Imagine a world leader who opens an interview with this confession: “I am a sinner.” After a pause, there is no spin, no retraction: “It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Pope Francis thus clearly established a strong foundation of humility and self-awareness for the powerful statements he made in an interview published this week in the Jesuit magazine America. “A Big Heart Open to God” is the extraordinary interview conducted by the Pope’s fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal; the interview appeared in Jesuit magazines around the world and has received widespread attention. I hope that everyone in the Trinity community can take time to read this groundbreaking interview that has so many important insights about the philosophy and leadership style of Pope Francis.
Already hailed in many circles for being the “Pope of Mercy,” Francis took the idea of mercy to a new level when he told the interviewer:
“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “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. 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…. And you have to start from the ground up.
“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. The confessor, for example, 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.
“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be 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. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”
This Pope is sending a very strong message of inclusion, of respect for the entire family of the Church. He rejects the notion that the people must simply bow to the dictates of hierarchy. He says, “The church is the people of God on the journey through history.” He expands on this idea:
“The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. 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.
“The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.”
He sees holiness in the daily lives of everyday people:
“I see the holiness,” the pope continues, “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.”
Does this refreshing perspective mean that the Pope is about to change all of the rules? Hardly. The popular media’s thirst for something truly sensational misses the entire point of what the Pope is saying. He is not a leader of grand gestures, but a pastor of common touches, inclusiveness, humility and deep insight into human nature. He knows, not only instinctively but through years of experience in serving his people, that they will follow a humble, merciful, inclusive leader more readily and more completely than a leader who preaches, berates and lives high above the common person.
This Pope is demonstrating a pastoral style that many Catholics have yearned for over the last few decades. The disputes within the Church over various matters of doctrine festered into political chasms over time when disagreements became power struggles, when matters of faith and morals got all mixed up with electoral politics. Establishing the moral ground rules for living is certainly what the Church must do; dictating how people must vote became a cause for division and disaffection, in many ways debilitating the moral teaching by conflating it with secular political considerations.
Pope Francis is re-setting the tone and style of the conversation. He is inviting everyone in, not barring the doors to those who disagree. This is an astute example of servant leadership, a style that leads everyone to make good choices without feeling the leader is dictating the choices. Motivating people to do the right thing is one of the hardest of all leadership challenges; Pope Francis is demonstrating courage and confidence by modeling a leadership style that will surely win converts — even among Catholics who have been living on the edges of the faith for a long time.
Read the complete papal interview here.
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See my blog on the Huffington Post: “Diss America”