Pope Francis's interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, published in America Magazine, makes for inspiring reading. I have read it repeatedly, pen in hand, and each time I have found something new to think about.
This pope, in my view, is good news for Roman Catholicism.
What follows is a version of my most recent newspaper column.
Changing the tone
From the moment he stepped onto the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s square, humbly bowing his head to ask for the blessing of the people, Francis began to change the tone of the hierarchical church at the same time showing the world what it means to be a Christian.
Within days of becoming pope, Francis’s small acts – paying his hotel bill, riding in the bus instead of the papal limousine, and moving into Room 201 at Santa Marta instead of into the papal apartments - communicated humility and largesse of spirit.
Over the last six months, we have seen examples of his pastoral style, his informal and gracious manner of bringing the face of God to people. Actions, such as casually chatting with reporters on a plane, responding candidly to impromptu questions, and making “cold calls” to people who have written him for consolation, speak volumes about this man’s expectations for the church’s engagement with the world.
A field hospital, not a laboratory
Speaking with Spadaro about the type of church he would like to see, Francis compared the church to a “field hospital after battle”, saying that today the church must heal wounds and warm hearts. This image of the field hospital contrasts with another image Francis draws upon later in the conversation; that of the church as a laboratory. “Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.”
The contrast between these two images, especially when considered in light of Francis’s style, points to a change in emphasis away from moral pronouncements towards the proclamation of “the saving love of God” because “God is greater than sin”.
It appears that Francis wants to take the church out of the laboratory and into the streets, where faith, culture and morality meet and frequently collide, and where abstract truths must be balanced against the actual circumstances of people’s lives. He speaks about the necessity of proclaiming God’s merciful love ahead of moral and religious imperatives, frankly admitting, “Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.”
Shifting the focus, not the teaching
I think that by degrees, Francis is directing the church’s discussion with the world away from the obsessive discussion on gay marriage, abortion and reproductive rights towards the gospel message of mercy, compassion and love. He is also nudging the discussion on the ordination of women towards the less specific topic of the role of women in the church and its administration.
These shifts in focus do not invalidate the church’s teaching, nor do they mean that Francis intends to change the substance of it. As he told Spadaro, “The teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
I read this interview with great interest, and received Francis’s comments about the church with enthusiasm but mostly I was captivated with the tone of humility that animated the entire interview.
The pope's "dogmatic certainty"
Francis’s spirit is clearly evident in what he defines as his “dogmatic certainty”: that is, “God is in every person’s life…Even if that person has been a disaster…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.”
Francis’s dogmatic certainty is good news and it gets right to the heart of the Christian faith. The church is not a laboratory for the formulation of doctrine; it is the field hospital where an encounter with God is always possible.