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Friday, September 20, 2013

Pope Francis: Beyond the Headlines

There is a young man in my parish who is much drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. One of his  habits in written communication is to end with the words, "forgive me." The first time I read them they shocked. "What," I wondered, "had he done to ask my forgiveness?" Over time I realized it was the Orthodox spiritual principle at work within him. Conscious of his sin, he reminds himself and others of the need for mercy.

While this principle is also at work in the West, it seems to have a different twist. Here it is more "filthy rags" and the "worthlessness of our good works."  While no doubt true such statements also breed a certain distrust in me. If the medical care giver's works of mercy are equated as garbage on the level of the rapist's heinous act is there any point in anything? Yet the humility of recognizing "I am a sinner" can, and does, provide a fitting place to begin (without the unneeded denigration of any goodness I as a sinner perform).

I wanted to reflect on Pope Francis' latest media splash. However, the words in the paper left me wondering what he had really said. [Once again, the media reports are not really accurate, even when the quotes are verbatim. Go here for the actual text] The Pope's first words in the interview: Asked who he is his response was “I ​​do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

His words confirmed my initial reaction to the quotes being bandied about in the media. This is a man acutely aware of his sin as a personal experience, not just a theological position. It is a man broken down by his own guilt, even shame, and who has come on bent knee, humbly, to seek God's forgiveness. It is a man on a mission to 'reform' the church. He will not  be the first pope to try to do such a thing. Like all fallible humans he will make missteps and errors. [Even devout Catholics understand that papal infallibility does not extend to any opinion of the Bishop of Rome. It is only when he speaks ex cathedra (a very, very rare occurence) that such a claim is made.] He admits that his style was 'authoritarian' when he led the Jesuits and it seems he is trying very hard to avoid such an approach again. Perhaps this is driving some of his worry and concern about how the Roman Church expresses Herself?

His vision of church is a "field hospital" where the broken world is ministered to on the front lines. He talks about the danger of the confessional, where the priest can be tempted to be too rigorist or too lax. He says neither is merciful; one focuses solely on commandments and the priest withdraws, while the other denies sin. In reality we are called to accompany sinners on their journey, proclaiming "Jesus has saved you from your sin!" [The media has only emphasized his anti-rigorist concerns and ignored the "less Liberal" statements] Over and over again he emphasizes that the minister must accompany the people, to be with them in the darkness of night (without getting lost themselves!) and to forge new paths for the flock so that no one is left behind. As he said, "God accompanies people and we must accompany them." Such words find their inspiration in the Gospel, the story of the Lord Jesus who was condemned for eating with sinners (read that one last Sunday!). "Being with" seems to be fundamental to his understanding of the church.

The judgmental or bureaucratic minded cannot do this work. "Pharisees" and "Sadducees" stand against Jesus as much as the lawless and decadent. In spite of what the newspaper articles seem to imply, the Pope is not against moral teaching. Neither is he changing it. He is, however, against using morality to identify and ostracize small groups or focus solely on a particular sin while ignoring the pastoral care that needs to be provided for any sinner.

His stance on the hot button issues (gays, abortion, birth control) are what the media love to focus on. However, the media is generally apathetic (or hostile) to religious faith. Journalists, by and large, do not love Jesus. They cannot be trusted to understand and convey the full content of the pope's words. For them it is "a story"; a headline to catch attention and drive sales. It is their job. I do not fault them.

Catholic faith embraces the person's ability to make decisions. Personal responsibility (an informed conscience, i.e. one studies Scripture and church teaching, asks the Holy Spirit to guide, and struggles honestly to discern the will of God) was hammered into my head for years. The internal forum (where I meet my God and decide what He wants) remains an option. Please not, I do not believe in gay marriage, but this does not mean I feel driven to condemn gays. I believe that each stands before God on their own. I know what the Bible says. I understand that heterosexual marriage is the God given norm. I also know, to return to the beginning of this post, that I am a sinner. All fall short. Everyone. I will not bless a gay marriage, but I will bless a gay person. More importantly, I think Jesus does, if they come on bent knee confessing their sins.

Anyone familiar with my writing on the topic will attest that I have a traditional stance (I will not rehash it here. I have been condemned for hate speech by the Left and do not see a need to prove my 'bona fides' to the Right). The pope does as well. He says the church's teaching is quite clear. He also says, and I agree, that the love of Jesus for all also extends to gays. And if the church does not exclude the unjust, the greedy, the mean, the selfish, the liar, the cheat and all other sinners, then it is fair to call the hyper focus on homo-sex sins as an obsession.

This pope is important. His words ring true to me (his actual words, not the new stories). [An aside, I think abortion is different from the other two.] I hope people will react to what he says not what the newspapers cobble together. I hope, more importantly, that we would all take seriously the words "I am a sinner" and the Good News "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners"! We need more focus on ministry to sinners (everybody) and that is what the Pope is advocating.


  1. In 2000 Pope John Paul forecast the importance of Christians' individual spiritual growth in the 21st century. I would expect that as a Jesuit, this Pope would support this growth.

    1. Thanks brother. I think the Pope is very much a pastor on a street level. Really impressed with him. Less impressed with the media coverage--but that is to be expected. God may be doing something special here with Francis.

  2. We are all sinners. Am I to say my sin is less than another's? I am not a rapist, but I have been with rapists and child molesters for hours having conversations. I know the evil which they commit. I detest the sin, but I find it hard to detest the person. I have literally watched bad men die, but I still cry out in my heart for a last moment of salvation for his lost soul. It is not my place to condemn another or pass judgement. That is not a job God gave me. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself." And I, like most, certainly love myself. I think the Pope is right.

    1. Because of the integrity of your words I find myself silent. thanks Wilton.