Francis in ‘America’: A historic papal interview draws world-wide reaction

Editor’s note: The historic interview with Pope Francis (Am. 9/30) has generated a great deal of dialogue in the church and in society at large. We asked several writers to offer their reactions to the pope’s words. Selections from these responses are printed below. The full versions of these pieces can be read here.

Francis as Witness

Each of us needs to take time to reflect on how to respond to this “extemporaneous encyclical,” as the commentator Michael Gerson calls it. But even now, as a diocesan bishop for 15 years, I can already identify some areas of my ministry of teaching, sanctifying and governing that will benefit. These initially come to mind:

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1) Catechesis, preaching and passing on the faith must not only be about educating the members of our communities in the content of our tradition. This is important, but it must equally be about developing their spiritual sensitivity to the ways God manifests his presence and action in the world. Schooling people in the ways of ongoing discernment produces a greater receptivity to the tradition of the church and at the same time creates the freedom that will make them more responsive to the will of God throughout their lives. This balance is in keeping with the Lord’s great commission: “Go teach and make disciples.”

2) Pope Francis’ emphasis on ongoing discernment of the action and will of the ever-merciful One has implications also for our worship and the promotion of communion among Christians. As the source and summit of Christian life, the liturgy needs to be the celebration that reveals his saving and redeeming work taking place through and in the midst of the people called to be his own. Reflecting that aspiration more fully in our multicultural communities makes the task of inculturation all the more urgent.

3) Similarly, instead of a minimalist approach to promoting ecumenism by healing differences and reconciling the past, the work of Christian unity becomes foremost an opportunity to look for how God is working in our separated brothers and sisters and “recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”

4) Collaborative governance needs to be more than calling on the advice and competence of others to make up for our episcopal shortcomings. Rather, governance involves seeking how God is revealing his work through others in the community. Rather than limiting our consultation to those with financial and legal abilities, we also need to listen to those who work side by side with the poor each day, and who are on the front lines in health care, education and other fields of ministry. We diminish our effectiveness when we do not call on these brothers and sisters to gain insight before making decisions in these areas. But even more important, we pass up the chance to see how God is working through them and to more fully know God’s will.

Francis offers the witness of one who has personally internalized and who himself lives what he preaches or proclaims. This is the essential feature of true evangelization, which Paul VI had in mind in “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (1975). The modern person “listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Ultimately, it is only the witness who convinces people, not the teacher.

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Most Reverend Blase J. Cupich is the bishop of the Diocese of Spokane, Wash.

A Vatican II Pope

Francis is the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit pope, the first to take the name Francis. He is also the first pope in 50 years who did not participate in the Second Vatican Council. And that is good news! Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all participated in the council. During their pontificates they had to deal with the battles of the council. Francis is above that. Not having participated, he was freer to get the council’s basic message, and he has been putting it into action by word and deed ever since his election.

The council was more concerned with how the church is rather than what it is, even if those two things cannot really be separated. The council was concerned with how the church behaves, how it bears itself toward its members and those who are not members. Does it behave first and foremost as the loving mother of all, or does it behave as the world’s moral policeman? Francis has clearly chosen the former.

But is he really going to change things? Well, don’t you think he has already changed things—big time? In choosing the name Francis, he wrote his first encyclical in a way more powerful than any written document. He did the same when he washed the feet of the Muslim woman.

There is an old saying you may be familiar with: actions speak louder than words. There is another: who you are thunders so loud I cannot hear what you are saying. By his actions Francis has been revealing himself, and those actions have for six months been thundering through the church and the world beyond it.

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John W. O’Malley, S.J., is university professor in the theology department of Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and author of What Happened at Vatican II.

One Human Family

When Pope Francis decided to live at Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse, instead of the traditional papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, many lauded him for his simplicity and rejection of perceived luxury. While he is indeed a humble man, Francis gives another reason for his decision to remain at Santa Marta: his yearning for a strong sense of community. “I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”

Francis bears testimony to this interpersonal spirituality not only in his words but in his visits around Italy. Earlier this month, Pope Francis visited the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome. Standing with the refugees, many of them fleeing horrific violence, he stated, “To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity. Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it’s our word!” Our word—Pope Francis is continuously pushing us beyond the comforts of our religious boundaries to encounter the one human family.

