I first saw it on Twitter, which I use as one of my main news-seeking sources. My feed was lit up with excerpted quotations and little snippets of comments. After a few minutes of scrolling and adding up the pieces of information, I figured out what it was . . . in a published interview, the pope had said some things that set Catholics all atwitter— pun intended!
Once I got to America’s website, there it was: a picture of Pope Francis, in profile, with the inviting headline “A Big Open Heart to God.” Now, I could stop trying to add up a bunch of tweets into a cohesive understanding. I could read it for myself . . .
After reading the whole thing, which was obviously edited from its raw form, I’m even more impressed with Pope Francis than I was before. In general, the response of more liberal Catholics to Pope Francis has been positive, while more conservative Catholics have seemed less thrilled – at least that’s the mainstream American media’s cliff-notes portrayal – mainly over his less dogmatic stance on the hot-button issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception. I like this pope, not because I can correlate him more closely to my political views, but because his work has already highlighted the mimicking the love of Christ, the importance of mercy, and the underlying spirit of our faith, rather stressing a rule-oriented, theologically cumbersome approach. I like Pope Francis, because I can relate to his message.
As a high school teacher, I have views of people and of society that are in some measure derived from that experience, and the way I see it, too many people take an “Is this going to be on the test?” approach to life. For example, for handling the responsibilities of driving, this approach won’t work: “You can drive fast on the interstate, but you should drive moderately and carefully in town, and slowly in neighborhoods and downtowns.” The results would be catastrophic; so many people need a numerical speed limit and the responsive threat of a traffic ticket or worse. Sadly, even though the Christian faith gives us a thorough foundation for our lives, particularly in the Gospels and the epistles, the New Testament’s lack of Leviticus-like specificity is deeply troubling to a lot of people, who just want to be told specifically what to do to get the rewards and avoid the consequences. In this earthly life, that means getting where you’re going while avoiding a traffic ticket, or getting an A on a report card and avoiding office referrals . . . and in our faith, that means getting into Heaven and avoiding hell.
But instead of giving us those specifics, Pope Francis reinforces that it’s not about concrete guidelines that yield concrete rewards. Without focusing on getting into Heaven, we can (hopefully) get in by loving God, following Jesus, acknowledging our sinful nature and being merciful to other people about theirs. We can’t center our faith on jumping through hoops when it is about experiencing the journey and its challenges. It seems to me that, in this interview, a lot of Pope Francis’ answers to the questions are telling Christians everywhere something similar to what I tell my students often. To the question “Is this going to be on the test?” my answer is: “Learn the material and you’ll be fine.” If students focus so hard on the test and getting an A that they don’t learn the material, then the A really doesn’t mean anything, even though it’s printed clearly in black ink on white paper. That’s what Pope Francis seems to be telling us, and that’s why I like him.
I’ll be frank that the first portions of the interview didn’t interest me as much. It’s good to humanize the pope – he humanizes himself often – but what matters most to me is his spiritual leadership in the office he now occupies. As a person who is an adult convert to Catholicism, I’m still neck-deep in understanding my adopted faith more fully.
In that vein, one of his statements in those early sections struck me. When asked who he is, he replied, “I am a sinner” – a response that has drawn mainstream media attention – but he also said this: “I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo, [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.” Having mercy and loving God matter much more than any position statements. Certainly, those ideas are at the root of the Church’s position statements, but when taken out of context and applied in isolation – which the pope later discusses in the interview – a too-literal application of these positions can be harmful in the world, which runs counter to Christ’s teaching.
After some further discussions about his own life and decisions and about the Jesuits, the pope again said something that I latched onto: “The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought,” and a bit further he down he continues about the dangers of trying to over-explain difficult ideas like that one: “This requires much humility, sacrifice and courage, especially when you are misunderstood or you are the subject of misunderstandings and slanders, but that is the most fruitful attitude.” One feature that drew me to convert to Catholicism is the constant insistence that God and our lives in His sight are mysteries, incapable of being explained fully within our circumstances. We have to accept that we don’t and won’t understand it all during our lives. Yet, we want answers – certainly we do! – but we’re not going to get them in this life. I believe that, because the rationale for our lives and this world’s realities exist in God’s infinite wisdom, the explanation is probably too great for us to comprehend anyway. For now, we have to be humble, accept that our own shortcomings are the reason for our lack of certainty, and trust that we have been told all that we need to know right now . . . and concentrate on two things: being merciful and loving God.
Of the things that I enjoy most in life – literature, music, art and sociology – this aspect of “mystery” drew me to them. I’ll never reach the end of the things I enjoy. I’ll never see it all, no matter how hard I try or how long I live. I will never read every book, nor will I ever experience every perspective on the books that I do read. Same for music and for art. I enjoy sociology because human beings are fascinating, especially when they act in groups, but I know that these studies will never figure out the human race. I attribute those facts to the glory of God, a Creator so incredibly unfathomable that we, in our limited sense, can never understand all that He has done. That, to me, is appealing— that literature, music, art and sociology are windows that we get to peek through.
Back to the interview . . . another statement the pope made, which made me like him even more, involved his own self-effacing analysis of his early from-the-gut leadership style and how it led him to a more open style. He noted, “. . .eventually people get tired of authoritarianism.” Yes, we do. One sad but intriguing aspect of human nature is the combination of our insistence on being given clear directives while also clinging to our disdain at being told what to do. We need direction and guidance, but a good leader knows that we must be made to believe that we are following our own free will. The pope seems to be a man who understands that an overly harsh leadership style will never reach people: “It was my authoritarian way of thinking that created problems,” he said, before moving on to explain that now his decision-making process always involves listening to multiple perspectives first.
Diversity of perspectives can be a great strength in any organization, I agree. I’m glad to know that the leader of my faith, and also world’s largest religious denomination, fully understands his role as one that requires the input of other people. And, Lord knows, with more than a billion Catholics worldwide, the diversity of perspectives must be immense. Thankfully, we have a pope who listens.
[To be continued, in a forthcoming “Part Two”]