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James Martin, S.J.September 19, 2013

Here at America, we’ve been anticipating our publication of “A Big Heart Open to God,” the exclusive interview with Pope Francis for Jesuit journals worldwide, for weeks.  From the first proposal of the project (see our editor-in-chief’s summary of how the papal interview came to be), to receiving the original Italian transcript (and scratching our heads over some obscure Italian phrases), to reading the English translations, to reviewing the final manuscript, we’ve had many days to read, edit and pray with this remarkable interview. 

Our review process was somewhere between editing and spiritual reading.  One editor said that it was the first time she ever found herself in tears over a galley.

We’ve lived with the 12,000-word text and, in a sense, with Pope Francis over these last days.  So let me suggest what I feel to be the most newsworthy, important and inspiring parts of this remarkable interview.  To focus, I’ll highlight a few quotes and “unpack” them.  And I’ll start with a quote that emblemizes one of the highlights of this unusual conversation: honesty.

One: “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative...but I have never been a right-winger.” 

Pope Francis is speaking of his time as a Jesuit regional superior (a k a “provincial”) in Argentina in the 1970s, a tremendously difficult time for him, for the Argentine people and for Argentine Jesuits.  The pope is remarkably frank about what he sees as the failings of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, during that controversy-filled period. 

In the America interview he “accuses himself,” as Jesuits sometimes say, of making rash and hasty decisions.  Later in the article he returns to that theme, saying bluntly that he has realized that in his life the first decision he makes “is usually the wrong thing.”  Without delving into the choices that the pope made during his time as a Jesuit provincial (at the extremely young age of 36, which he calls “crazy”), what strikes me about this self-examination is its refreshing and almost embarrassing candor. 

The former Jesuit provincial does not use the circumlocution “Mistakes were made.” Nor does he remark in an offhand way, “Things could have been done better.” Rather, the pope offers a blunt assessment of himself as a Jesuit superior and an imperfect human being who “created problems.”  Part of the Jesuit spiritual tradition—indeed, the Christian spiritual tradition—is an “examination of conscience,” or more generally an examination of one’s moral activity.  Here you can see the leader of the Catholic church doing just that.

To my mind, the church is in good hands with someone able to examine his conscience not only honestly but in the most open way imaginable--in a worldwide interview.

Two: “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality.  I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person.”

During his in-flight media conference from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this summer, Pope Francis made headlines when he uttered his now-famous words, “Who am I to judge?” when asked a question about gay priests in the church. 

At the time, several commentators opined that the pope’s words were not only uninteresting (since the pope did not change any church teaching on homosexuality), they were also limited, applying only, they said, to gay priests.  But in our interview, Francis speaks at some length about gay persons in general, and even notes that his comments during the in-flight conference referred to gay persons, not simply gay priests: “During the return flight I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”

The new interview continues his open and pastoral stance towards gays and lesbians.  Notice, too, the gentle tone of the rest of his response to the question posed by the interviewer: “Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.  In life, God accompanied persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.  It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”  While none of this changes church teaching, the Pope’s words have changed the way that church speaks to and about gay persons.  And that is new. 

There is a reason why many gay Catholics have told me that they feel more welcome in the church these days.  There is a reason why people like Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, recently told his priests to be more “sensitive” when speaking to gays and lesbians.

Pope Francis leads with mercy.  Mercy has been from hallmark of his papacy from its earliest days.  The America interview shows a gentle pastor who looks upon people as individuals, not categories. 

Three: “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

Here is something new, as far as I know.  While the phrase “thinking with the church” may be unfamiliar to some observers, it is well known by Jesuits and Catholic scholars.  In his classic text The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, lays out his famous “Rules for Thinking [or Feeling] with the Church,” an invitation for a person to incorporate himself or herself deeply into the life of the church and align himself in the most profound way with the church’s teaching.  It is a long list of suggestions, which mainly concern praising the church and supporting it.  The most famous passage from this section of the Exercises is that even if a person perceives something as white, he or she should “believe it to be black” if the church determines it. 

That last line is often used as a warning--or a threat--against those who are seen as “not in line” with one or another church pronouncement.  It is also used as an argument for blind obedience.

Pope Francis, as a former Jesuit novice director and provincial, knows the Spiritual Exercises very, very well.  In our interview, the pope gives the expression, “thinking with the church” a new interpretation, and frankly one that I had never before heard.  The church, says the Pope, is the “totality of God’s people,” pastors and people together, not just the hierarchy.  So thinking with the church, he says, is not simply thinking with the hierarchy.  In this we hear echoes of the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the church not as a top-down organization, but something broader: in a beautiful phrase, the church is the “People of God.”  

Francis’s understanding of “thinking with the church” is a more capacious definition than I have ever heard, certainly from a pope—and I’m speaking not simply of recent popes but of popes since the time of Ignatius in the 16th century.  Perhaps only Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit who understands the Spiritual Exercises, and who now occupies the papacy, could say this. 

Four: “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

This quote illuminates a part of the tradition sometimes forgotten by Catholics today.  Theologians call this the “hierarchy of truths,” a kind of ladder of beliefs in order of their importance.  The simplest example would be this: Agreeing with what your local pastor says about a Sunday Gospel reading is not on par with believing in the Resurrection.  The latter is essential for belief and communion in the church; the former much less so.  (Catholics know this in their bones—otherwise there wouldn’t be so many who disagree with the Sunday homilies!)

But when you mention the “hierarchy of truths,” some Catholics grow uneasy, suspicious that you are somehow watering down church teaching. But the pope makes it clear that he understands this important tradition. 

Pope Francis also says that the church’s teaching is not to be a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”  In other words—as I read what he’s saying--while belief is essential, the transmission of these beliefs is not to be forced upon people. Christianity remains a religion primarily of invitation, and not simply an invitation to adhere to certain beliefs, but more importantly an invitation to encounter a person: Jesus Christ.

Five: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, he will find nothing.”

Pope Francis is comfortable with gray.  In the interview, he speaks out against what he calls a “doctrinal security” and offers a gentle critique of those who “stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists.” Pope Francis asks Catholics to move away from a church that “locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”  Instead he invites Catholics, and invites the church, into the world of uncertainty, which is where most of us live anyway. 

This is the world into which Jesus walked: the real world, in which people experience uncertainty and confront the need to make decisions.  It is the milieu of the everyday believer.  Jesus entered this world in the first century, and the church must be comfortable in that same world today.

But there is one thing of which Pope Francis is sure.  In the best Jesuit tradition, which asks us to “find God in all things,” the pope speaks movingly of his commitment to finding God in every human being.  That is his certainty.  For me, this was the most moving part of the entire interview: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.  God is in everyone’s life…Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.” 

Six: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition.  It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre.  I am a sinner.”

Many may be struck not only by what the Pope says, but how he says it.  Throughout, the tone of the interview is open, gentle, conversational, thoughtful, and above all friendly.  It is also completely frank, as, alongside his faith, the Pope repeatedly underscores his own limitations.

At the very beginning of the interview, in answer to the question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he answers, “I am a sinner.” 

I was surprised that the Pope doesn’t use the traditional Jesuit way of expressing this idea.  Normally, a Jesuit would say that he is a “loved sinner” or a “sinner redeemed by Christ.”  No, the pope is more critical of himself.  No sugarcoating here.  Of course Pope Francis knows that he is redeemed by God, and he knows he is loved by God.  But Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, feels in his bones that he is a sinner: imperfect, flawed and struggling. 

As are we all. 

Maybe that’s what makes him so loved, and so eager to love.

--James Martin, SJ

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