The pope’s recognition that my humanity is bound up with his and with those suffering in poverty is the pastoral message America needs most today. The United States is experiencing a crisis of community, evidenced by the House of Representatives recent vote to cut $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Can we say solidarity is “our word” when our country is so individualistic that we do not feel a moral responsibility to feed the hungry? The Gospel and Pope Francis remind us that Christ entered into our community by becoming vulnerable and going to the margins.

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Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University. 

The Work of a Christian Lifetime

Pope Francis has become for many of us a living example of the very healthy fruits of the “discernment of spirits” that Paul speaks of (1 Cor 12:10) and the Society of Jesus has so skillfully unpackaged for the church universal.

The result is a subtlety that we have not come to expect from the hierarchy, an intelligence that is nondualistic and contemplative, an amazing courage that could only be sustained by very real prayer and a compassion that has become a challenge and inspiration to all of us. Pope Francis is not dismissing the old, but like all true prophets he is revealing what the Big Tradition was really saying all along. Looking at much of our Catholic past, I can only think of Jesus’ words to the people of Jerusalem: “How often I have longed to gather the children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it” (Mt 23:38). Now we cannot get enough of it! We have a pope who gathers instead of scatters (Lk 11:23).

As a teacher of contemplative prayer and the contemplative mind, I have come to believe that the Western church has put far too much effort and fight into metaphysics (“What certainly is”) and not nearly enough energy into practical epistemology (“How do you know what you think you know about what certainly is?”). This has made most of us victims of our own temperament and prejudices, while presuming we are speaking for the truly catholic. Far too often it has been our small mind’s understanding and very recent traditions that have had to pass for “what eternally is.” Ironically, it is Pope Francis’ ability to critique his own mind (“discernment”) that enables him to trust his own experience, while also balancing it with Scripture and Tradition.

The Gospel cautions us: “Be careful how you listen” (Lk 8:18). Pope Francis is emerging as a giant corrective to so much of our small seeing and listening by telling us that the first Christian hearing aid and lens through which we receive the moment must always be nothing less than the ears and eyes of love. It is almost too simple, and yet as we have all learned, it is the hard work of a whole Christian lifetime. Pope Francis appears to be the work of art that emerges after a whole Christian lifetime. The world loves to look at it.

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Richard Rohr, O.F.M., is the author of many books on spirituality, including Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

‘I Am A Sinner’

‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech.... I am a sinner.” Our pope’s admissions and gestures of humility have become one of his trademarks. Francis’ humility, however, is not like Uriah Heep’s: a purely formal show of being “ever so ‘umble.” Instead, it expresses a central conviction of the Christian faith. As we now know, Cardinal Bergoglio accepted his election to the papacy with the words: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And these whispered words, I realized on reading the interview, help to explain many of the pope’s more pyrotechnic utterances.

For the Christian, the searing guilt one feels for one’s sins is, or ought to be underwritten with hope in the One who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4). With great sorrow at having sinned, comes the greater appreciation of him who is able, and willing, to forgive us. Thus the famous words of 1 Tm 1:15: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Or as Paul writes in Romans, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20). From Paul and Augustine, right down to Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, it is always the saints who are most painfully aware of how sinful they are, of how desperately they need God’s mercy.

If “sin” is a concept that has fallen out of fashion, word seems not to have reached Casa Santa Marta. Francis uses it often, and not only when speaking candidly of his own “faults and...sins.” Elsewhere in the interview, he speaks of “the life of a human person” as “a land full of thorns and weeds,” and—developing Augustine—outlines his vision of the church as a “field hospital” administering first aid (“Heal the wounds, heal the wounds”). Behind each of these images, of course, is a Gospel idea: “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth” that risk choking out the sower’s word (Mk 4:19), and Christ’s declaration that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17).

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Stephen Bullivant is senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St. Mary’s University College, England. His books include Faith and Unbelief and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism.

