Taken from the Catholic Universe 29 September 2013
Pope Francis has once again hit the headlines with a sensational 12,000 word exclusive interview given to Jesuit publications, in which he gives fascinating insight into his spirituality and character, as well as dropping several hints as to how he intends to govern the Church.
Of most interest to the mainstream press was the pronouncement that the Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and use of contraceptive methods” which has been widely reported as the pope indicating that there will somehow be a softening of the Church’s stance on these matters and that the church has previously been unhealthily obsessed with sexual doctrine.
As Francis made clear in the sentence that immediately followed this statement church the teaching of the Church is clear and he is ‘son of the church’, there will be no change of doctrine, however ‘it is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time’.
As someone who is frequently tasked with speaking to the media on a regular basis about precisely these issues, these words had me cheering with delight. The reason that Catholics find themselves talking so much about the Church’s teaching regarding sexual morality, whether that be on national television or simply around the water-cooler in the office, is precisely because this seems to be all that others are interested in.
What Francis has indicated is not that these issues are somehow no longer important, but that they are not what defines our faith, which is primarily about Jesus Christ, Son of God, Redeemer of the world, who suffered and died for our sins and rose from the dead. Catholicism is not a list of negative commandments but rather a message of salvation and hope, it is an offer and promise of eternal consolation and joy, not limited to an elite few, but to every single person here on earth, regardless of past sins, race, colour, gender or sexual orientation.
Francis is plugging Catholics back into the key message of our faith, one that makes the heart soar, not sink. He is urging us to engage in the New Evangelisation, to reinvigorate and excite both lapsed and non-Catholics with the message of the Gospels, which must always be relayed with love and compassion. Catholic Christianity is an invitation to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, not a set of random strictures.
While Church teaching on sexuality must not be forgotten about or discarded, it must not be those issues which define our faith, which should always be Christ-centred. What should be remembered however, is that the Holy Father is speaking from his perspective as a Catholic from South America, where vast swathes of the population are well-catechised, unlike perhaps liberal Europe, where the teachings of the Church are not so well-known or understood. Whereas most onlookers in Buenos Aires would understand what was happening if they were to witness a Corpus Christi procession for example, even if they did not participate, the same could not be said about the population of a typical UK city.
We should ensure that Church teaching, especially on matters where it is easy for people to make mistakes is clear, but what Francis is reminding us, is that it is the Gospels that must come first, we must set people’s alight, make ‘the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus’. Once we understand the message of joy, hope and forgiveness that emanates from the Gospel, then the rest will flow holistically. Being a Christian is not simply about blindly following a code of sexual ethics, which no matter how important, are ultimately meaningless if they do not reflect the message of Christ. It is in this context that Francis reflected that without God, without Christ, an emphasis that is only upon personal ethics ‘the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gosepl. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow’. It is imperative to put God’s love and mercy first and this must determine our interaction with others.
One of the most striking things about the interview was the tone which was overwhelmingly gentle, conversational, thoughtful and pastoral. It is this openness, compassion and willingness to engage which is proving to be one of the hallmarks of Francis’ papacy.
Perhaps one of the most important and overlooked motifs was the image of the church as a field hospital after battle. Not a remote pristine institution removed from the real lives of her members, but there in midst of troubles, actively attempting to help and heal everyone in their times of greatest need, regardless of their individual background. A field hospital is not there to serve the needs of an elite few, but to save and serve as many as possible and this must be the mission of the Church.
This is a vital image to those who are currently struggling or feel excluded by the church due to their personal circumstances, such as the person who has same-sex attraction or the remarried divorcee, who must be reminded that they too can be admitted to this field hospital. No-one should be excluded.
Particularly poignant was the reminder that far from the perceived hatred of homosexuals, the Church is there for them and wants to walk with them through life and that contrary to the impression given by certain fundamentalist Christian sects, God never rejects or condemns anyone on the grounds of their sexuality. We must always attempt to look on others with the eyes of God and consider their innate dignity. As Francis said ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence or this person with love, or reject and condemn this person. We must always consider the person. Here we enter the mystery of the human being’.
The reality is that the Church holds gay people in far higher regard than the secular media, we believe that that like the rest of us, deliberately made and deliberately love and destined for eternity and Heaven, and of course, like everyone else, are free to reject that. This is not a new concept, previous Popes have said similar things, but what is new is the manner in which this is being articulated, gone is the theological and philosophical language of the Catechism which can sometimes appear cold or lacking in emotion, replaced by a far more considerate and sensitive manner of speaking. The gay community is not a hypothetical academic concept but a group consisting of individual human beings.
Key to the theme of salvation, Pope Francis concentrated upon the sacrament of reconciliation which must not be akin to a ‘torture chamber’ and highlights the duel dangers for confessors of either taking too rigorous or legalistic approach or alternatively being too lax with penitents by trying to pretend that various errors do not really constitute sins. If the church is a field hospital, then it is via the confessional that wounds may be healed and transformed, but always with due care and attention.
Catholics are being encouraged to adopt a back-to-basics approach, to look at the bigger picture, if we put the message of Christ first in our dealings with others, instead of concentrating on the peripheral issues, in order to warm hearts and win souls. Francis is wanting to steer us away from the cultural wars which are so frequently damaging to relationships with others and have the potential to divert us from Christ himself.
Despite the pope’s image of being impulsive or spontaneous, with his many breaks from previous protocol, those with an eye on Vatican affairs and church governance will have been reassured by Francis’ admission that he is wary of hastily made decisions, preferring to take his time and discern the correct course of action. One of the items top of the agenda at the time of the conclave that elected Francis was the reform of administrative functions and processes within the Vatican, but the pope has made clear that he will not be rushed and that those who were hoping for sweeping changes may be disappointed. Francis discussed attempting to see everything from the point of view of God, when it came to issues of governance but echoing the words of his predecessor John XXIII, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little’ preferring in this area, to concentrate upon the small changes. The decision not to implement dramatic and potentially antagonistic sweeping changes, could well prove prudent and is a telltale mark of the shrewdness of Francis’ Jesuit order. That said, the movement towards more collegiality, and ‘thinking with the Church’, ensuring local Bishops are better empowered to deal with issues instead of referrals to Rome, will be welcomed by many.
Most endearing was the admission that like all of us “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner”. With a fresh new strategy accompanied by refreshing frankness, Pope Francis’ new style of papal communication and evangelisation is perfect for our age. The shepherd who lives amongst and innately understands the flock of which he is still a part.
I would encourage all Catholics to read the interview in full for themselves, which is both inspiring and uplifting. A demonstration as to how the Holy Spirit is still at work right at the very epicentre of the Church.