The Homilies of Pope Francis: Q&A with Gary Jansen

Gary Jansen is a writer and senior editor of religion and spirituality at the Crown Publishing Group. His books include “The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved,” “Exercising Your Soul: Fifteen Minutes a Day to a Spiritual Life” and the memoir “Holy Ghosts” (Tarcher/Penguin). He has appeared on A&E, the Sundance Channel, the Travel Channel, Coast to Coast AM, CNN.com and NPR. His writing has also been featured in the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, USA Today and Newsday. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

Mr. Jansen is editor of the new book “Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday" (Image), a collection of highlights from Pope Francis homilies in the Vatican chapel of Saint Martha from March 2013 to May 2014. The book also includes summaries by Vatican Radio (which recorded and transcribed the homilies) and a commentary by Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J.

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On June 2, I interviewed Mr. Jansen by email about his new book.

What inspired this new book?

I’m going to show my age in this response, but I saw this book as “The Pope Unplugged,” so to speak. (Remember Nirvana Unplugged? Classic.) These morning homilies, compiled by Radio Vaticana, were spoken off the cuff. The pope didn’t use notes or a prepared speech; he just riffed off the liturgy, like any good priest can do. I really liked the jazz feel to the homilies—that they can go off in different directions, but eventually come back to the motif found in the Gospel reading of the day. Moreover, few people get to attend those Masses—they’re small and intimate—and I wanted to bring that experience to as many people as possible. 

What audience did you have in mind as you edited these highlights from Pope Francis’ homilies?

Definitely a general audience. The biggest challenge when it comes to Catholic books is that they get labeled Catholic, which makes perfect sense, but ends up limiting its audience. There are plenty of people who won’t read a Catholic book, even Catholics. But the pope’s message of compassion and mercy isn’t a Catholic message, it’s a catholic message, meaning universal. And this book came with even more challenges because of its unique structure. Each homily is a mixture of summary and the pope’s own words mixed together. The intent was to give the reader the best highlights from each sermon. I really wanted this book to have as wide appeal as possible. For me, Encountering Truth works best as a devotional. Not one to be read all the way through in a couple of sittings, though you could do that. I really see each of these 180-plus homilies as a daily reading you can use as jumping off point for daily reflection or for lectio divina. Sit with a phrase from the pope or a few words from the commentary and allow it to penetrate your heart. 

What made you choose the phrase “encountering truth” for your title?

Father Spadaro and I communicated back and forth about what to do on this. The original title was Truth is an Encounter. Father Spadaro liked that, but to me it felt a little too philosophical. Encountering Truth sounded more active. Plus, encountering truth is really about encountering Jesus, and we do encounter Jesus every day. We may miss Him because we’re so busy, but we’re called to be encountering Jesus in our day-to-day lives. I think of Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus doesn’t answer. What Pilate doesn’t know is that Pilate is encountering truth firsthand. He’s having an encounter with Jesus. And he doesn’t understand it. Like so many of us, he just didn’t know what was going on right in front of him. Moreover, Pope Francis gives these homilies in a humble way in a little chapel. Many ordinary people attend—electricians, mothers, cab drivers. That’s where you encounter truth most vividly, in the average person. You find Jesus in their eyes, in their smiles or in their sorrow. You’re encountering truth when things are dry and tasteless. Think of the Eucharist. A bland, dry piece of bread and yet you’re encountering truth every time you receive the sacrament. Those encounters are transformative.

How will readers be “meeting God in the everyday” in the pope’s daily homilies?

I went to Catholic school for 12 years, but let me tell you I probably didn’t know what a Jesuit was until a few years after I graduated college. Ha! I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing! But maybe 15 years ago, I had an encounter with the writings of Ignatius and his basic idea to seek God in all things. I have not been able to get that idea out of my head, so I chose Meeting God in the Everyday because the pope is a Jesuit; the pope is giving these homilies to an audience of mostly ordinary people, some of whom are anxious to get back to work or to their next appointment while sitting in a pew; and the pope relates the Gospel to the common struggles of the common person, who is sometimes tired, sad, lost, and/or confused. So as much as the subtitle fleshes out what’s in the book, it’s also a call to action: “Look for God in all things.”

Pope Francis preached these early morning homilies at daily mass in a tiny chapel to small groups of people. Why should readers in the wider world care about them?

