Let’s face it, Pope Francis thinks outside the box. This is very evident in the long interview by Antonio Spadaro, SJ which has just been published in major Jesuit journals around the world, including the English translation in America magazine. The Holy Father’s remarks are at once insightful, fascinating and challenging. And most of them are outside the box.
By this I mean that Francis is able to unify the best insights of what we might call the conservative and the liberal Catholic into a single vision which draws all of us into a mission of Christian service to the world, a merciful service of truth and goodness to those struggling in the dark. Thus when I read the interview from my background as a self-described “orthodox Catholic intellectual”, I naturally found the Pope’s reflections somewhat challenging. They invited me to set aside some preconceived notions, or at least to minimize certain tendencies, and to integrate my preference for a well-ordered analysis of the Gospel into a more missionary sympathy for those burdened by the messiness and confusion so characteristic of our time.
But at the same time I recognized that someone reading the interview from a more “liberal” or “progressive” point of view would find himself similarly challenged to set aside preconceptions, or at least to minimize certain tendencies, in order to seek to engage that messiness and confusion from the heart of the Church where it can be healed.
To put it another way, Pope Francis has a way of challenging the “conservative” Catholic to be more open to the mission of mercy and the “progressive” Catholic to be more open to the mission of mercy. A mission of mercy implies a deep willingness to share in the struggles of another, from which the “conservative” personality often recoils; and it also implies a deep willingness to resolve those struggles specifically in Christ, from which the “liberal” personality often recoils.
Or to try to express it one more time, both faith without mission and mission without faith are pointless.
Now all of these modes of expression oversimplify to some extent, for each one of us possesses the various human tendencies in greater or lesser degrees. What I am getting at is difficult to express without misunderstanding. But I believe that Pope Francis, in thinking so often outside the Church’s internal polemical box, has a way of challenging all of us to break out of our own personal categories in order to immerse ourselves more fully in the fundamental character of the Church as mission.
Inviting All of Us to Go Deeper
If this is so, then cherry picking individual quotes to “prove” this or that about the pope’s own “prejudices” is especially unfair and unfruitful. Very often we will be startled with the way he expresses something only to realize, on reflection, that we are being called to go deeper based on the totality of what he has tried to express. Accustomed as we are to what we might call the culture wars within the Church, we often allow particular words and phrases to serve as red flags which predetermine our reaction. This is a grave mistake, because Pope Francis simply does not think quite like the rest of us, and he certainly does not express himself like the rest of us.
He doesn’t seem to know the partisan shorthand; he refuses to speak in the secret code.
This presents us with an incomparable chance to deepen both our faith and our life in Christ in new and surprising ways. But I also wonder whether the decision of the Holy Spirit to bring this particular pope to the helm at this particular time means that a sufficient groundwork has been laid by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to enable the greater part of the Church once again to come together as a unified community.
My readers know that I think the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council is finally underway, and that the pace of that renewal in dioceses and parishes is increasing by the day. They also know that I see the mainstream Catholic universities and some mainline religious communities, especially among women in the United States, as major holdouts. But if the thirst for authentic renewal has at least reached critical mass (as I strongly suspect it has), then we will soon have people on all sides moving toward a deeper sense of Catholic mission. Pope Francis may be just the man to serve as a rallying point.
This is at least devoutly to be hoped. And it makes me curious. I am tempted to identify one favorite quote from this interview, not as an exercise in self-serving cherry-picking, but simply to say: “I loved this one because it challenged me to go deeper into what it means to be a Catholic.” Among several possibilities, I at first selected two. But I don’t want to cheat, so I’ll mention only one and let others fill in. Here is my one:
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.
In America’s edition of the interview, you will find these sentences at the end of the paragraph immediately preceding the subheading “Must We Be Optimistic?”