In Need of Mercy

For those deeply immersed in the spirituality of Ignatius, being a “sinner” does not mean “having done things wrong” (although that is true). It doesn’t even mean that we will always do things wrong in the future (also true). It means that humans are—at root, ontologically—always in need of the living mercy of God.

This is the reason Pope Francis calls himself a sinner. It is the reason he speaks so relentlessly about mercy. It is because he knows what all women and men who live deeply an Ignatian life know, that God’s mercy reframes our interpretation of everything, institutions included. It does so because, having understood the joy of being wrong, we have learned to hold our own plans loosely so as to be better led by God. This is what St. Ignatius means by another famous spiritual term, “indifference”—the freedom to be led by God into the previously unimaginable.

It is this triptych of mercy-sin-indifference that, I think, makes Francis seem so strange and so attractive to us. It’s also how he can seem both so politically naïve and astute at the same time. All of these things are possible because Pope Francis knows himself as a loved sinner, as a follower of the Christ who is actually setting the direction of our pilgrim church.

Because he knows himself to be a loved sinner, he is able to again and again throw a wrench of mercy into our gears of interpretation. It’s not that he doesn’t care about change, or institutional reform, or theo-political structures, or the mobilization of the Catholic middle. Actually, on second thought, he does not care about any of those in themselves. Or, more accurately, he only cares about them indifferently—only when the God who shows sinners mercy also cares about them first.

All this is to say that Pope Francis is simply not playing by the rules of the game. He is not keeping score, not tallying up points on one side or another of a Vatican II “continuity versus discontinuity” argument. He does not have some secret plan either to reform doctrine or to pacify the prophets among us with charm. He simply does not care about any of that. He only cares about proclaiming God’s merciful love for sinners, and from that everything can follow.

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Patrick J. Gilger, S.J., founding editor in chief of The Jesuit Post, is the associate pastor of St. John’s Parish at Creighon University in Omaha, Neb. A longer version of this comment appeared at WashingtonPost.com. 

An Ongoing Conversation

If America were to commission me for a follow-up conversation with Pope Francis, here are some of the questions I would raise. 

Holy Father, in the first conversation you seem more critical of “restorationists” and “legalists” than of “relativists” (who so troubled your illustrious predecessor). You do briefly refer to “relativism,” only to posit that the God of the Bible, whom we encounter on the journey (“nel cammino”), transcends relativism. I think the many eavesdroppers on the conversation would profit greatly from further elucidation of your thinking in this regard. How can we speak today of the God revealed in Jesus Christ as “absolute”?

You also issue a powerful call to the Society that bears Jesus’ name to be “de-centered” from itself and ever centered upon “Christ and his church.” But what are the implications of claiming Christ as center? Does it not impel us beyond narrative to engage questions of truth, beyond practice to its contemplative foundation? Having followed your homilies at Casa Santa Marta on the Letter to the Colossians, proclaiming Christ as “the image of the invisible God...in whom all things hold together,” I can certainly anticipate your response. But your further reflections on this theme would much enrich and challenge the continuing conversation, especially among those standing in “the courtyard of the gentiles.” 

At the close of your conversation, Father Spadaro posed a question about changes in human self-understanding over the centuries. You endorsed his point and instanced works of art from different historical periods to illustrate the fact. At the same time, as an astute spiritual director, you admit that men and women are often prone to self-deception. May I urge that we would all derive considerable profit from a further conversation that sets forth those principles that can guide our discernment of what constitutes authentic human flourishing. For, as I remind my own students, “finding God in all things” is the fruit of the first three weeks of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, not the point of departure.

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Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, teaches theology at Boston College. He was on the founding committee of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Catholic Common Ground Initiative. 

A Pope Engaged With the World

In his interview with America one glimpses the pope as an inquisitive child, as a young man called to the priesthood, as a priest with so much potential that he was promoted to leadership too early and made some mistakes in governance. From his mistakes, however, he has learned to listen, to value collaboration and to practice discernment. The pope reveals himself as a complex person. He is a holy man of prayer, an empathetic pastor, a discerning Jesuit, a family man deeply influenced by his grandmother and a loving father who as “il papa” eagerly cares for his “children” in the church. He is also the director of a field hospital whose mission is to heal the world’s wounded with the Gospel.