Because they are the voice of one crying out in the desert. Did that sound too serious? Maybe it’s ok to be really serious sometimes. When you get past all the political stuff that’s written about the pope, you find a man who is crying out for mercy and compassion. These homilies are really just good cries. You can take them and allow them to help purge whatever it is that’s holding you back from expressing mercy and compassion. They are unassuming, but so was Jesus. People are always asking me when Pope Francis is going to write the “Big Book,” his Jesus of Nazareth (like Pope Benedict XVI). I know nothing, but my opinion is that he ever will. Words can trip you up; they can get in the way of action sometimes. But we have these homilies that remind us to unpack truth in our lives. I look at these simple homilies as mustard seeds. They might be unassuming, but if tended to correctly, they can bloom into something magnificent.

You’ve written and edited a number of religious works. What were some highlights and challenges for you in editing these particular talks?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with some of the greatest living thinkers and writers today. We’ve published Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, and I‘ve also had the opportunity to work with the likes of Scott Hahn, Robert Barron, Amy Welborn, Brant Pitre, George Weigel and so many others. I also get to oversee a number of Henri Nouwen’s classic books. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to write a few books as well. To be published, to work with books, is such a privilege and I try not to take the privilege for granted. Now, there are thousands of books that are published every year. The publishing industry needs to survive and does so through selling books, but we forget a lot of times is that each book is an historical document. Each book is a piece of history. This book by Pope Francis is a piece of history, so you want to take good care of it.

How is this book different from other Pope Francis titles currently flooding the Catholic book market?

Oh, brother, the market is flooded! It’s something we talk about all the time in editorial meetings. I think the thing that makes this book different is that these are off-the-cuff homilies. There’s an intimacy here. There’s a rawness too. I think it shows the pope as very human.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope readers will be moved emotionally by the pope’s words. It’s one thing to be moved intellectually—I work with books so I get that. But, it’s a whole other experience—and for me a more powerful experience—when someone is moved in the heart. That’s when real change and progress seems to happen. I may think I love someone and not act. We can think things and just remain in our heads. Or we can experience things in our hearts, and often times that experience helps us move outward toward others. Ultimately,we’re called to community, so I hope this book brings the reader closer to God and in turn closer to others.

Crown’s Christian Publishing Group announced in March that Image Books, its Catholic-interest imprint, will cease acquiring new titles. What does this decision mean for readers?

Image has one of the most beautiful backlist catalogs in all of publishing. Check it out at www.ImageCatholicBooks.com. I keep a library of many of our titles from the last 60 years, and when you look at those books from such authors as Fulton Sheen, John XXIII, Basil Pennington, Anthony De Mello, Scott Hahn, Henri Nouwen, Mother Teresa, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, it’s awe-inspiring. The decision now is to look at this collection—this work of art—and see what we can do to get those classic books into the hands of as many readers as possible and hopefully transform their lives.

Who are the biggest influences on your work?

Oh wow, I love so many writers and so many have inspired me over the years. Everyone from Thomas Merton to Herni Nouwen, Paulo Coehlo, Anthony De Mello, Jack Kerouac, Graham Greene, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving. Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, and even Anthony Bourdain (who’s a really great writer). I think each of these authors have a certain exuberance in their written word that is very powerful for me. They’re enthusiastic, and I love the word enthusiasm. That’s one of my favorite words because it comes it comes from a Greek word whose root is en theo, meaning God within. When you’re enthusiastic, you’re allowing God to flow through you. These authors, no matter what they believed, let God flow through them.

What’s your next project?

I get to work in a lot of different genres at Crown so I was really fortunate to work with yogi Michael Singer on his follow-up to The Untethered Soul entitled The Surrender Experiment, which is on-sale this week.  I’m also finishing up the editing on Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi’s fascinating new book called Super Geneswhich publishes in November 2015. And on the Catholic front, I’m really excited by George Weigel’s book for World Youth Day 2016 called City of Saints, about John Paul II and his beloved city Kraków. Also, author Brant Pitre has an exciting new book called The Case for Jesus. As a writer, I’m working on a big history of the supernatural experience that is taking much longer to write than I anticipated, but it’s a labor of love and I can’t wait until it’s wrapped up.

What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

Ah, “Consider the lilies of the field...” from Matthew 6:25-34, This is one of the most powerful passages in the whole Bible for me. It’s this beautiful reminder not to worry, that God is watching over us, even when things seem bleak; to remember how God takes care of his creation. 

What are your hopes for the future?

To embrace God more fully in my day-to-day; to remember to “consider the lilies.”

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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