A Few Takeaways on Today’s New Pope Francis Interview
This morning, Italian newspaper La Repubblica released yet another interview with Pope Francis, who seems determined to get his thoughts – and more importantly, Christ’s thoughts – out into the written word. Here are some basic thoughts:
- The big takeaway from this and other interviews is that we have a pope who is not remotely shy about talking to the media. It’s a little surprising for us who are still coming to know his personality. After all, his first appearance on the balcony had us thinking he might come to be known as The Socially Awkward Pope. Instead, we come to find out he’s an ’84 Renault-driving hipster who picks up the phone to place personal calls to tax-collectors and sinners. Saint? Looks to be so. Socially awkward? Maybe not so much. Of course, as we discovered with the last interview, there is plenty of opportunity for the media to misunderstand the Holy Father. Francis doesn’t seem bothered by that. I suspect that he sees the need to correct the media’s interpretation of his words as a chance at ongoing dialogue. He’d rather allow a few misinterpretations in the interests of getting the Gospel out there than hold the Gospel in for fear that it will be misunderstood.
- Pope Francis is a big picture guy. The interview starts out with Francis saying,
“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more.”
I’m a fine detail person, so this is a little annoying to me. For instance, I would have been much more specific in some of the things I said in an interview (see #4 especially). That’s okay. We’re different people. Let’s try to examine his big picture.
Most of us would say that the worst evil of modern times is abortion, followed by other things like embryonic stem cell research, contraception, gay marriage, divorce, etc. I don’t think Pope Francis is trying to say that youth unemployment or geriatric loneliness are more serious offenses than abortion. I would guess that his intention is to strike at the root of so many problems. A lot of abortions arise from unemployment, low prospects, and a lack of hope. Most of the grave moral evils of our day are violations of human dignity. Would increasing hope among the young and treating the old with respect help renew human dignity? Undoubtedly.
- Pope Francis has a more organic approach to evangelization.
“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.”
A few days ago, I was speaking to my friend, Adam Janke, the newly appointed Vice President of St. Paul Street Evangelization, about my own reluctance to do street evangelization. It’s not for everyone. He told me:
“SPSE is all mini one-on-one. And you follow a quasi-script. You always start by saying the same thing. You get practice. You end up startled at how people start to open up to you and confide in you. Conversations are rarely theologically deep and they are rarely hostile… And then you see the hurt in peoples lives, the incredible pain. It changes you man. Street Evangelization is the work of intercession.”
Although at first it appears that Pope Francis is dissing practices like street evangelization, it looks like he and SPSE are on the same page. Later in the interview, Francis even tells his atheist interviewer that he does not intend to convert him. What he is doing is making a friend. Of course, he wants the soul of his friend to go to God, but he respects the freedom and personal dignity of his interviewer, and he wants simply to love the soul and let God do what He will. He wants to convert without proselytizing.
Evangelization must be a personal dialogue and very often involves emotional baggage more than intellectual arguments. We must be more concerned about winning souls than winning arguments. We must see the objects of our evangelization as subjects with whom we approach God together, rather than as tick-marks on our agendas.
Pope Francis continues elsewhere:
“I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.”
- Pope Francis doesn’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.
Interviewer: “Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.”
Pope Francis: “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
I can see it now: certain parties within the Church are going to say that the pope has endorsed their views on the primacy of conscience. Nevermind them. The pope is not teaching relativism. He cannot change doctrine. The conscience must be obeyed, but the conscience must also be educated. Francis doesn’t say otherwise; rather, he points out that each man has his own understanding of good and evil. Even taking into account the education of the conscience, this is still true. Two very well-formed Catholics will have different consciences on some topics. It’s bound to happen. Nevertheless, the rest of what the pope said is also absolutely true. If everyone did what his conscience told him, the world still would not be perfect, because the conscience is not perfect, but it would be a better place. Most people know when they are doing wrong, and if they followed their consciences, that many bad things would not be done. It would make the world much, much better, even if some consciences are misformed along the way.
UPDATE: Fr. Z chimes in on conscience. I agree with what he’s said entirely.
- Pope Francis has a personal compassion for communists, while rejecting their materialism.
“I also had a teacher for whom I had a lot of respect and developed friendship and who was a fervent communist. She often read Communist Party texts to me and gave them to me to read. So I also got to know that very materialistic conception. I remember that she also gave me the statement from the American Communists in defense of the Rosenbergs, who had been sentenced to death. The woman I’m talking about was later arrested, tortured and killed by the dictatorship then ruling in Argentina.”
- Pope Francis believes strongly in the collegiality of bishops.
“The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
“This is the beginning of a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal. When Cardinal Martini talked about focusing on the councils and synods he knew how long and difficult it would be to go in that direction. Gently, but firmly and tenaciously.”
Under the reigns of Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, I was a bit of an ultramontanist. That has changed as I’ve seen the quality of our American bishops improving. The pope is in charge and there is, of course, sometimes a need for reform. The reform of the episcopate has largely been accomplished. I think a more horizontal leadership can be a great blessing (and it might also attract the Orthodox). I also think it is important to incorporate the observations and wisdom of the laity, as Francis has discussed doing. Having worked for the Church – in one capacity or another, paid and volunteer – for a decade now, I am convinced that many priests are unaware of the struggles of lay people, the difficulties and costs of raising a family (I once saw a full-time youth ministry job posting for $25k/year … in BOSTON!), the existential angst of the secular world, the spiritual needs of parishioners, and more. To hear this conversation from the pope is encouraging to me.