spirit-filled, and in its own distinctive way, revolutionary...
One of the most commented upon remarks in the interview is the following: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.” What the Pope is signaling here is that the Church, as his predecessor Paul VI put it, doesn’t have a mission; it is a mission, for its purpose is to cause the merciful face of Jesus to gaze upon everyone in the world. It is not an exclusive club where only the morally perfect are welcome, but rather, a home for sinners, which means a home for everybody...
The most striking analogy in the interview is this: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding. What we find today, the Pope is implying, are millions of people who are, in the spiritual sense, gravely wounded. They are alienated from God, stuck in the no-man’s land of moral relativism, adrift with no sense of direction, and tempted by every form of errant desire. They require, therefore, not the fine points of moral doctrine, but basic healing. Perhaps this explains why the Church’s altogether valid teachings on ethics are so often met with incomprehension or hostility: far more elemental instruction is required.
Over and over, writers, priests, bishops, cardinals, and leaders in the Church were explaining Francis both stating the obvious and clarifying the nuanced. Though with Francis, much more is obvious than nuanced.
But one thing many media commenters overlooked, along with groups of Catholics long divided on the left and right, is the continuity of the papal teaching, if not the style.
New Tone and Pastoral Approach
Cardinal Francis George remarked on that in his column4 for the Chicago Archdiocesan newspaper Catholic New World, “On listening to the pope.” And on the view of a pope or pastoral leader as being on the left or right, in the first place.
One of the signs of Pope Francis’ pastoral impact on the church and on the world is the readiness of people to listen to what he is saying, whether by gestures or by words. Even within the church, individuals and groups that have habitually said we should ignore papal teaching, even in its solemn form of an encyclical, are now saying we should listen to Pope Francis. This is no small improvement and no meager pastoral victory!
Despite the newfound willingness of former despisers of the papal office to listen to Pope Francis, there remains a deeper challenge to what he himself would desire. Before his election, Cardinal Bergoglio warned his brother cardinals about the danger of a “self-referential” church, a self-absorbed church that speaks more about itself than about Christ. Today, ironically, it seems that many are speaking more about the pope than about either the church or Christ!
Pope Francis himself is not a paradox, but he’s reflecting one within the Church. Cardinal George makes an important point here, or set of points.
The pope is neither an American liberal nor an American conservative. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ who has experienced the forgiveness and mercy of God and who wants to tell the world about it. His words fall out of the categories of American public discourse, because the one word that cannot be spoken publicly in our society is forgiveness. “Justice” in the form of punishment is the subject of half of our TV shows and three quarters of our news broadcasts. The pope, by contrast, invites us to confess our sins and taste the mercy of God. Then, in a life dedicated to sinning no more, the doctrinal and moral teaching of the church finds its place.
This is no different from the messages of Pope Francis’s predecessors. But he’s getting attention by saying what he says, startlingly blunt and basic, in what’s being heard as a different tone. But point is, it is being heard.
Soon after the Jesuit interview burst into global headlines, Father Robert Barron was the homilist and guest of Cardinal Timothy Dolan at a special Mass at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Cardinal Dolan took the opportunity to invite members of the media to join them for an informal press conference5 after the Mass. It was lively and instructive.
Cardinal Dolan started with thanking the media for their interest in Pope Francis’ “magnificent interview.” The press wanted to talk about abortion and gay marriage. Cardinal Dolan talked about the importance of having “truth and love in balance.”
Father Barron was keenly fixed on the pope’s words and actions as a “return to the radical core of Christianity,” which is another key point to understand about Pope Francis. Father Barron talks often and throughout his Catholicism series of “the radicality of the Gospel.” Now he’s seeing that expressed in Pope Francis’s messages and gestures, adding, “He’s got a preacher’s gift, in spades.”
A Catholic reporter asked about Pope Francis’s reference to discernment, and Father Barron quickly pointed out that since the pope is a Jesuit and a son of Ignatius, he has Ignatian spirituality, with an emphasis on “contemplation, desolation and consolation. What’s causing anxiety and so on. That’s key for any leader in the Church, above all the pope,” said Father Barron. “Vatican II says ‘discern the sign of the times, what’s going on in the world, how do you read it in light of the Gospel?’ I saw that as a very strong theme in this interview.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput also took the opportunity to explain and clarify Pope Francis and his remarks and teach at the same time, while addressing seminarians6 at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary as part of a Year of Faith discussion series. It was no coincidence that he stressed something Cardinal Dolan said at the opening of that press conference.
