“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”
“I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
On September 19, the transcript of an interview with Pope Francis was released. The interview took place in August over the course of three meetings with Antonio Spadoro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal. The pope’s wide-ranging interview gave us a glimpse into a man who is deeply pastoral and has captured the hearts and minds of people the world over, whether Catholic or not. It is well worth the time to read the entire interview so that you can capture the essence of Pope Francis’ spirit. Why is Pope Francis so beloved? Because he seeks God in every human life.
If you were asked, “Who are you?”, how would you answer? The first thing that comes to my mind is, “I am a child of God.” However, Pope Francis answered, “I am a sinner.” He talked about how when he used to go to Rome, he would visit the church of St. Louis of France and meditate on Caravaggio’s painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew.
“That finger of Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew (a tax collector). It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me. This money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” The pope continued in Latin, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
That’s what happens when we answer the call of God to be disciples of Jesus Christ, whether as clergy or lay persons. We accept the call in humility, knowing that we are not worthy but that the Holy Spirit can use us to change the world in ways we cannot even imagine.
Pope Francis has eschewed many of the trappings of the papacy. This summer he arrived at the papal summer home in a Ford Focus, not a luxury car. On July 6 he said to young trainee priests and nuns, “It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car. You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”
Pope Francis has also chosen to live in a simple Vatican guest house rather than in the luxurious papal apartments. He calls ordinary people on the phone and is determined to personally connect one on one with individuals around the world.
Valuing people more than issues
Francis said in the interview, “The thing the church needs the most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.”
More than once the pope referred to a church that has been preoccupied with laws and dogma rather than ministering to the needs of people. He said, “The church sometimes has 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 above all.”
Pope Francis has not indicated any intention of changing the official stance of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, abortion, and women clergy. However, he is not ignoring these issues and believes in the value of dialogue and compassionate listening.
In the interview, Pope Francis referred to his experience in Brazil in July at World Youth Day where he celebrated mass with three million people. “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
“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. 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. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
I admit that I was disappointed in Pope Francis’ response to a question about the role 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.”
The pope’s answer reflects a stereotypical attitude toward women that is out of touch with the reality of women’s God-given gifts, aspirations, and hopes. Until the Catholic Church fully embraces those gifts at all levels of the church, their effectiveness in spreading the inclusive love of Jesus throughout the world will be hindered.
Pope Francis admitted that in his earlier years as a priest he made too many decisions on his own when dealing with difficult situations. He now realizes that his earlier authoritarianism created problems in his ministry, so he is determined to be more collaborative in decision-making. After becoming pope, Francis formed a consultation group of eight cardinals. This was not only Francis’ will, but it was the will of the cardinals before the conclave that elected him Pope. “I do not want token consultations but real consultations,” Francis said in the interview.
Thinking with the Church
As a member of the Society of Jesus, Francis referred to a phrase St. Ignatius used in his spiritual exercises about “thinking with the church.” Francis is convinced that the mission of the church is to go to where the people are and bring physical, emotional, and spiritual healing to their lives. “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.”
Seeking God in Every Human Life
As a pastoral pope, Francis understands that what people are seeking most in life is community, healing, hope, and inspiration to use their gifts to make a difference. In the end, the church hierarchy means nothing. The only thing that ultimately matters for humans beings is a response to these questions: “Do you care about me?” and “Is there a place at the table for me?”
Francis said in the interview, “You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
May God bless Pope Francis as he lives out his call to be the chief sinner among the 1.2 billion Catholics in our world. May the pope continue to, in his own words, “do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and others.” And may we all seek to become better leaders and disciples through humility, valuing people more than issues, consultative decision-making, thinking with the Church, and seeking God in every human life.