The Pope’s Interview in “America,” part two

[continued from “Part One”]

About a third of the way through the pope’s interview, the subjects became more appealing to me, starting with the section subtitled “Thinking with the Church.” Pope Francis asserts, reminding us all, that the Church is not only the buildings and the priests and deacons who serve Mass and hear confession, but the people who show for Mass, too. He said,

In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.

Yet, Pope Francis warns us, “we must be very careful not to think that this infallibilitas of all the faithful I am talking about in the light of Vatican II is a form of populism.” Taking this idea of thinking with the church, the pope tiptoes the narrow line between asserting the importance of ordinary parishioners and assuming their superiority over the Church’s hierarchy.

The terminology used here about the “complex web” reminds me very much of Michel Foucault’s ideas about social interrelationships, power struggles, and the connections between knowledge and power. In the Catholic church, we have a multifaceted institutional identity, in which some people have more knowledge than others and which by its own definition is constantly evolving, growing closer ever to God through the Holy Spirit’s guidance. This identity is made up of distinct groups, working simultaneously, each in its own way: parishioners from all over the world, parish priests and deacons, bishops and cardinals, et al— i.e. the “complex web.” One of our local parish priests likes cite a comment made by Cardinal John Henry Newman; when asked how he felt about the laity, Newman answered, “We’d look pretty silly up there without them.” That jibe seems to strike at the heart of what Pope Francis is saying. The Church can’t be a completely top-down venture . . . but his “populism” remark admonishes us that it also can’t be bottom-up.

Moving on . . . Pope Francis also made this statement: “I often associate sanctity with patience: not only patience as hypomoné, taking charge of the events and circumstances of life, but also as a constancy in going forward, day by day.” As a teacher, I loved reading this. As a father of two children, I loved reading it. As a husband, I loved reading it. Patience as sanctity. If any three duties in life require patience, they are teaching, parenting, and being married. None of them are glamorous or easy, all of them are worthwhile and necessary.

My wife and I talk sometimes about issues related to the Church. We both go back often to the simpler aspects of our faith: prayer, humility, kindness, tolerance, understanding. Although either of us is intellectually capable of being deeply theological – we’re both college-educated, with degrees in humanities disciplines – neither of us feels the need to focus our energy on the policy debates that divide people. Because we both feel that way, I was also glad to read this statement:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity . . .”

Exactly. If a person has any faith at all in the Gospels, then he has to take stock in the fact that Jesus healed people. Can we heal people in the way that he did? No, certainly not. But can we follow His example and heal people in ways that we can? Yes. This section of the interview is also where those excerpted quotes come from, the ones that the mainstream news has been repeating, like this one:

“The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy first of all.”

and a bit further down, he says,

“The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and  descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.”

Pope Francis is talking here about priests, but as a teacher, this advice applies to my profession as well. The image of darkness has long been symbolic of ignorance, the unknown, a lack of clarity, and every day teachers follow their students into this darkness and try to bring them out of it. We have to put ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not know, and we have to lead them toward knowledge and understanding, without getting lost ourselves. So, if that’s what priests also have to do, then I’ve got a lot of sympathy for them.

What I’ve found since devoting myself to this faith is how hard it is to do it right. Read the Gospels, and try to live by what Jesus says to do. Anybody who does will have to give up a lot. I will admit that I’m not all the way there, but I’m trying to move in that direction, at least a little bit every day. The fact is: we all need support, guidance, healing, warmth . . . even the people who are charged by their vocation with giving those thing to others, like teachers and priests.

The last thing I want to discuss in this part of interview is a whopper. Pope Francis drops a bomb on the judgmental types:

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approve of homosexuality. I replied with another 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?’ We must always consider the person. Here, we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them., starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”

This is the statement of a true leader. Has Pope Francis solved every problem of the Church in his short tenure in the job? No. Has he resolved the impersonal quality of such a huge institution with tendrils branching all over the world? No. But what he emphasizes gives us a basis for resolving those problems: mercy. We’ve got to be merciful toward everyone, including people we don’t like or agree with, and including Church fathers who do things in ways we don’t understand.

One of my favorite short quotes comes from Hasidic rabbi Baal Shem Tov: “May it be my will that my mercy shall overcome my anger.” Not just to be merciful, but to want to be merciful. Pope Francis is saying this same kind of thing. The direction he is laying out is very simple— and very difficult to follow. We’ve got to stop applying all these rules and judging each other with nuanced interpretations, and just be kind toward each other.

[To be continued, in a forthcoming “Part Three”]

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