I am, I must confess, still reeling from Pope Francis’ new, lengthy and remarkable interview. I can barely believe that these words – so redolent of Jesus’ – are coming from the new Bishop of Rome, after so long an absence. Although the Pope is unfailingly respectful of his predecessor, let no one doubt the sharpness of Francis’ turn away from the dead end of Benedict. His message is as different as the context. Where Benedict, draped in ornate vestments, spoke from the grand edifice of the Vatican, Francis is in the same simple hostel in which he was ensconced during the Papal Conclave. Why?
Community. I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta. At the time of the conclave I lived in Room 207. (The rooms were assigned by drawing lots.) This room where we are now was a guest room. I chose to live here, in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.
An inverted funnel, which he now wants open to the world and to his fellow human beings. And there is throughout a premise of humility, doubt, mystery, openness to new things. How many times have you heard a Pope be as self-critical in retrospect as this:
My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.
And when at the outset of the interviews he is asked simply who he is, he replies
I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.
He speaks of Carravagio’s painting ‘The Calling of St. Matthew” (see above):
That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.
But, for me, the most powerful argument Francis makes is about what Christianity is. It is not, in the end, about certainty. It is about faith as alive and open in doubt:
In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.
Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.
This profound mystery – that as soon as we claim certainty about the nature of God, we have lost the meaning of the nature of God – is at the heart of a Christian’s openness to the divine. Now think of this in contrast to the unrelenting fixation of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on enforcing total uniformity in even the tiniest details of sometimes esoteric doctrine, to banish debate entirely, to assert with more and more rigidity the impermissibility of dissent or doubt among the people of God. In the end, that rigidity is a neurosis, not a living faith. And to those who argue that a more open view of faith-in-doubt is tantamount to anarchy, to relativism, even to nihilism, Francis has a simple answer. No, it is not necessarily about these things, although they remain dangers. What makes all this work is what the Jesuits have long called “discernment.”
The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong. The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss … The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.
Faith is not in the head; it is in the soul and heart and body. It is our acting in the world, not our debating the finer parts of infallible doctrine in an “inverted funnel”. And look how Francis uses the term “infallible.” He uses it not to refer to the papacy, but to the people of God, you and me, and not in terms of possession of the truth, but rather the open search for it:
The church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.
This is the core message of the Second Vatican Council that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did their utmost to turn back in favor of papal authority. The hierarchy is not the whole church, just a part of it, in community with all the faithful. And he uses the example of the Blessed Virgin to buttress his point:
This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people. In turn, Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people, as we read in the Magnificat. We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.
And how we live is the only true expression of what we believe. Here is the rebuke to the theocons and their project:
If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.
And where is real faith?
I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity. I often associate sanctity with patience: not only patience as hypomoné [the New Testament Greek word], taking charge of the events and circumstances of life, but also as a constancy in going forward, day by day. This is the sanctity of the militant church also mentioned by St. Ignatius. This was the sanctity of my parents: my dad, my mom, my grandmother Rosa who loved me so much. In my breviary I have the last will of my grandmother Rosa, and I read it often. For me it is like a prayer. She is a saint who has suffered so much, also spiritually, and yet always went forward with courage.
My own beloved grandmother was a saint of a similar kind. I learned so much about Jesus from simply observing her. She lived a hard life, the seventh of thirteen children raising four of her own with no formal education and earning money cleaning the houses of priests. I can never forget her reaching down on the sidewalks to pick up cigarette butts and teasing the last tobacco out of them to make a new one for her disabled husband. I remember her simple warmth and love for me. I recall watching her get lost in the Rosary at Mass – and realizing that however much education I ever got – more than she could comprehend – none of it could give me the faith she had and lived so effortlessly.
I hear her faith in the words of this new Pope: a faith of simplicity and openness, a faith that caused her not to live in the past or future, but now. As Francis says:
There is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today … We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces… Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing…. We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us. Because God is first; God is always first and makes the first move.
And it seems that God has again made His move in a world that desperately needs Him; and His new servant, his new prophet, is Francis.