Last week, as the House Republicans held a gun to the country’s head, I failed to address yet another remarkable interview by Pope Francis, this time to the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, who is an atheist, in La Repubblica. Like his America interview, I urge you to read it, whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a believer or anything in between. I tried to absorb it all this weekend, and found it difficult. Difficult because it was so overwhelming in its power, and because I need time to pray and think some more about what he said. I mean, what can one say immediately about a Pope who can say:
Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.
Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.
A religion without mystics is a philosophy.
I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres.
It is as if the Catholicism that has been forming and re-forming in my own mind and soul for years suddenly became clearer, calmer, simpler. This Catholicism, like Saint Francis’, is about abandoning power and all the trappings of power; it is about leaving politics alone in an independent sphere, in stark contrast to Christianism which is primarily politics and ultimately about power; it is a faith rooted in mystery and mystics; about love and mercy; about the core teachings of Jesus again – made fresh.
I would say that it is a miracle. Francis’ emergence as Francis is a miracle. Literally:
Before I accepted I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go way and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it, the Cardinal Camerlengo countersigned it and then on the balcony there was the ‘”Habemus Papam”.
Made every thought disappear. And what appears when thought has been left aside? Light!
God is the light that illuminates the darkness, even if it does not dissolve it, and a spark of divine light is within each of us. In the letter I wrote to you, you will remember I said that our species will end but the light of God will not end and at that point it will invade all souls and it will all be in everyone… Transcendence remains because that light, all in everything, transcends the universe and the species it inhabits at that stage.
This is a Pope speaking to an atheist as an equal and in love. Which is where the church must begin again. It’s sad to me that so many orthodox Christians in America cannot yet see this. Here’s Dreher, in an otherwise positive response to the interview, finding the remarks “incoherent from a Christian perspective”:
I don’t get the universalism behind encouraging people to “move towards what they think is Good.” What the Wahhabist thinks is Good is not the same thing as what the secular materialist thinks is Good, and is not the same thing as what the Amish farm woman thinks is Good. I mean, obviously there will be some overlap, but if the Pope believes there is no reason to insist on Christian particularity, if Jesus is true for him, but not for everyone, then why evangelize at all?
Was Rod reading? “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” No wonder Russell Moore, a conservative Southern Baptist, calls the interview “a theological wreck. No wonder, at First Things, Mark Movsesian argues that
Some things he said in the interview are a frankly a little shocking.
He told the interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” That’s a rather dismissive way to treat millennia of Christian apologetics. The pope’s views on conscience were also odd, from a Christian perspective. “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” the pope said. “That would be enough to make the world a better place.” With respect, “do what you think is right” is not the Christian view of conscience. That sounds more like Anthony Kennedy than St. Paul. And would the world really be a better place if everyone did what he thought was right? How about jihadis?
Always with the Jihadis, those lost, damaged souls. K-Lo, of all people, defends what Francis said about conscience:
This isn’t “anything goes,” but it’s an exercise in mercy and justice.
What it is is an exercise in engagement, rather than power. This was Saint Francis’ genius, and Paul’s and Augustine’s. They were in their world as well as not of it. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has the best take:
[W]hen the Pope says “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”, that could be interpreted as a brief for moral relativism. Of course, the only problem with that interpretation would be that it would be arrant nonsense. Because, you know, he’s the Pope, and also an orthodox Catholic, as he has demonstrated on countless occasions…
The problem here, as always, is pride. We think like politicians. We parse words for whether they help the Republican Party of the Church or the Democratic Party of the Church, whereas we should be humbly receiving the teachings of the Vicar of Christ. When those teachings seem shocking to us, common sense alone dictates that, instead of rending our garments, we should, with humility and charity, check ourselves to see what we can learn.
That’s what I’m still doing. But what leaps out of the interview is a scoop, as John Allen noted and few others did. The scoop is that this Pope has undergone a mystical spiritual awakening – after that great silence and great light before he accepted the papacy. Allen remembers interviewing the new pope’s sister in April, who said “that something was different about her brother since he took over the church’s top job.” He continues:
Recently, I spoke to one of the cardinals who elected Francis (not an American, by the way), who had been received by the pope in a private audience. The cardinal told me he had said point-blank to Francis, “You’re not the same guy I knew in Argentina.”
According to this cardinal, the pope’s reply was more or less the following: “When I was elected, a great sense of inner peace and freedom came over me, and it’s never left me.”
In other words, Francis had a sort of mystical experience upon his election to the papacy that’s apparently freed him up to be far more spontaneous, candid and bold than at any previous point in his career.
One should never doubt the mystical imprint upon the contours of a papacy.
Isn’t it interesting that this story got largely ignored, while a sentence or two that allows Christianists to complain about “relativism” got so much attention? Why not simply examine, and take to heart, what Francis said about his namesake? Here’s what he said:
[Francis] is great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women. He is the most shining example of that agape we talked about earlier…
Francis wanted a mendicant order and an itinerant one. Missionaries who wanted to meet, listen, talk, help, to spread faith and love. Especially love. And he dreamed of a poor Church that would take care of others, receive material aid and use it to support others, with no concern for itself. 800 years have passed since then and times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary, poor Church is still more than valid. This is still the Church that Jesus and his disciples preached about.
This is still the church we can rebuild today.
Read the recent Dish thread on Pope Francis here.