What meeting Pope Francis taught me about pastoral care
“Pastoralidad.” Pope Francis used this word three times in America’s exclusive interview with him, published in this issue. We translated it twice as “pastoral dimension” and once as “pastoral care,” but a more literal rendering would be something like “pastorality”—because pastoralidad is not a normal word in Spanish any more than pastorality is in English. Yet as soon as you hear it, you know what it means, or at least you think you do. And then you find you are still thinking about it weeks later.
Friends, family members and colleagues here at America all asked me what it was like to meet Pope Francis. I think they expected, and to some degree I did too, some kind of notable spiritual consolation or a rush of feeling in response to meeting the successor of Peter. That was, however, not the case. As my colleague Kerry Weber wrote in her online article describing the “behind the scenes” of the interview (Nov. 28), the most surprising thing about meeting Francis was how normal being with him feels.
This is not to say that meeting the pope and talking with him was not consoling and profound; of course it was. The thing that came across in person, though—the thing that I have realized I have been missing in all the reports I have read over the years about what Francis has said—was not some overall aura of saintliness, but rather a quality of attention and focus, a glimpse of where Francis himself is conscious of holy mystery.
In speaking of pastoralidad, and more broadly when speaking of the work of pastors, Francis has an intensity and a reverence that a transcript cannot capture.
And that is why I have been thinking about pastoralidad for the past two weeks. After we left the interview, I checked with friends and colleagues whose Spanish is fluent. I wondered whether Spanish simply had a word for “pastorality” that English could only approximate, but it turns out that Francis was reaching for the word even in his native Spanish. I realized that I had some sense of this even during the interview—because in speaking of pastoralidad, and more broadly when speaking of the work of pastors, Francis has an intensity and a reverence that a transcript cannot capture.
It is similar to hearing a friend try to describe a powerful experience in prayer. Or to hearing someone try to express the feeling of a sacrament. Even though the words cannot fully carry the feeling, and the feeling is anyway only pointing at a greater reality, there is still something powerfully holy, something that calls for reverence, in hearing someone try to name it.
That is what it felt like when Pope Francis spoke about pastoralidad.
Pastoral considerations can often be treated as secondary—a layer of accommodation to practical constraints and limits after the real theological work is done at a higher level. And such practical adaptations are necessary and vital. But the “pastoral dimension,” however we might translate it, is far more than that.
Francis is constantly reminding the church that there is such a “pastoral mystery,” a depth of God’s tender and compassionate closeness to us that we will never be done exploring.
Francis has spoken frequently about a triad that he refers to as “God’s style”: “closeness, compassion and tenderness.” He means that it is God who pastors first; the Father draws close to our humanity in the gift of the Son and the Holy Spirit draws us into their love. That is the model—or even better, the mystery—that pastoralidad attempts, haltingly, to name. Rather than practical considerations “limiting” otherwise absolute theological truths, God’s own pastoral closeness to us and our call to embody such compassion ourselves is the central theological truth Pope Francis keeps returning to.
Theology uses the word “mystery” to name truths whose richness is beyond human comprehension, springs that do not run dry no matter how much water flows from them. And Francis is constantly reminding the church that there is such a “pastoral mystery,” a depth of God’s tender and compassionate closeness to us that we will never be done exploring.
But it is difficult to sustain such attention. Even in this interview, Francis himself does not always stay grounded in pastoral response. In his response to a question about what he would say to a woman who feels called to the priesthood, he spoke about Petrine and Marian principles in the church. I wish his attention had been more concretely pastoral, focused as much on accompanying a woman in that experience as on setting out a theological framework for understanding it. Not because I assume such accompaniment would necessarily lead to a different theological answer—but because deep pastoral attention to the person leads us closer to God.
And Francis is always calling us to draw closer to God by paying attention to how God works with us. In his answer on polarization, Francis said that the Spirit “does not reduce everything to one value,” but rather “harmonizes differences.” His attention to and reverence for pastoral realities helped me see that the Spirit does not make such harmony by writing out the full sheet music ahead of time, but instead by having us sing together.