Pope Francis' interview: absolutely mind-blowing.

Pravmir.com, a Russian Orthodox website titled its report on Pope Francis' recent interview with the Jesuits thus: "Church must be open to homosexuality, abortions, and contraception – Pope Francis", while the Guardian titled its pieace: "Pope Francis sets out vision for more gay people and women in 'new' church". Across the blogsphere and the press the frenetic outpouring of mi-interpretation seems almost demonic, a crass confusion not caused by the substance of what the pope has written but the seeming inability of people to read something objectively and not simply through the hermeneutic of their of prejudices or concerns. No wonder the pope has avoided talking about these issues!

One of the first problems is that the article, crafted after three in-depth, frank and wide-ranging interviews, is long. And we don't like long articles, interviews or homilys these days. We like sound-bites, browsing snippets, reductions and summaries as we surf rather than swim, an image which nicely encapsulates the broadly superficial way in which generally we now garner information and form our opinions. 

It is also deep, with a complex inter-weaving of ideas and references, with nuances and illuminating images. I had to sit down and actually read it, rather than spend ten minutes casually casting my eye over it. Again, this is not something which contemporary culture really does very well. Pope Francis is a man who thinks in images rather than statements or definitions. Peter Valleley, in his brilliant biography, has explained the place of the image of Our Lady of Knots, and from his daily homilies we know he likes to draw verbal pictures to anchor his reflections. Here, again, Pope Francis refers to key artists such as Caravaggio and Chagall, as well writers and musicians, as sources of inspiration, as the context for his thinking, reflecting and most importantly, praying. It is this context of prayerful reflection that Francis seeks inspiration to understand what God is asking of him, asking of him as pope,as a particular man with a particular place and time. "I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio. “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “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.”

And as a result of our inability to look beyond snippets and sound-bites is that the only thing which we all seem to be interested in is what he says about gays or abortion or women priests, and because we just don't get the way that Pope Francis does his theology the headlines generated over the past 24 hours end up violating what his says and the integrity with which he has said it. Those two headlines I quoted above not only missed any of the essence of what the Pope was saying, they fundamentally reversed it! Francis wasn't focusing on people being gay but simply saying that everyone who is human is welcome, and gays are not some sort of subset of humanity and the Church shouldn't use its rules to reduce people to that. Likewise, he wasn't saying the Church should be open to abortion, but to focus on the human person who has sinned and seeks mercy. He never suggested abortion should be a tolerated option, that the Church should somehow say it has a place in a Christian's life or the Church's pastoral life, but that not to look on it as an issue, but to engage at the level at which this evil scars a person and her life.

 Having said that, these are those issues which the Church has herself hoisted onto every mast in sight, demanded obedience, issued condemnation, sought to come to conflict and done battle over. It has convulsed time and again over a myopic concentration on these limited range of issues until it has given itself a spiritual hernia. That wouldn't have been so bad if it has actually won any of these battles. But in reality the whole Catholic world is a field of total cultural devastation, where the Church has failed not only to preserve a culture shaped around its own vision of humanity, but been left totally sidelined with people rendered incapable of hearing its central message or appreciating its core values. Society has polarised, while young people especially have nothing but contempt for attitudes which it sees as homophobic, sexist and patriarchal. 

The answer which the pope has proposed to this wasteland of confrontation, and is actively pursuing, is to see all, teach little, turn a blind eye to much. In other words, he is re-calibrating the Church's perception on the bigger picture of the total exclusion of the Church and its vision of salvation and seeking to re-connect before it is too late with the person in need of salvation. 

He is doing this in the context of the life long pilgrimage to heaven on which every human person is walking, whether realised by the person or not, and to insert the Church's ministry and evangelisation alongside those people most in danger, most oppressed by many forms of evil, those seeking for and in need of Christ's merciful love which heals. This is a very Orthodox or eastern Christian view of things, rather than the tendency towards legalism and precise, scientific definition which is characteristic of the western Christian approach. It is an approach which he terms 'insertion'. “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighbourhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe to the Centres for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty. The word insertion is dangerous because some religious have taken it as a fad, and disasters have occurred because of a lack of discernment. But it is truly important.” “The frontiers are many. Let us think of the religious sisters living in hospitals. They live on the frontier. I am alive because of one of them. When I went through my lung disease at the hospital, the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day. Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.

Thus Francis is pushing us to look more broadly, and more comprehensively at the plight of contemporary humanity in its suffering and poverty, and to allow ourselves to look beyond our own tiny preoccupations by inserting ourselves and through real listening, real dialogue. 

At the same time as pressing for us to open our eyes and ears, what we might term a call to attend to the signs of the times, he is also pressing for a profound re-connection between persons, an attentiveness of the Church, that is in particular through its pastors, to the real life situation through which particular people are living. This is the significance of his personal response to certain individuals who have written to him, whom he has responded by picking up the telelphone and giving them a few moments of his very precious time. He is setting out, deliberately, the example of the shepherd who is in essence a father to his sheep, the same sheep he famously said the shepherds should smell of because they have become so close to them. Francis is saying to every parish priest, to every bishop, to every religious sister, whatever your situation, your responsibilities, your tiredness, your own worries and concerns, your primary responsibility is to be a good shepherd attentive to the person in front of you. Great programmes, schemes, projects are no substitute for this, and indeed this genius of the personal encounter is the bedrock from which our own spiritual reflection, our attentiveness to the voice of God, is performed. 

