The pope speaks

So, Pope Francis talked. Big-time. You’ve heard of this?

In August, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor-in-chief of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, interviewed the pope in cooperation with several other Jesuit magazines. Last Thursday, they simultaneously released his interview. America has the English version, officially postdated for their Sept. 30 issue.

The commentariat promptly sprang into action. Everybody fell over each other to read the latest tea leaves. The result was a wagon-load of hasty “insta-responses,” as one of my Twitter peeps called them. Recognizing this, I will refrain from offering some grand, sweeping narrative of what Francis meant.

But still, I was moved and relieved by various papal remarks. I will highlight a partial selection:

“And then a thing that is really important for me: community. I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community.” (To me, this comment, made early in the interview in reference to his Jesuit vocation, is as important as anything else he says. More than almost any other experience, living in community saves and enlightens us. I really believe that.)

Also:

“I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved 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.”

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods….The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

“Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves. I do not know how to put it…. Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’”

But alas, some utterances were a swing and a miss:

“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.”

Gender essentialism and misunderstandings much?

Overall, to use some good Jesuit words, I find more consolation than desolation in this interview. But for me, when I reflect on not only this event but the whole Francis phenomenon, what is most interesting is not Francis. It is us.

We are so hungry to rally around somebody who looks the way he looks, talks the way he talks, acts the way he acts. We long for somebody who, probably by design, usually can’t get anywhere near the upper reaches of a powerful religious and political machine: a plainspoken sage who willingly accompanies us on our dusty mile, who nods patiently and knowingly at life’s ambiguities. We dreamed up the Platonic-ideal version of Francis’ scuffed black Jesuit shoes a long time ago. They were sitting in a closet, waiting for somebody to slip them on, ages before we’d ever heard of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

But the problem with great longings, even legitimate ones, is that they often demand too much from their myriad objects: popes, presidents, careers, trophies, potential and real romantic partners, the heroic missions we claim for ourselves, the Meccas and Jerusalems to which we frantically relocate, the next hapless and unwitting savior who will Fix Everything Now. Inevitably, everybody falters at the roles we assign to them in our personal and collective psychodramas.

When Fr. Spadaro asked Francis who he was, he said he was a sinner. He said he’d made bad decisions before. He said the first decision he thinks of is usually the wrong one. He said the process of discernment never stops, whether for him or anyone else. As we journey with Francis, who struggles with his own ambiguities on the dusty road, we must exhibit at least as much self-awareness.

There is a sign in my office that says: “We are the church. What if we meant what we said?” No matter what this pope does or doesn’t do, no matter how he cheers us or disappoints us, we must finally circle back to who we really are, and act from there.

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3 thoughts on “The pope speaks

  1. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 9/27/13 | Catholic Majority

  2. Thanks for this reflection. I haven’t had a chance to read the interview, so I appreciate your “highlights.” I especially like what he says about the church as a “hospital.” And of course, the “de-emphasis” on the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception. I have to scratch my head at the connection between women’s rights and “machismo.” Since when was gender equality a “machismo” concept?

    I had an interesting conversation with a friend over the weekend who was raised Catholic and is now engaged to her girlfriend; she said that she thinks Pope Francis is the “best thing that could *realistically* happen to the Church right now.” I think I tend to agree with her. It’s not always enough, but I’ll take what I can get!

    • Just as an interesting sidebar: the “machismo” passage, as a whole, has been up for some interpretation. For one thing, the first sentence in that little block quote (“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church”) didn’t appear in the original English (it did in Italian). America Magazine dropped it in a proofreading error, and they had to put it back in. So there are glosses of this passage that have been revised to account for Francis’ introduction, which is, let’s admit, a somewhat hopeful one.

      And then there was debate over what exactly Francis meant by the term “machismo.” Michelle Gonzalez at NCR thought the pope was in some sense inveighing against gender essentialism because, she says, “machismo” in Latin American Spanish usage means “sexism” and not “manliness.” (See http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/pope-francis-gender-equality-and-idea-machismo.) But for me the center of gravity in the passage, which defines its meaning (and unfortunately so), is “a woman has a different make-up than a man.” This is classic John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

      This situation suggests, for me, what one of the character traits of Francis’ papacy will be. The problem under his two predecessors, for many of us, was that they were too definite and too certain about some things. But under Francis, we may return to the older, more classic problem of Roman authorities speaking “Vaticanese” (sentences full of qualifications and subtle shadings of meaning, where it would genuinely help to know Italian before passing judgment).

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