It seems to me that the media’s convergence on a single point from this long interview as “the news”—namely, the pope’s desire to change (or at least put on hold) the church’s obsession with moral condemnations of sex-related sins—confirms the pope’s insight that the church’s priorities urgently need fixing. Pope Francis gets it. He understands what is vital: how others see the church and why that matters; what the contemporary world needs from the church; how the people of God together ensure the faith (infallibly, he says); what synods and local bishops’ conferences could contribute, if empowered; and how the Curia should help church leaders rather than run the church. Hooray!

Even if only a few of these insights were to be actualized, the church would be improved immensely. Some doors and windows might be opened again, a welcome mat rolled out. If it is not too late, young people might even give the church a look.

What strikes me as most lasting is the pope’s personal example. Like Francis, the beloved saint, Pope Francis seems truly to love the people of this world. He embodies the compassion of Jesus, which attracts followers, not just fans, and changes lives. This pope wants to walk with us, says he needs us to be his “community.” And this same pope who relishes great art, books, films and music has an ear attuned to the cry of the poor and wants to serve them. History will remember that.

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Karen Sue Smith is the former editorial director of America

The People of God

Of the images of the church that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, the people of God was the most important and the most popular. For almost 20 years, it was a constant in the Catholic vocabulary, even entering into the liturgy. But from the beginning, it was regarded as suspect.

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles worried, in Models of the Church, about its democratizing subtext. Others probably feared it as subversive of hierarchical authority. John Paul II neglected it, preferring the magisterial (institutional) model of the church, and sometimes even the teaching church seemed to be reduced to the pope alone.

For me the real news, potentially the most church-renewing news in Pope Francis’ interview, is his revival of the understanding of the church as the people of God. No longer an institution or, worse, an office, the church is “a community, a web of relations.” Francis embraces the model of the church that the late Cardinal Dulles called his own favorite, “a community of disciples.”

For me the other headline in the Francis interview is the re-focusing of the church on the Gospel. God’s love is the center once more of the church’s preaching. Morality has a place, but it is secondary to the Gospel of God’s love and mercy. To be sure, what Pope John Paul II called “the Gospel of Life” has a place in the church’s proclamation, as it has had from the beginning. But it is not the central message, and what Pope Francis calls the “obsession” with sexual morality has distorted Catholic pastoral theology and practice and social ministry, especially in the United States.

Like the Gospel of Jesus itself, the Gospel Francis preaches also shows up the Pharisaism of the moral righteousness that seeks to establish public morality according to abstract norms without making pastoral allowance for context and persons. Can there be any convincing answer to his question, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”

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Drew Christiansen, S.J., is a former editor in chief of America

The Pope's Priorities

Pope Francis’ interview with America has elicited a flood of commentary, but it has also produced a lot of confusion. Much of the commentary, and virtually all of the confusion, arose from Pope Francis’ remarks about the church’s moral doctrine, particularly, this sentence: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” The fact that so much attention has been paid to the pope’s remarks about these very issues is itself an indication that “the most important thing” the church has to say to the world is not being heard.

The obvious question is, “Why not?”

Christ promised his followers that the world would reject them as it had rejected him. One reason the world does not hear the good news, as Pope Francis is intent on reminding us, is that the Father of Lies never ceases to sow discord and confusion. Sometimes the confusion arises because the world is obstinate, sinful and full of pride. Sometimes it is because the world is simply ignorant of the truth. And sometimes the world’s ignorance and sin is compounded by the impatience, pride and ignorance of Christians like us.

In the case of the recent interview, some of the confusion can be traced to Christians who, in rushing to spin the pope’s words as a decisive victory for this or that political faction, shoe-horned the pope’s words to fit narrow partisan categories, distorting it in the process. This unfortunate, if all-too-predictable distraction found a counterpart in a hyper-defensiveness that in some cases, frankly, demonstrate an insecurity unbecoming for Christian adults—as though the pope’s professing to having “never been a right-winger” (by the standards of Argentina in the 1980s, no less!) was somehow cause for legitimate anxiety about the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

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Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The Call of the Spirit

Pope Francis’ confession that he is a sinner is neither ritual nor formula; it is inscribed in his daily life and actions. Yet it gives him a sense of freedom because it allows him to live always from the infinity of the Lord’s compassionate mercy and embrace. He also knows, personally, that there is here too the gift of freedom—freedom to change, freedom to live beyond the preoccupations of self, in service of the greater need and suffering we encounter in those around us and in our crucified world and planet.

