Pope Francis, it seems, truly is a quiet revolutionary. He was remarkably open and plainspoken in a long interview published last week in Jesuit journals around the world. Although I’m at best an equivocal deist and more often an agnostic, much of what he said moved me, sometimes deeply. Imagine then his impact on believers.
Father Spadaro, who conducted the interview, started by asking the Pope: “What does the church need most at this historic moment?”
I see clearly 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.
He has no patience for, or interest in, a church that looms over people, superior, distant, all knowing.
The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.
The essence he wants the church to strive for is embodied in the notion of fruitfulness.
We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the church is Mother; the church is fruitful. It must be. You see, when I perceive negative behavior in ministers of the church or in consecrated men or women, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Here’s an unfruitful bachelor’ or ‘Here’s a spinster.’ They are neither fathers nor mothers, in the sense that they have not been able to give spiritual life.
To this relatively uninformed observer, it feels like a return to the church’s origins, to the teachings and manner of Christ. Complexities distilled to their essence, mercy and love as the essential cornerstones, concern with individuals rather than abstractions. And humility.
When asked at the beginning “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, he replied “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” He also seems easy with acknowledging error, and learning from experience.
My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. Yes, but I must add one thing: when I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person. He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person. But despite this, eventually people get tired of authoritarianism.
Much has been made about Pope Francis’ relatively liberal comments on homosexuality, abortion and so forth, perhaps more than is justified. I don’t think he takes doctrinal issue with the church’s conventions on these matters; he says, for example, “The teaching of the church [on these issues], 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.” What is certain, however, is that his priorities are utterly different.
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.
In a world grey with cynicism about power and hierarchy and institutions, his papacy has the potential to be a powerful force for good. The Catholic Church has much to repent of, and a great deal of lost ground to make up. Perhaps Francis is the man for the job. He certainly doesn’t seem like someone easily turned from his path, or likely to get bogged down in institutional squabbles. In any event, this unbeliever will be quietly cheering from the sidelines.