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October 5, 2013

Focus on church of mercy: The Jesuit interview with Pope Francis -
What he said about Vatican II; about accompanying wounded people -
The government shutdown

In this edition:
1. What is the church? Interviewing the pope.
2. The pope comments on Vatican II.
3. The church: "field hospital" for wounded.
4. The Pope invents a word.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Government shutdown and Catholic Charities.
b) Government shutdown and federal budget.
6. One bishop's take on papal interview.
7. Pope teaches through witness.

1. What Is the Church? Interviewing the Pope

In the lengthy interview with Pope Francis published Sept. 19 by America magazine, and simultaneously by several other Jesuit publications around the world, he spoke emphatically of the church as a community. "In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people," Pope Francis said.

The pope covered much more ground in the interview than some may realize. It captured media attention everywhere. But in most cases reporters focused principally on a few of what are known as "hot-button issues." Much of what the pope said about the church's internal life and the lives of believers tended to get overlooked.

The interview with the Jesuit pope was conducted by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Rome-based Jesuit journal. Once again, what the pope said proved amazingly newsworthy.

No doubt when 2013 reaches its end, Pope Francis will rank at or near the top of most lists of the year's leading newsmakers. During some 43 years as a Catholic journalist I never have written this much or this often about a pope. His newsworthiness is undeniable.

"No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships," Pope Francis said of the church as a community.

He referred to the church as "the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows." The church, he insisted, must be "the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people." It would appear, then, that the pope rejects a view held by some today that the church would be better off as a much smaller community of the "purest" of believers.

In a word of caution, Pope Francis said to Father Spadaro that "we must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity." The pope added immediately: "The church is mother; the church is fruitful. It must be."

In comments related to his love of community, the pope spoke about his personal inclination to have people around. "I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others," he said.

This, he explained, is why he chose as pope to live in the Vatican guesthouse rather than in the papal apartment in the Vatican Apostolic Palace. His problem, he said, is not that the usual papal apartment is too luxurious, which he said it is not. Its problem, as he sees it, has to do with the comings and goings of people.

"The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace . . . is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs," said the pope.

. . . 2. On Vatican Council II

"What did the Second Vatican Council accomplish?" The question was asked of Pope Francis by Father Spadaro. The pope responded that "Vatican II was a rereading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture." He continued, speaking of the value of the liturgical reform linked to the council:

"Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a rereading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation."

The pope acknowledged the issues of "continuity and discontinuity" involved in ongoing discussions of liturgical reform. But, he said, "one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today -- which was typical of Vatican II -- is absolutely irreversible."

Then, speaking of those in the church who prefer celebrations of the Tridentine Mass, Pope Francis said he thinks the July 2007 "decision of Pope Benedict to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity."

But Pope Francis expressed concern about "the risk of the ideologization" of the old order and "its exploitation."

. . . 3. The Church: Field Hospital After Battle

A remark characterizing the church as a "field hospital after battle" quickly became one of the most widely quoted comments in the interview with Pope Francis. He prefaced this remark by stating that "the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity." Then he added:

"I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds."

Asked about needed reforms in the church, Pope Francis responded that "the first reform must be the attitude." His vision is one in which "ministers of the Gospel" are "people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people's night, into the darkness, but without getting lost."

What "the people of God want," Pope Francis said, are "pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials."

He urged, furthermore, that the church not content itself with simply welcoming and receiving people by "keeping the doors open." He said, "Let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent."

. . . 4. A Word Is Born: "Mercying"

God acts mercifully toward people, and the church is a community meant to act mercifully as well, Pope Francis suggested in the interview with Father Spadaro. "God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them," the pope asserted. He added, "It is necessary to accompany them with mercy."

Mercy was among the interview's focal points. It seems Pope Francis even invented a new word to highlight the action-dimension of mercy - to show more forcefully that mercy is something done, that it is, in other words, an action.

I take his new word to imply that one does not so much "have" mercy as one acts in a way defined by mercy.

Actually, it was God's way of being merciful to him that prompted Pope Francis to come up with the new word, "mercying." It all began when Father Spadaro asked the pope, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" - in other words, Who are you?

At first the pope stared at Father Spadaro "in silence." The Jesuit priest wrote: "I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: 'I do not know what might be the most fitting description. . . . I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition."

Then the pope continued "to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question." After a couple of other brief remarks about himself, the pope said:

"The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon."

At that point Pope Francis called attention to his official motto, "Miserando atque Eligendo" ("By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him"). The pope commented: "I think the Latin gerund 'miserando' is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: 'misericordiando' ['mercying']."

The suggestion seemed to be, then, that it is not enough to say that God had mercy toward him, but that God mercied him, so to speak - looked upon him in a mercying way.

