Pope Francis’ focus on the Bible and mercy—and why so many Catholics are uncomfortable with it
I was writing for America in March 2013 when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. The excitement at the magazine around his election was palpable. Pope Francis’ first major public statement was an interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., published in America as “A Big Heart Open to God.” This wide-ranging, honest and heartfelt interview just ratcheted up the excitement for the new pope, not only at America, but throughout the Catholic world. “A Big Heart Open to God” was later published as a book by Harper One with reflections offered by a number of writers. I contributed a short reflection on the pope’s interview and its biblical themes, simply called “The Pope’s Interview and the Bible.”
Ten years on from the pope’s election, I participated in an international conference in May 2023 at St. Mark’s College, the Catholic college at the University of British Columbia, called “Pope Francis and the Future of the Church: Prospects and Challenges for Renewal.” Scholars from North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia gathered to consider and celebrate the pope’s first decade in office. On our conference website we wrote, “Informed by his programmatic exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (‘The Joy of the Gospel’), Francis has set in motion a reform that challenges Catholics to rethink what it means to be the Church in the 21st century.”
Our conference considered Pope Francis’ legacy and the synodal path down which he is guiding us. Now, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the publication of A Big Heart Open to God, I want to revisit my short reflection from a decade ago to contemplate the ways in which the Bible has guided Francis’ pontificate—and why Pope Francis’ use of the Bible has created not just joy for many, but fear and even confusion for others.
Francis’ teaching about mercy is also destabilizing because many of us see ourselves on a personal level as worthy of mercy and others unworthy of it.
A biblical inspiration
To give some context for both the joy and fear that has encircled the Francis pontificate, I begin with a healing story from the Gospel of Mark. In the story of the demoniac in Mark 5, after Jesus casts out the demons from the man who lived among the tombs, the people beg Jesus to leave. The demoniac, however, begs to follow Jesus. Jesus refuses him, saying, “go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you” (Mk 5:15).
The theologian Micah Kiel writes about this parable in Reading the Bible in the Age of Francis: “Mercy is the surprise that people don’t want because it means they have no way of predicting what God will do and to whom God will do it.” But for the demoniac, the one shown mercy, it is the surprise that brings joy in abundance. For the people of the region, when they “came to see what it was that had happened…. They became frightened” (Mk 5:14-15). They wanted Jesus to leave.
Some people have been fearful of Pope Francis, wishing him to leave. Much of that fear has emerged from a conviction that Francis is a destabilizing force, shaking the certain foundations of the church’s teaching. I would agree that Francis has been a destabilizing force simply by his welcome of marginalized people of all sorts into the church. But this welcome is simply a return to the mission and ministry of Jesus. We can see this more clearly if we return to examine a few biblical passages that 10 years ago I suspected were behind Francis’ teaching on mercy. We now have more of Pope Francis’ own writings that support my initial perception.
In my article 10 years ago, I noted two passages that emerged in the interview with Father Spadaro as bedrock for Pope Francis: Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 10:25-37. Here I want to explore how Francis has returned to these passages in his subsequent writings. I also want to take up two other passages that he has touched on throughout his pontificate, including one that he hinted at in his initial interview. It is also important to reflect on why mercy, not just in the ministry of Jesus but in the pontificate of Francis, is the surprise that people do not want—but also why it is so significant for the renewal of the church in our age.
While Francis focuses on people who have been marginalized, he does not spend a lot of time on the piety of the religious, except perhaps to excoriate.
In his interview with Father Spadaro, Pope Francisspoke directly of the call of St. Matthew from Matthew 9:9, in which Jesus spots Matthew and says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew followed Jesus and was soon having dinner with him, his disciples and “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9:10). When Jesus was questioned about this, he responded: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13).
The pope spoke about this passage in the context of Caravaggio’s painting of the scene found at the Church of St. Louis of France in Rome (“The Calling of St. Matthew”): “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” The pope went on to explain, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
I wrote then that “in identifying with the sinners Pope Francis classifies his primary identity as a person who has been saved by God’s mercy, not as a religious expert.” This self-identification is precisely where it can be so difficult for those who identify themselves as religiously superior or pure. Mercy is for other people who need it, but not for me. Francis came back to this theme at a general audience on April 13, 2016:
We are all sinners, we have all sinned. By calling Matthew, Jesus shows sinners that he does not look at their past, at their social status, at external conventions, but rather, he opens a new future to them.... The church is not a community of perfect people, but of disciples on a journey, who follow the Lord because they know they are sinners and in need of his pardon. Thus, Christian life is a school of humility which opens us to grace.
Francis says that “such behavior is not understood by those who have the arrogance to believe they are ‘just’ and to believe they are better than others. Hubris and pride do not allow one to recognize him- or herself as in need of salvation, but rather prevent one from seeing the merciful face of God and from acting with mercy.” Francis calls this path of the Lord’s mercy “a mystery; God’s heart is the greatest and most beautiful mystery. If you want to make your way to God’s heart, take the road of mercy, and allow yourself [to] be treated with mercy.” Francis has destabilized those who consider themselves religiously superior by taking his primary identity as a sinner saved by God’s grace and returning us all to Jesus’ own teaching on mercy.