In this Pope Francis is marking a very serious line in the sand, which relegated theological speculation and institution processes secondary to the lived life of the faithful in direct communion with the Holy Spirit. The Church is a living field of souls, a dynamic entity of praying people who meet and know God face to face in their prayers and in the challenges they seek to walk. Formal theological reflection is being placed in this context, rather than a drier, remote, sealed in process that constrains and is imposed from above and without a direct relationship of charity, a charity which directly brings us into the experience of the living Christ.In this he is pointing very specifically to the way in which the Church is Marian in character: "“This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people. In turn, Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people, as we read in the Magnificat. We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

Hence the Pope is signalling that in guarding the Church's dogma we have to first trust to the Holy Spirit working, second make it less officious and impersonal, thirdly applied without authoritarianism. He isn't abolishing that role, he isn't downgrading it, he is insisting that it is done in a full and correct manner, one which is consistent with the merciful love of Christ which defines the Church and its role as mediator and healer. Confession is likewise re-focused - it is not a torture chamber the pope says, an amazing image, so potent and clear. The basis of this is the theological virtue of hope. "I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

Because of this approach the Pope does speak out against the 'restorationist's, those uber-reactionary Catholics who cling to Church laws, seem to relish denouncing those bishops and priests they see as heretical to Rome, invoking the hierarchy of the Church as a sort of fascist police state, that operates by undermining the local hierarchy and inculcating fear through secret denunciations. “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian 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. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies".  They are also those who are highly focused on the issues of abortion, gay rights, contraception and women's roles n in the Church. He goes to contrast this to what he posits is the authentic Christian approach: 

Now, let me be clear, I find abortion a grave and disturbing Satanic attack on our humanity, the gay militants are in the process of reshaping society around a self-referring hermeneutic, and see women's ordination as a complete distraction and a demand for clericalisation of the laity. These are serious issues. However, in terms of how we engage with the world around us, while we have been going on and on about only these until people have switched off, at the same time society as a whole has forgotten even the basis of the values we were banging on about. For example in the UK, while the Church of England convulsed over women's ordination, and then again about women bishops, half of our school children drifted into such ignorance about the Gospel that they now think that Easter celebrates the birth of the Easter bunny. Thank God the Catholic Church hasn't been drawn into that sort of narrow self-regarding preoccupation. Regardless as to whether it is right or wrong, by focusing on this the wider picture has been lost and the result has been a catastrophic failure to proclaim even the basis of the Gospel and as a result twenty years after the ordination of the first woman British society is more godless than just about any time since the arrival of St Augustine.

Meanwhile, if we look to the United States, where the Catholic Church has gone into convulsions over abortion, its has more abortions than ever, and participated in the radical polarisation of society between 'right' and 'left' of which it has become fully ensconced in the right camp, one which has little time for its wider vision of the culture of life, while rendering its voice contemptible to the left, a part of society that resonates very deeply with the younger generation which shortly will be taking over the reigns of power in every aspect of American life. By becoming obsessed by a small range of issue the Church has presided over its complete reduction to the sidelines of American life within just 20 yrs, a process exacerbated but not caused by the deep trauma of clerical sexual abuse. And perhaps if the Church hierarchy had identified itself more abundantly and clearly with the central message of mercy, one which is at the very heart of the Church's liturgy (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner, as we pray in the Jesus Prayer) then the public and its own people would have been able to both understand the difficulties hierarchy had faced and remained more open to the voice of the Church.

The 'restorationists' and 'legalists' were at the forefront of this mistaken preoccupation, and Pope Francis clearly takes them to task in what he says, not by simply denouncing everyone who loves the old Liturgy or who is an activist against abortion, but by explaining very clearly what attitudes a person may have which render their adherence to the dogma of the Church something life giving or actually subversive to the Church's essential work of evangelisation. He is identifying those not who hold certain views, but certain attitudes which are devoid of mercy, or where mercy and the personal pastoral encounter has been relegated to second place. 

Of course those who have those attitudes and those views will try and rally their troops against the Pope in various ways. Some will suggest the Pope is endorsing abortion, some will claim he is a relativist, others that the see of Peter is not really vacated by Benedict etc etc., trying to elbow out of the picture the fundamental challenge to grow, to grow spiritually, that is, to grow in closeness to Jesus Christ through growing closer to others, allowing our hearts to warm with genuine affection for our neighbour, and to embrace those around us especially if their are less fortunate than us. That challenge isn't something just 'restorationists' will squirm at, striking as it does at their lack of Christian hope, but also at those 'activists' who have reduced Christianity to an 'ideology', and to all of us who have retreated from the imperative of love for our enemies, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick, from anyone who is in some sense a potential threat, who could do us harm. What the Pope is doing is placing the essence of what Jesus said in his time to us in ours, and letting that word strike at the words, the dogmas, the attitudes which we have woven with a certain religiosity to mask this corruption of the Gospel which we cling to. 

No wonder Francis is reluctant to give interviews!


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