“[Love] requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time ... [And if] love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable.”
My point is this: Anyone hoping for or worried about a break by Pope Francis from Catholic teaching on matters of substance is going to be mistaken. At the same time, the tone of this pontificate will certainly be distinct from anything in the past century. Pope Francis has been formed by experiences very unlike the factors that shaped John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
Francis said shortly after his election that the cardinals had chosen a bishop of Rome from the “[far] end of the world.” Argentina may be the most European of Latin American countries, but Pope Francis’ world as a priest and bishop has been the global South, the problems that wound it and the poor who inhabit it.
This point is critical for understanding the pope and the future of the Church, since Christianity is emerging largely in the global South and Pope Francis knows its potential and potential obstacles well. Archbishop Chaput continued:
I do want to highlight some words in the interview that struck me as a clue to the way this Pope thinks about the future. The interviewer asked Pope Francis about the relationship between the “ancient” Churches of the developed world, the global North, and the “young” Churches of the developing world, including the global South. The Holy Father answered this way:
The young Catholic Churches, as they grow, develop a synthesis of faith, culture and life, and so it is a synthesis different from the one developed by the ancient Churches. For me, the relationship between the ancient Catholic Churches and the young ones is similar to the relationship between young and elderly people in a society. They build the future, the young ones with their strength and the others with their wisdom. You always run some risks, of course. The younger Churches are likely to feel self-sufficient; the ancient ones are likely to want to impose on the younger Churches their cultural models. But we build the future together.
How that future will play out is unclear. It holds opportunity and risk; ambiguity and hope. But God is in charge. God will guide his Church. And God will fill this holy man who is our Pope with the wisdom to lead us well.6
Church leaders keep reassuring people of that as Pope Francis keeps turning up with messages that surprise, and many commentators speculate on what he might mean, Using the American political terminology Archbishop Chaput noted:
Pharisees come in all shapes and sizes, left and right. We need to be different. As Pope Francis said in his La Civilta Cattolica interview, the Church needs to be more than “a nest protecting our mediocrity.” We prove or disprove what we claim to believe by the zeal and joy of our lives. What we need to do in the years ahead is what God has always asked us to do: forgive each other; encourage each other; protect the weak; serve the needy; raise the young in virtue; speak with courage; and work for the truth without ceasing always in a spirit of love...
The reason the world has paused for Pope Francis if only for a little while is that so many people sense in him something more than himself; not just God’s truth and God’s justice, but God’s tenderness.
They see Peter, and through him, Christ. Whether they know it or not.
1 “A Big Heart Open to God,” Antonio Spadaro, SJ’s interview with Pope Francis. America. September 30, 2013. americamagazine.org/pope-interview.
2 “The Christ-Centered Pope,” George Weigel. National Review Online. September 20, 2013. eppc.org/publications/the-christ-centered-pope/.
3 “The Pope’s Field Hospital,” Robert Barron. Real Clear Religion. October 2, 2013. realclearreligion.org/articles/2013/10/02/the_popes_field_hospital.html.
4 “On listening to the pope,” Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. Catholic New World. September 29-October 12, 2013. catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2013/0929/cardinal.aspx.
5 Full press conference on Pope Francis, Cardinal Dolan and Father Barron. September 22, 2013. youtube.com/watch?v=1BP8mQnwX_8.
6 “Fire Upon the Earth,” Charles J. Chaput. First Things. October 2, 2013. These remarks were delivered the evening of October 1 at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary as part of a Year of Faith discussion series. firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/10/fire-upon-the-earth.
Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a Chicago journalist who covers topics on faith, culture, and politics. She is host of “A Closer Look,” an hour-long news analysis on Relevant Radio and is network news director. Her work has been published in the National Catholic Register, Catholic New World, MercatorNet, National Review Online, and elsewhere. She blogs on current events at Inforum (inforumblog.com/) and Sheila Reports (mercatornet.com/ sheila_liaugminas)
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