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

[continued from Part One and Part Two]

As the interview goes on, the profound statements keep rolling. I was reading as always with a pen in my hand, underlining parts that I found important or wanted to be able to find later, and the more I read, the more I was underlining.

Getting to the section called “To Seek and Find God in All Things,” Pope Francis admonishes us that “. . . complaining never helps us find God.” I love it! But does that mean that critical thought is wasted energy, negativity, or a pointless joy-kill? No, we have to stand up patiently, responsibly and appropriately against power that is being used in harmful ways: “We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate process, rather than occupy spaces,” he said.

This statement reminded me of Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School. In The Long Haul, Horton wrote about the difference between educating and organizing; you organize people to accomplish one task, like getting raises for workers or persuading a legislature not to pass an unpopular bill, but you educate people to handle the social factors that caused the organizing task to be necessary, which means that you make the systemic changes in people’s attitudes so those bad situation won’t arise. Horton was insistent that he was an educator, even though he had been an organizer, because if you don’t educate people, you’re just going to have organize them again and again and again. That seems to be what Pope Francis is saying: we’ve got to change the culture so that good people will end up in power, instead of constantly working to remove or place certain people in power. It’s the long haul view.

Likewise, in that same section, Pope Francis also warns us that we can’t find God by always looking for Him. It’s not like searching for the missing sock that we eventually find under the couch. He said, “A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations.” The whole thing can’t be deliberate, and we can’t know the whole story any more than we can know when ours will end.

In the next section, “Certitude and Mistakes,” one comment falls like a grand piano on the heads of all those people who preach for personal gain: “If one has the answers to all the questions— that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.” I think it was Zora Neale Hurston in Mules and Men that remarked, “A hard day’s work in the sun has called many a man to preach.” (I’m calling from memory, so I hope I didn’t misquote or make an incorrect attribution.) Hurston was half-joking that preaching can seem like a lot easier profession that manual labor to a man sweating in the sun behind a plow.  Having grown up in the Bible Belt Deep South, I’ve wondered many times about the sincerity of some “preachers” and some “churches.” Certainly we must seek God and truly hope to find Him, but salvation isn’t just some commodity. Pope Francis continues, “The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will only find a god that fits our measure.” When, during a sermon or homily, God seems a little too much like one of us, something is wrong.

But the pope doesn’t stop there. Here are two more short passages in that same section:

“God is always a surprise, so you never where and how you will find Him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with Him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter.”


“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.”

This section of the interview has me thinking back to every cheesy evangelist con-man any of us can conjure, real or imagined, from Jim Bakker to the howling caricature in John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible.

I could keep pulling quotes from this interview all day, but instead I want to discuss two last ones . . . The first stood out to me as a teacher: “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum in a neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it.” My interest in this statement isn’t religious but secular. First of all, he’s absolutely right that, if a person is going to work to help anybody, being there in person is worth more than any donations, for the giver and for the recipient.

Second – I’m about climb up on my soapbox – as a classroom teacher in my eleventh year, I have seen “reforms” and programs, policy changes and “restructuring,” and way too much of it is drawn up by people who either have never been classroom teachers or haven’t been classroom teachers for decades. The pope is acknowledging about social justice work what classroom teachers know about education: you’ve got to get your hands dirty if you’re going to know what to do for the people you’re helping. Everybody and their grandaddy recognizes that the last fifteen years have brought swift changes in technology, which have formed a generation of what I call “digital babies.” Efforts ranging from the 2001 law called No Child Left Behind to more current “policy solutions” are all trying to address the fact that children have changed so radically so quickly that we (from older generations) are having trouble teaching them. But I’ll say this: the solution isn’t going to come from any person or group who hasn’t been teaching these kids in classrooms every day. The answer will not come from second-hand sources and data on reports.  What the pope says here is true of so many non-religious situations; education is just one of them.

Alright, I’m back off my soapbox now . . .

The last quote I want to pull comes from the section of the interview titled “Human Self-Understanding” and goes like this: “Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes.” This is a good place to end. Everybody makes mistakes, does things they ought not do, things they ought to know better. The first thing the pope said about himself was that he is a sinner, and we all do well to remember that about ourselves.

Translating that idea into the secular world, we all mess up and sometimes hurt other people; we all have ideas that seem like they will work but that don’t; we all have moments of selfishness; and we all try to avoid the shame of admitting our weaknesses and errors. I still say that most human conflicts are rooted in one basic problem: the refusal to acknowledge that some things we do hurt other people. Sure, maybe we have a good reason for doing what we do, but it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes people are hurt by it. That can range from snapping at someone when you’re in a bad mood all the way to perpetuating global poverty by buying cheap goods.

As a teacher, this fact is always on my mind. Every red mark I make on students’ papers reminds them that they aren’t perfect, and that can hurt. I remember how that felt to see red Xs and a low score. The same is true for the disciplinary actions that teachers inevitably have to take some times. I know that I am teaching them all the while, but I never fail to acknowledge that seeing marked errors or being disciplined is hurtful. And none of us like to be hurt.

If I had to sum up this interview for somebody who had not read it, I would begin by saying that Pope Francis stresses the need for mercy most of all, because mercy is what we are shown constantly by God. Mercy is what brought Jesus to Earth to save us. Mercy is what we sinners need. Above all of the political rhetoric and posturing, more important than dogmatic argumentation, if we root our decisions in mercy, then we will move a lot closer to the way we ought to be living.

*One final note before I move on, in its most recent issue (October 11), National Catholic Reporter had a number of articles about women and the Church, among them a piece by _____ about a small part of the interview, regarding women, that was left out of the America translation. I would suggest reading that NCR article, too.

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