This leads to the parable of the good Samaritan, which was also discussed in “A Big Heart Open to God.” Here is what Pope Francis said about the church as field hospital in that interview:
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all…. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
The story of the good Samaritan, I wrote then, stands as the most likely passage behind this section because of the emphasis on “heal the wounds, heal the wounds” of the “seriously injured person,” and “we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
In “Fratelli Tutti,” especially Nos. 56 through 79, the pope affirms the centrality of the good Samaritan parable:
The parable eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world. In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan. Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside (No. 67).
The parable does not “indulge in abstract moralizing, nor is its message merely social and ethical. It speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfillment that can only be found in love,” he continues. “We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity” (No. 68).
Pope Francis: “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.”
But while Francis focuses on people who have been marginalized, he does not spend a lot of time on the piety of the religious, except perhaps to excoriate. This is where so much opposition to him emerges. “One detail about the passers-by does stand out: they were religious, devoted to the worship of God: a priest and a Levite. This detail should not be overlooked. It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God,” he says (No. 74).
“A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practicing the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters,” Francis continued. “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (No. 74). Mercy is God’s grace poured out on undeserving humanity for no other reason than God’s love, not our worthiness. Our task is to show mercy to others, just as God has shown us mercy.
Matthew 18: 21-35
We can see how God’s mercy grounds human mercy by examining the parable of the unmerciful slave from Matthew 18:21-35. The pope has delivered at least three homilies on this passage, writing that “in the parable we find two different attitudes: God’s—represented by the king who forgives a lot, because God always forgives—and the human person’s. The divine attitude is justice pervaded with mercy, whereas the human attitude is limited to justice. Jesus exhorts us to open ourselves with courage to the strength of forgiveness, because in life not everything can be resolved with justice. We know this.”
Further, the pope wrote, “[t]here is a need for that merciful love, which is also at the basis of the Lord’s answer to Peter’s question, which precedes the parable. Peter’s question goes like this: ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?’ And Jesus replies, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.’ In the symbolic language of the Bible this means that we are called to forgive always.” It is difficult to give the full sense of how absurd the forgiveness of sins is in this parable: By my calculations, the unmerciful slave owes in the range of $6 billion, while he is owed the equivalent of around three months’ wages.
In “Gaudete et Exsultate,” No. 82, Pope Francis says that “we need to think of ourselves as an army of the forgiven. All of us have been looked upon with divine compassion. If we approach the Lord with sincerity and listen carefully, there may well be times when we hear his reproach: ‘Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (Mt 18:33).” We should not underestimate the extent of God’s mercy, but neither should we underestimate our own need for mercy. Whenever we see ourselves as having earned our salvation, we forget our own primary roles as sinners and begin the process of judging others as sinners unworthy of mercy or salvation. God’s mercy is the beginning and the end of salvation. Mercy is not what someone else needs, it is what I need. This is when we start to grasp mercy.
God’s mercy is the beginning and the end of salvation. Mercy is not what someone else needs, it is what I need.
In the interview with Father Spadaro, Pope Francis said:
Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
I pointed out 10 years ago that the word Emmaus is referencing a passage from Luke 24, where Jesus walks alongside his discouraged disciples, though they do not recognize him. When they later recognize him, they say, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32). At the end of my 2013 article, I wrote, “to recognize Jesus, though, you need an encounter and for that you need an introduction. Mercy seems like a good way to introduce people to Jesus.” And that has been at the heart of Francis’ pontificate.
In “Laudato Si’,” Francis writes that “our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us” (No. 84). Francis goes on to speak of the gaze of Jesus: “with moving tenderness he would remind them that each one of them is important in God’s eyes: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God’ (Lk 12:6)” (No. 90). In the qal wahomer argument (an argument from the minor to the major matter) so commonly used by Jesus, how much more are human beings worthy of God’s mercy and care than sparrows?
If mercy seems like the best way to introduce people to Jesus and it is grounded in Jesus’ own teaching, why has Francis’ teaching received so much opposition?
Why the opposition?
If mercy seems like the best way to introduce people to Jesus and it is grounded in Jesus’ own teaching and, fundamentally, the being of God, why has Francis’ teaching received so much opposition? Francis notes in “Gaudete et Exsultate” that “Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance” (No. 90). Francis says that “for Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease” (No. 99). In other words, destabilization.
Mercy is the surprise (at least some) people do not want because it carries the seeds of unease, of uncertainty. Francis’ teaching about mercy is also destabilizing because many of us, whatever theology we claim, see ourselves on a personal level as worthy of mercy and others unworthy of it. That is, however much we understand that mercy is the outpouring of God’s gratuitous, unearned love, many of us still hold that we, however, as individuals, have somehow merited or earned it, unlike others. Mercy is surprising, and even frightening, especially when it is poured out on those we deem most unworthy. Those who are on a quest for certainty, or feel they have arrived at it, stumble on God’s absolutely gratuitous mercy.
Pope Francis writes the following in “Evangelii Gaudium”:
In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives (No. 43).
That statement can be frightening—a surprise that challenges our certainties, our ways of doing things big and small. It asks us to rest not in our own security and certainties but in the love and mercy of God. But as our own sense of security and certainty crumble, Francis asks that we keep our vision fixed on God, for the ongoing reform of the church, he writes, must demonstrate “an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved” (“E.G.”, No. 24).
Pope Francis told us who he was from the beginning, On the pope’s coat of arms is the phrase “Miserando atque Eligendo,” “By Having Mercy, by Choosing Him.” And so we come back to the beginning: “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.”