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James Martin, S.J.July 14, 2015
Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Asuncion to Rome July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“It’s an error of mine,” said Pope Francis yesterday, en route from his visit to South America back to the Vatican. The Pope’s in-flight media conferences have become a genre in themselves, a vivid example of the “New Evangelization,” and journalists have learned to expect the casual bombshell. His comment “Who am I to judge?” referring to gay priests, was first uttered during one of these conversations.

But the pope’s recent admission of error was striking. He had been asked by a reporter why he didn’t speak more frequently about the middle class (as opposed to his speaking frequently about the excesses of the rich and the rights of the poor.) 

His response was the opposite of what many expect from a public official, that is, defense, denial or backpedaling. Instead, he said in the interview, “Thank you so much. It’s a good correction, thanks. You are right. It’s an error of mine not to think about this. I will make some comment but not to justify myself. You’re right. I have to think a bit.”

It’s refreshing to hear a public official admit that he or she is wrong. And it’s not the first time a pope has done this, and certainly not the first time that Pope Francis has. In an interview with America magazine in 2013 shortly after his election, he ruefully recalled his time as Jesuit Provincial, or regional superior, of Argentina, and spoke of his errors at length. “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults…. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems.” 

Moreover, it’s imperative for a Christian to admit that he or she is wrong. Why? For a number of reasons.

First, we need to apologize for sinful behaviors, which are—in one way of looking at it—errors. Needless to say, we should distinguish between “wrong” and “sinful.” Pope Francis was not “sinning” by not peppering his speeches and homilies with references to the middle class. But in many cases an admission of wrongdoing is an admission of sin, and Catholic theology emphasizes the need to confess sins honestly, seek forgiveness and do penance.

We need to admit wrongdoing on both an individual level and a corporate level. The latter was demonstrated in South America when the pope apologized for “grave sins” and crimes that the church committed against native peoples during the colonial period. 

Second, admitting mistakes is a salutary reminder that we’re not perfect. Particularly for those in leadership roles, to whom others frequently defer, look to for guidance, as well as admire and even adore, the temptation to grandiosity may be high. (People call him “Your Holiness,” after all.) 

Admitting you’re wrong is a healthy way to embrace humility and resist the tendency to grandiosity and even the temptation to Messiahism. As my spiritual director likes to say, “There is Good News and there is Better News. The Good News is: there is a Messiah. The Better News is: it’s not you.” Grandiosity and Messiahism are traps in the spiritual life. Because they say: first, you don’t need God and, second, you are God.

Third, admitting that you could do things better also makes practical sense. Listening to criticisms with an open mind, as the pope showed he does, changing course and rejiggering things is a good management strategy. It helps to prevent you (and your organization) from stultifying. The opposite is to deny that you need critique, and court ossification and irrelevance.

Where does the pope’s willingness to admit that he needs to change course come from? A good deal may flow from his Jesuit background. (You knew I was going to say that, I bet.)

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, has occasionally been described as the “Patron Saint of Plan B.” If you know something about his life, you’ll see endless succession of admitting his errors, rethinking his plans and recalibrating his goals. And he did so largely without feeling that he had (a) failed or (b) failed to discern God’s will. 

For example, as a young man growing up the Basque country of present-day Spain he had a great desire to be a knight. He sets out to do this, serving first as a page and then as a knight to a local viceroy. All that seemed clear until a battle in Pamplona in 1521, when a cannonball shattered his leg, and he was forced to recuperate at his family’s castle. Now what? Well: change. On to Plan B, even though he had no idea what Plan B would be. 

In time, Plan B was revealed to him. As Ignatius recuperates, he reads books on the lives of the saints and the life of Christ, and feels a desire well up in him to emulate the saints. So he sets out on a path of conversion, which leads him to relinquish his dreams of being a knight, and, in time, leads him to a small cave in Manresa, where he undergoes a series of mystical experiences that convinces him of the rightness of his path. 

In Manresa Ignatius decides that the best way to reach God is to live austerely, and he undergoes some severe mortifications in terms of his diet and his personal care. But eventually, he realizes that this is a mistake: he is damaging his health. So another change. Plan B was to care for his health. And this lesson would have corporate implications as well: he later placed stipulations in the Jesuit Constitutions that Jesuits care for their health.

Plan B taught him something. In fact, when St. Francis of Assisi was diagnosed with problems in his eyes, exacerbated by weeping brought on by his prayer, he was told by physicians to stop weeping. He didn’t: he felt that he'd rather go blind than give up these spiritual consolations. When Ignatius had the same problem, on the other hand, he was told by his physicians to stop crying at Mass and he did. Again, he was not afraid of change. Nor was he afraid of doing things differently than had been done before.

Later in his life, in perhaps the most striking example of a reversal of course, Ignatius resolves that he will become a pilgrim to the Holy Land. After a series of harrowing adventures, he reaches the Holy Land—only to be told by the Franciscan caretakers that it’s too dangerous for him to be there, and he needs to leave. He says he will only go if they order him under pain of sin. So they do. Plan B was to return home. 

For the rest of his life, Ignatius is continually reassessing things and reverting to Plan B. After he gathers a group of men around him at the University of Paris, the group that become the core of the Society of Jesus, they decide to go to the Holy Land. (For Ignatius, again.) But that didn’t work out, again, so, again Plan B. They would present themselves to the pope, who would tell them where he wanted them to go. Finally, Ignatius wanted to simply to be just another member of the Society like all the rest, and go where needed. But Plan B: he was elected superior general, had to run the order, and spent the rest of his life in Rome.

So saying “I’m in error” and being open to a new way of proceeding is not surprising for Jesuits. Because we wouldn’t be here without any of those changes in St. Ignatius Loyola’s life. He’d probably be someone who worked in obscurity in the Holy Land, and probably didn’t found a religious order. 

And we wouldn’t have the pope we do now.

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Rosemary McHugh
8 years 9 months ago
Thankyou for this thoughtful reflection on the way of proceeding of Jesuit Pope Francis and how it parallel's the way of proceeding in the life of St Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatian Spirituality is very real and reflective of life in God in the present moment. It is this openness and flexibility to life in the present moment that will help the Church, that is, all the baptized, to discern the signs of our times. There has been a tremendous tension between those who want an unchanging Church and those who are open to a changing and renewing Church. As a family physician, I hope and pray that our Western Catholic Church will become more like the Eastern Catholic Church, by that I mean that the Church hopefully will become more like a hospital, as Pope Francis has desired it to be, and less like a courtroom. A physician cares for all in need, with no judgement about whether the person is worthy of care. Why does the Church pick and choose who it will care for, like a judge in a court of law? Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, MD, MSpir
Annette Giannini
8 years 9 months ago
Pope Francis' willingness to admit to making errors may be attributed also to the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. In his Admonitions, St. Francis wrote, "Blessed is the servant who is not quick to excuse himself and who humbly accepts shame and blame for a sin, even though he did not commit any fault." In this way Pope Francis' saying, "I'm in error," is yet another demonstration of his deep humility.
norman ravitch
8 years 8 months ago
Forget St. Francis! The pope simply knows what every Catholic should know. The pope's infallibility is strictly limited to doctrinal matters.
Rebecca Krier
8 years 9 months ago
Excellent little essay. Freely admitting wrong also unchains us from the ego and the black hole of defensiveness. It's a beautiful way to move on from the past: "I was wrong! Now what?" Plan B!

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