This is significant.
From the start, there was an air of excitement surrounding this Pope – the Pontiff’s chosen name, never before used by any pope in the history of the Church – Pope Francis – beckoned back to a celebrated hero of the Christian faith and a gentle revolutionary, St. Francis of Assisi.
Many have been optimistic that this formal Cardinal of Argentina would kick some spiritual tail and bring about much needed reform within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In recent years, the Vatican has been plagued with scandal and allegations and is in desperate need of renewal – and many believe Francis is the guy to bring about those changes.
Still, many LGBT activist groups pointed out at his papal election that as a Cardinal, the new Pontiff had more than a few things to say that seem to suggest it may be ‘more of the same’ in Vatican City. He had been quoted as saying that same-sex marriage is a ‘destructive attack on God’s plan‘ and went on to describe it as a ‘move‘ by the devil to ‘confuse and deceive the children of God.’ GLAAD President Herndon Graddick responded to the March election of Francis in a statement saying,
For decades the Catholic hierarchy has been in need of desperate reform. In his life, Jesus condemned gays zero times. In Pope Benedict’s short time in the papacy, he made a priority of condemning gay people routinely. This, in spite of the fact that the Catholic hierarchy had been in collusion to cover up the widespread abuse of children within its care. We hope this Pope will trade in his red shoes for a pair of sandals and spend a lot less time condemning and a lot more time foot-washing.”
Thus far, it seems that is precisely what Francis is doing. Not only did he skip the ceremonial wearing of the red shoes in the first place at his papal inauguration, but he has repeatedly surprised the world with a litany of other unexpected (and quite non-traditional) behaviors.
From the outset of his papacy six months ago, Francis has chosen to use the global spotlight provided by his holy office to focus instead on the Church’s mandate to serve the poor and reach out to the marginalized. As I’ve written recently, he has washed the feet of juvenile prisoners and Muslim women during holy week, skipped out on lavish concertos presented in his honor and instead invited the homeless to dine at the Vatican. He drives his own car around Vatican City, rather than being chauffeured in the infamous Popemobile. Francis has even added a personal touch to the papal office by reaching out via personal phone calls in response to letters from both the faithful and unfaithful alike.
Throughout history, popes in particular – and religious leaders in general – have typically presented a persona of personal piety which in many cases comes to a crashing conclusion as a result of scandal or the reality of history.
But not Francis.
In the first extensive interview of his six-month-old papacy Pope Francis used remarkably pointed language, which will likely garner a great deal of attention in the days to come. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilita Cattolica, a Jesuit journal based in Rome, and took place over three meetings this August at Francis’ apartment in Rome. The interview was released simultaneously on Thursday morning by 16 Jesuit journals around the world.
To begin the interview, Spadoro bluntly asked, ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?‘ – Pope Francis’s name prior to his election as pope.
‘I am a sinner.’ the pope answered. ‘This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.’
But it didn’t stop there. This free-thinking pope seems to be willing to live on the margins and push back on the boundaries of the position of pontiff’s of the past. Addressing questions on abortion, gay marriage and contraception, Pope Francis continued to relate in a frank nature to the reality of the church’s battle to remain relevant – and hinted toward some new ways forward.
‘It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time, ‘ the pope said. ‘We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.’
‘This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can only hold a small group of selected people, ‘ Francis continued. ‘We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.’
The new pope’s statements in the 12, 000 word interview are likely to have repercussions in a church whose leaders have postured themselves in a position to combat the very issues he claims the leadership has been wrongly ‘obsessed’ with. These teachings are ‘clear’ to him, he said, but they have to be taught in a larger context. ‘The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.’
‘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, ‘ Francis said. ‘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.’
While some of the statements and behaviors attributed ot this pope seemingly have further reaching theological significance than others, the pattern is clear – Pope Francis appears to be more interested in engaging with all people – even those with whom he disagrees – and seemingly seeks to do so in a thoughtful, respectful, peaceful and productive dialogue.
In short, it appears Pope Francis is seeking to build bridges.
Perhaps each of us can learn something from his approach.
What do you think?