And there is urgency. It is God’s own urgency that searches for us and calls us to another way of being and acting and loving: to follow Christ in his poverty and humility and in his self-surrendering gift (Spiritual Exercises, No. 167). But we do not find this way except by loving Christ. Nothing is more life-giving to us, to the church and to the world; nothing is more countercultural. Although there is a freshness to his words and actions, Francis has said nothing new. Yet his desire to refocus and rebalance us on the dynamic economy of God’s saving love “laboring and working in all things” is not just about style, it is about substance. In a simple, direct, personal way he is presenting us with the reality of a God who does not condemn the world but loves it more than it can believe or imagine (Jn 3:16–17). A God who can enter into the depths of our suffering is not repulsed by our woundedness or disfigurements but meets us wherever and whoever we are, heals us by bringing us ever closer to himself. 

The danger of our cultural battles is that we forget the greatness and the richness of our tradition and its understanding not only of God but also of humanity. Francis is reminding us of both—the God who is always the greater love and calls us into an ever-deeper community of loving responsibility for each other and our planet. As in the Spiritual Exercises, so in the evangelical message of Pope Francis, we are invited to renew our response in person and as a church: “This is to ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for an intimate knowledge of the many blessings received, that filled with gratitude for all, I may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty” (Sp.Ex., No. 233).

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James Hanvey, S.J., a member of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, is a Fellow in Theology at Campion Hall, Oxford, England.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
ROBERT STEWART
4 years 1 month ago
"Pope Francis’ interview with America has elicited a flood of commentary, but it has also produced a lot of confusion," says Stephen White. That statement makes me wonder what world Stephen White resides. He writes as if we had certitude about all things prior to Francis and now we are being confused by one interview. This is nonsense, and it is the nonsense that has frequently been repeated by those who never really accepted the changes in expressing our faith that came with Vatican II, the council that provided a greater focus on the significance of Baptism rather than ordination. As a Catholic who became an adult prior to Vatican Council II and experienced all the hopefulness that came with John XXIII and the Council brought to conclusion by Paul VI, I find that hopefulness now returning to the Church; and I find the hopefulness returning because Francis is helping us understand what the faith we celebrate with Baptism really means and requires of us. For White, faith obviously is primarily concerned with the teachings of the Church that have been dogmatically formulated. Francis is not repudiating any of those truths, but he is assuring us that there is much more to faith than just repeating those truths and advocating for political positions that many with a reactionary orientation find to be comfortable. Francis is putting our faith in a much broader perspective by focusing on what really is good news--God's love and compassion and the power of God present to destroy the forces of death and sin that diminish all of us personally as well as the communities in which we live, making solidarity a possibility. I hear him saying--and I think others hear him saying--that the good news and our faith response is much more than simply opposition to "abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," which has been so much of the focus of the hierarchy. People in the Church rightly want, need and expect much more than rants opposing"abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." People, I believe Francis is saying, may be able to hear that message of opposition after they hear the good news of God's love and mercy and certain triumph over the the forces of death and sin, but they will not hear it until the good news of God's reign is preached and LIVED. Living that faith, as Drew C. points out, is essential
Stephen White
4 years 1 month ago
Mr. Stewart: Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the selections above, which are extracted from longer essays. I would encourage you to read the full texts. You write that I am, "primarily concerned with the teachings of the Church that have been dogmatically formulated." Thankfully, it is not so. My full essay begins and ends (both parts omitted, here) by arguing that the heart of the Gospel is obscured by an over-emphasis--be it real or perceived--on rules. On this point you and I--and Pope Francis--are in complete agreement. Again, I would encourage you to read the full text, which you can find here: http://americamagazine.org/popes-priorities

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