A reader responds to the incredible interview with Pope Francis released today:
After reading the Pope’s remarkable interview, I noticed that James Martin, an editor at America and himself a Jesuit priest, had a short companion piece about preparing the interview for publication. This comment jumped out at me:
Our review process was somewhere between editing and spiritual reading. One editor said that it was the first time she ever found herself in tears over a galley.
What a testament to the power of the Pope’s words – “in tears over a galley.” I felt much the same way reading it, disarmed from the very start by the sincerity of his own declaration of sinfulness, and moved by how clearly he feels the mercy of Jesus in his own life. You can tell this was not a perfunctory concession, like saying, well, nobody is perfect. His humility, his hesitation to judge, his approach to the life of the Church – all stem from the posture established in the first question: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” His reply? “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
There is so much to say about this interview – who knew he loves Dostoevsky and Hopkins? – but this passage in particular struck me as worth noting:
“I see clearly … that the thing the church needs 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. 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. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
“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.
There is so much suffering in the world, so much pain – not just because of war and poverty, but through depression and loneliness, broken homes and strained families. The message of forgiveness and mercy brought by Jesus, the simple words, “God is Love,” seem more needed, more fresh and powerful, than ever. The pain I feel at seeing the Church, and Christianity more broadly, turned into an adjacency of the culture wars and mainly understood as the purveyor of backwards, spite-filled moralizing, is because, as Francis argues, the Church should be “a field hospital after battle.” The Church should be a refuge, a place for the walking wounded to stumble into and receive love and mercy and care, without preconditions or expectations. As he puts it, you heal wounds, then you can talk about everything else. You lead with love, not legalism. I imagine Francis, smiling as he does, holding his arms open and saying, “Jesus has saved you, you are loved, come join us!” People need to know that when they walk through church doors, they are loved unconditionally. That it is a safe place, a place where there only is grace, where they are met exactly where they are, joined not by their moral superiors, but by fellow sufferers and sinners – people as much the casualty of the battled called life as they are.
The world needs Christianity, the message of Jesus, more than ever. You can see and feel it everywhere – people, young people especially, are hungry for meaning, are desperate for kindness in a world of strife. I’m amazed at how Pope Francis has met this moment, has felt and responded to this need. I don’t know when, or if, the Church will shift its position on, say, homosexuality. I think the Church will change, and I think Francis knows you can’t change your rhetoric about the issue this drastically without eventually changing substance, too — the cognitive dissonance is just too great. But that, really, is a secondary issue. “We can talk about everything else.” Or, as Francis said, “You have to start from the ground up.” What is that ground? Jesus himself, Love incarnate, friend to the sinner and outcast. That is the real story of Francis – his recognition that first things must be put first, that if the Church becomes a hospital for the wounded, a place of love and healing, then everything else will come in time. How Francis beautifully puts it:
I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.
This is a man with his priorities straight – and the powerful response to that so far shows us, I think, just how much the message of Jesus, the “pure Gospel,” continues to fascinate and resonate, meeting human beings at the places of their deepest longings, needs, and hopes.
(Photo: Pope Francis smiles after his weekly general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican on June 12, 2013. By Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)