A Pastoral Invitation

When I first read the substantive interview with Pope Francis in America, I was drawn by the pope’s openness, engaging style and repeated call to “go out” and meet people where they are. What is needed, he says, is nearness and proximity to those who are wounded.

This certainly is a theme he has made something of a mantra in his ministry. I also immediately thought of his remarks as a vivid expression of the new evangelization—to present the Gospel in ways “new in ardor, methods and expression” (Blessed John Paul II, Address to the Latin American Episcopal Conference, March 9, 1983). In the interview Pope Francis says: “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

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The more I reflected on his message, it struck me as so very pastoral and precisely what the church needs today. His many references to God’s love for us and Christ’s embrace of us reminded me of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “God Is Love” (2005) but now in a whole new way of saying the same message and never losing sight of the heart of the proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you!

Our Holy Father begins with a remarkable assertion, “I am a sinner,” prompting us to admit that we too are sinners, but, as he adds, “God is greater than sin.” When I read, “The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better,” I could not help but think of Blessed John Paul II’s “Dives in Misericordia” (1980) and “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia” (1984). Clearly this also echoes the Synod of Bishops in October 2012 on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith” that recognized penance as the sacrament of the new evangelization and called for this sacrament to “be put again at the center of the pastoral activity of the Church” (Proposition 33).

The full pastoral focus of both the synod and Pope Francis’ interview is reflected in so many ways. “Those who today always look for disciplinary solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things,” the pope says. “In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”

Reading the interview again—because one really must read it multiple times to take in the richness of the Holy Father’s message—I realized it may be a whole new way for the pope to share his thoughts. This is not so much the pope speaking about what we need to know about the Gospel message as it is how to “do” the Gospel message. Again, it is the embodiment of his many invitations to “go out” to people, to build bridges, not walls, and establish a dialogue with all people, even those who do not embrace all of the church’s teachings. He has invited us to meet people where they are and walk with them on the journey to experience God’s love in very practical ways like an invitation to Mass or a conversation about faith. He shares that it takes “audacity and courage.” As Pope Francis himself has spoken about his own shyness, I feel he knows just how courageous we all need to be.

In this interview we meet the pope as homilist. What came to mind was each priest—in the Sunday homily—trying to present God’s love, inspire acceptance of the Gospel and still meet the members of the congregation in real time. I thought of a lesson we were taught years ago in the seminary. From the pulpit we are expected to proclaim the Gospel message in an unvarnished and clear manner, in all its fullness. But then we are to go out to meet people where they are and try to bring them a little closer to Christ. The interview, in my view, has a way of coming out of the pulpit and taking that next and important pastoral step. It is an old message in a new and exciting form. An interview that expresses pastoral responses to people’s needs is by its nature not meant to have the precision of an encyclical.

In the propositions from the synod on the new evangelization, there is a whole section on the primacy of the kerygma—the good news that Jesus died out of love for us, is risen from the dead and wants to be with each of us today in our life journey (Proposition 9).

The interview, in all its wide-ranging observations, is the call for a new evangelization in action. “Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things,” Pope Francis asserts. “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.”

Over and over again, I heard in the interview echoes of the calls, insistent and persistent during the Synod and the general congregations before the conclave, to speak to the issues that people are struggling with—but first and foremost to bring them an experience, a sense of God’s love. “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” the pope said. “Then we can talk about everything else.”

The third time I read the interview, I focused on a few highly personal elements that really touched me. When the pope spoke about his prayer life, I felt he was actually talking to me. Finding a pattern for prayer—conversation with God—that works in the midst of all the requirements of our pastoral office was so reassuring because it was not abstract. It showed a pastor balancing his personal spiritual life with his ministry. I particularly liked his comments about taking his work with him to the chapel and not seeing this as a distraction. It reminded me of the same advice from a very wise spiritual director.

Going over the pope’s words, I feel so encouraged. It is refreshing to hear, “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.” It is encouraging to hear again, “In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”

While I recognize this is an interview, not an apostolic exhortation, it is still the voice of the bishop of Rome, the pope, who is providing such pastoral emphasis. It is a gift.