As the interview with Pope Francis unfolded, it seemed clear that the pope also envisions the church as a community of mercy, a community that acts mercifully. He said:

"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

To show what he meant, he turned to the sacrament of penance. The confessor, he said, "is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, 'This is not a sin' or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Government Shutdown and Catholic Charities: "Three days after a shutdown of the federal government went into effect our congressional leaders remain unable to reach a compromise to keep our government's doors open. The impact of this shutdown is being felt in communities across the nation. . . . Uncertainty, furloughs and limited resources at federal agencies directly hinder the vital work Catholic Charities agencies do every day. . . . In Tallahassee, furloughed workers are already coming to Catholic Charities agencies in need, their lost pay putting their family at risk of going hungry. In southern Nevada, seniors are worried that they will lose the food and companionship they have grown to count on through the Meals on Wheels program. And in Lubbock, a program for runaway youth is in jeopardy while grant-funded positions are on hiatus. . . . The longer this stalemate continues, the wider the ripples of Congress' failure to compromise will spread. We call on Congress to fulfill their responsibility of protecting the common good and end this shutdown now." (From the blog of Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA)

Government Shutdown and the Federal Budget: "We urge wise bipartisan leadership and moral clarity in crafting a plan to ensure the government continues to operate and meet its responsibility to protect human life and dignity, care for poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad, and advance the universal common good. . . . Pope Francis recently commented: 'You can't govern without loving the people and without humility! And every man, every woman who has to take up the service of government must ask themselves two questions: 'Do I love my people in order to serve them better? Am I humble, and do I listen to everybody, to diverse opinions in order to choose the best path?' If you don't ask those questions, your governance will not be good.' In 2011, we welcomed bipartisan action which averted a federal government shutdown and the hardship that would have come with failure to reach agreement. The Catholic bishops of the United States stand ready to work with leaders of both parties for a budget that reduces future unsustainable deficits, protects poor and vulnerable people, advances the common good, and promotes human life and dignity." (From a Sept. 30 letter to members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees for domestic justice and human development, international justice and peace, and migration. The letter was released one day before a federal government shutdown took effect.)

6. A Bishop's Take on Pope's Interview

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., discussed the interview with Pope Francis that appeared Sept. 19 in several leading Jesuit publications around the world. In his blog, the bishop commented, in particular, on the pope's insistence on the centrality of mercy in Christian life and his remarks on Vatican Council II.

"Quite frankly we are losing membership not because of the presence of the truth but because of the absence of mercy," Bishop Lynch wrote. His view was that "in Pope Francis we have a man who will lead the church by continuity with church teaching, calling for a greater application of compassion, mercy and forgiveness, and reminding all of us of the need for simplicity in our lives."

Readers of his blog know, Bishop Lynch supposed, that a recurrent theme of his holds "that everyone in the world knows what our church is against, especially in the last decade in the United States, but few know and even less appreciate what we are for."

He added that "while we need to speak prophetically from time to time against the great moral dangers of our age, we also need to speak mercifully of those who disagree, fail to understand or feel wounded or hurt by church teaching."

Turning attention to Pope Francis' remarks on Vatican II, Bishop Lynch shared his view that "the church largely abandoned the vision set forth in the Second Vatican Council documents of 'Lumen Gentium' and 'Gaudium et Spes,' paying it lip service at times at best, and began to worry more about what the council seemed to have unleashed than about what the Spirit may have been saying."

There is no place in his heart "for the blame game," Bishop Lynch stated. There is only "a restless desire . . . to get back to the task of renewing, reinvigorating, reimaging which was the true outcome of the council."

7. Pope Francis Teaches Through Witness

"Reporters and commentators, both secular and religious, are reading the tea leaves, trying to find hidden meanings and clues by parsing and analyzing the pope's interview published in Jesuit periodicals," Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., writes for America magazine. He thinks, though, that "it is time to put away the tea leaves, and drink the tea."

How is Pope Francis to be understood? Bishop Cupich says that "Francis offers the witness of one who has personally internalized and who himself lives what he preaches and proclaims." That, the bishop observes, "is the essential feature of true evangelization, which Paul VI had in mind in 'Evangelii Nuntiandi' (1975): 'Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.'"

"Ultimately," Bishop Cupich writes, "it is only the witness who convinces people, not the teacher."

The words of Pope Francis "cannot be understood apart from his witness," Bishop Cupich believes. He writes:

"In this interview, content and form converge. Analyzing it for hints of particular changes in ecclesial policy and practice may be more entertaining, but, like entertainment, it is a diversion. We should focus on a person who reveals himself as a fresh witness of the Gospel, who is stirring our hearts to take up the journey with him as a fellow disciple with new vigor and purpose.

"His words and witness are an invitation to humbly and actively seek God working in the world and in the people called to be God's own."

Bishop Cupich said he already can identify some areas of his ministry that will benefit from this witness by the pope. One area involves "catechesis, preaching and passing on the faith."

These, he writes, "must not only be about educating the members of our communities in the content of our tradition. This is important, but it must equally be about developing their spiritual sensitivity to the ways God manifests his presence and action in the world."

Bishop Cupich thinks that "schooling people in the ways of ongoing discernment produces a greater receptivity to the tradition of the church and at the same time creates the freedom that will make them more responsive to the will of God throughout their lives." Achieving "this balance," he believes, "is in keeping with the Lord's great commission, 'Go teach 'and' make disciples.'"

One of the other areas in which his ministry will benefit from the witness of Pope Francis involves "collaborative governance," Bishop Cupich says. Such governance "needs to be more than calling on the advice and competence of others to make up for our episcopal shortcomings. Rather, governance involves seeking how God is revealing his work through others in the community."

Bishop Cupich writes that "rather than limiting our consultation to those with financial and legal abilities, we also need to listen to those who work side by side with the poor each day and who are on the frontlines in health care, education and other fields of ministry."

He cautions that "we diminish our effectiveness when we do not call on these brothers and sisters to gain insight before making decisions in these areas. But, even more important, we pass up the chance to see how God is working through them and to more fully know God's will."