COLUMN: Understanding A Big Heart Open To God
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 20:10
There has been a whimsical comic circulating recently of Pope Francis with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in which the former attempts to order a pizza-hold-the-anchovies and within a matter of days the information has passed through so many people that it ends up being broadcast on television as the Pope’s historic declaration against fish consumption because it is now considered a sin. When I read this I chuckled—and I sighed, because it seems there has been considerable misunderstanding of many of the Pope’s recent quotes—whether in interviews, at appearances, or in his daily audiences.
The obvious, and perhaps most important, example of this misinterpretation of Francis has come with his August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica. The interview was shared with several journals, including America, the Jesuit-sponsored, Catholic weekly in the U.S. As soon as the interview hit the English-speaking world, the pundits and populace alike started generating a number of implications.
The New York Times ran the headline: “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.” BBC Europe expressed their take similarly: “Pope Francis: Church too focused on gays and abortion.” Other groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and Human Rights Camapign (HRC), a civil rights organization devoted to the GLBTQ community, soon after the publication of the interview, posted on their Facebook pages or Twitter accounts images which read “Dear Pope Francis, Thank you. Signed, Pro-Choice Women/LGBT People Everywhere.”
These reactions, while not unsurprising, do not necessarily grasp the whole of the situation. Some of the publications expressed the qualification that Francis has in fact not altered Church doctrine or policy, but others offer the idea that what we have with the pope might signal Church transformation of some sort or another.
But His Holiness has more than once called himself “a son of the Church,” and stressed that what the Church teaches, he believes and practices.
That being said, I think Human Rights Campaign was correct when they said Francis was reflecting a “tone” required of the Church regarding the many hot-button issues today. That is, the pope, while not changing Church teaching or Church law, is repeatedly stressing the fundamental nature of the faith. He refers to himself as a “sinner whom the Lord has looked upon” and he repeatedly stresses the need for mercy and compassion: “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful…” He even created a word, the gerund misericordiando [“mercy-ing”], to describe the Lord’s loving sight of Matthew when He called him into service (see the Homilies of Bede the Venerable in Matthew 9:9). All of this is to say that Francis has created great appeal for the faith. He is, in a very real way, a pastor. He seems almost grandfatherly in his speech and manner. And when he preaches, he speaks from his love of the Lord, of his faith, and his Church. Such radiant love generates the radiant joy precipitating about his papacy. Professor Boyd Coolman of the theology department offered an insightful investigation into the inspiration behind the pope’s many recent comments. He cited Francis’s many references to mercy and joy especially. In fact, His Holiness, in a recent September Angelus, said, “The joy of God is forgiving, the joy of God is forgiving! … Here is the entire Gospel! Here! The whole Gospel, all of Christianity, is here!” And this idea very well creates the foundation of the pope’s vocation, indeed, of his very Christian life! Such a life is what Coolman thinks is Francis’s particular modality for Christian existence—a “winsome orthodoxy,” that is, a “pleasant” or “appealing orthodoxy.”
Unpacking this “tone,” as HRC calls it, or this “mode,” as Coolman describes it, is a project left for intelligent theologians and very holy people. After hearing Coolman share his insights about Francis, I turned to a fellow and said, “Within our lifetime, there will be whole commentaries on the pope’s theology.” It was a joke, of course, but I was attempting to make a point. The pope has not spoken extensively about every important issue facing the church today, and many of his speeches, audiences, and interviews are offered in that grandfatherly, conversational way. That is to say, if already people are attempting to interpret the meaning of his words, what more will come when a “theology of Francis I” is desired for understanding his papacy and the Church under his pastoral care?
Rev. Robert Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and a professor of theology at Boston College, wrote an enlightening response, “An Ongoing Conversation,” to the Holy Father’s interview which was published online on Sept. 24 by America. His questions for the pope highlight points in need of clarity and offer area for further discourse. But I very much appreciate his stress on the fact that the pope’s interview was a conversation (conversazione). He thinks “placing the pope’s remarks in the genre of conversation may serve as a better guide for their ongoing interpretation.” This, I think, is the tone, the mode of which we have spoken. Francis’s theology is orthodoxy, and his love is genuine love born of the love of Christ, but his tone, his mode of discourse, and interaction is conversational. He is, I think, a grandfather who wants to share a story with you. And you are left among yourselves to figure out each facet of the story.