VATICAN CITY — The pope who came from “almost the ends of the earth” continues to spread his message of hope, secure in the knowledge that the proclamation of the Gospel has much to offer men and women of our times. By no means should we believe that modernity will bring the end of Christianity, as many scholars and men of the Church have long predicted or feared.
Only the young who keep their hopes high and have not yet been oppressed by history are able to understand the true meaning and richness of the pope’s groundbreaking interview this week with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica.
Emerging from this interview is the image of a pope who had clearly been warned that his presence would provoke the Church’s establishment, a pope who is aware of how his style of governance and public persona creates concern in some Catholic quarters. For instance, he admits that some accuse him of not talking enough, or being too hands off on condemning abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. In warning the Church not to always seek disciplinary solutions to Christianity’s many challenges in the modern world, we see a pontiff aware that an exaggerated use of doctrinal certainty is a defense of the lost past rather than a hope for the future.
Obviously Pope Francis intends to calm his entire flock, even those who have difficulty understanding the “new” that he brings and are worried that he will preach human proximity to God rather than the truth of faith. Hence the curious passage in the interview in which Francis professes to be a “son of the Church,” to whom all the fixed points of the moral and social teaching are very well-known and not in dispute.
On gays and women
But, warns the pope, to insist too much on these is likely to erect an insurmountable wall between the Church and those who are not necessarily in tune with the Christian message. More than anything, the Catholic Church needs to heal the wounds and warm the hearts of the faithful before it can focus on the moral issues at hand.
This is the core message of the 12,000-word interview with Pope Francis. The Church should return to its vocational missions, concentrate on the essentials — that is, “warming their hearts” just like Jesus did with his disciples in the story of the walk to Emmaus. “If we don’t discover the necessary,” continues the Argentine pontiff, “the Church runs the risk of withdrawing into itself on the little things, of being perceived as an agency of guidelines rather than a source of mercy.”
Apart from its simple but effective message, what is most striking in this latest outpouring from Francis is his use of language. From his exalted perch, neither Catholics nor the rest of the world are used to a pope who expresses himself as if he were in familiar conversation. He describes the Church as “a field hospital after a battle” and considers homosexuals as the “socially injured” because they feel that the Church has always condemned them. He hopes that the question of women in the Church won’t resolve itself with a solution of “female machismo,” and he urges ministers to be pastors and not clerics of the State.
At the beginning of the interview, his fellow Jesuit interviewer dared to ask him: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” He didn’t hesitate to answer: “a sinner, to whom the Lord has looked upon.”
Many other passages in this historic interview shed light upon what Francis himself thinks about the Church, and his ideas for renewing it. Still, it is hard to know exactly how many Catholics are in tune with a pontiff who continues to draw attention for the unprecedented simplicity of his message and approach to language.
Of course, the “younger” evangelical churches seem to be better positioned than Catholicism to react to modernity. And in the West, particularly in Europe, the fatigue of the Catholic Church is greater because of the difficulty to break out of old patterns and habits.
A few years ago, some European countries were described as having “strength on religion and weakness on faith.” Today, Pope Francis seems to have evoked the possibility that faith could take the upper hand.