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Mike Evans
4 years 1 month ago
See elsewhere the article on 'deliver us from clericalism.' The tone from our last two popes has been condemnatory and depressing. So much emphasis on how people don't follow the rules, misunderstand doctrine, and act in opposition to the gospel. So little praise for those who suffer, those who work tirelessly to relieve suffering, and support the basic human rights to food, shelter, education and freedom. Our new pope seeks to shift that emphasis from judgment to mercy. I pray he succeeds.
James Hooper
4 years 1 month ago
Mike, I recommend you read some of the writings of the past two Popes. I suggest that you'd be challenged to find a condemnatory tone. We must remember that an important role of the pastor, a spiritual father, is to point out the correct direction, especially when he sees the faithful heading to the wide path leading to perdition. Is this not what St. Paul and others are doing in their epistles - exhorting the faithful to BE faithful and adhere to the truths which have been passed on by word of mouth or letter? St. Ignatius would say that if we feel a stinging or biting at our consciences, it is probably because we're on the wrong path.
William Atkinson
4 years 1 month ago
Wow Mike and James that stings!
Francis O'BEACHAIN
4 years 1 month ago
Mike: I followed Benedict XV1 like a groupie, never missed a Mass or Wednesday audience, and read his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth and never once saw any scolding professor or controlling parent. Whatever he did in the CDF and the reputation he received never showed. I saw only a kindly father-teacher, a saintly humble man with a brilliant mind. His genius as a teacher was he made the complex so simple and easy to follow.
William Atkinson
4 years 1 month ago
Great, coming from Washington DC
ROBERT STEWART
4 years 1 month ago
Cardinal Wuerl appears to have been touched by the pastoral sensitivity of Pope Francis. I see this as something very positive, something that will make him more pastoral--hope other American bishops are moved in the same way. But I wonder: If Francis had been Pope a few years ago, when Wuerl, as chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the USCCB, issued the condemnation of the theological work of Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, namely her Quest for the Living God, would he have done all this with greater pastoral sensitivity? Would there have even been a formal and public condemnation, a condemnation that was obviously humiliating to Johnson and made many of us wonder about the quality of justice manifested? It was also a process that was done in secrecy and caught her by surprise, which raised the questions about the quality of justice in the way this was handled. I do not sense that Pope Francis buys into such public condemnations and the conducting of investigations in secret, doing so without consultation (seeking clarification of positions held) with the theologian whose work is being scrutinized. Could be wrong about all this and what Francis' approach would be, but I believe the models for his ministry as pope will be that of John XXIII and Paul VI more than that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I hope that is the case, and pray that he will send us many pastoral bishops like the ones we got after Vatican Council II. Of course, in light of his age, that may not be possible, but we can all hope.
Francis O'BEACHAIN
4 years 1 month ago
the pope's interviews and daily homilies and Wednesday audience talks, including his many ad lib. comments arise from a heart and mind that is Jesus rooted and centred. He has taken the Gospel call of conversion to heart. There is no guile, pretence of self-consciousness He even takes the misunderstandings and manipulations of some of his message in stride. The Hierarchy and clergy need that humble we are sinners in this together emphasis on the Person of Jesus with His compassion to switch the Body of Christ His Church from the structured clericalism and officiousness, and legalistic tone of documents and homilies that mark so much of what we are saddled with.
Paul Leddy
4 years 1 month ago
I'm a great admirer of Cardinal Wuerl and consider myself fortunate to have him as my archbishop. I've also have had the honor of having brief but certainly not shallow conversations with him. I may have mentioned once, maybe twice that I sometimes I felt marginalized within the Church though I love the Church very much. Shortly after those conversations, the Cardinal published his 2012 Cardinal's Appeal: "Seek First the Kingdom of God." I printed it out and have it tacked to the wall in my bedroom where I see it everyday because of this short paragraph, "Yet it is precisely the mission of the Church to bring the healing that says we are all a part of the kingdom, we are all a part of God's family ...no one should be left outside." That clinched it for me and I've been his biggest fan ever since. Thanks bish. sincerely, Paul
PATRICK NUGENT
4 years 1 month ago
Wuerl says a lot about what the Holy Father said in the interview, but nothing about how he personally will change in reaction to the call to be pastoral. I’ll believe he has truly been moved by Pope Francis when he changes his tone about civil marriage for LGBT people and reopens his diocesan adoption and foster care resources. I lived in the Washington archdiocese for twenty-five years and experienced successive bishops’ un-pastoral approach to ministry. It is disingenuous and ignoring the Pope’s point entirely for the Cardinal to call others to a pastoral response but neglect to do so himself. His references to writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI make me think he is trying, as other US bishops have done, to say that Pope Francis is saying nothing but what the other two said earlier. I think Francis is saying something entirely different, which gives me hope I haven’t had in more than 30 years. A final thought. He says they were taught in the seminary to “…go out to meet people where they are and try to bring them a little closer to Christ.” Wouldn’t it be Francis-like pastoral if they were to go out and bring Christ a little closer to the people? That’s what I think the Holy Father is saying.

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