The recent interviews given by Pope Francis have created a whirlwind of commentary all over the world. In some cases his words have shocked those who did not take the time to examine them carefully.
European and American media are trying to make Francis look like a revolutionary Pope that is going to “update” the Church to more modern standards. That coincides perfectly with their idea of the Church being a petrified, recalcitrant organization reluctant to let go of her “medieval ways.” Catholics leaning towards the progressive have welcomed reports of that sort. As it was to be expected the same news were cause of concern for those on the traditional side.
The interviews were extraordinary, no doubt. From the beginning the Pope made clear what is important to him. He defined himself as a sinner chosen by God to fulfill a mission. Thus Francis includes himself with the totality of the human race that he was chosen to serve, for all of us are sinners —even those who do not want to admit it. The Pope also identifies himself as the object of divine attention, a man chosen in spite of his sinfulness. That is reflected in the current papal motto: miserando atque eligendo.
To my knowledge none of the previous popes has defined himself in those terms. One can see in that self-definition something quite valuable, a proposal to the whole world —both Catholics and non-Catholics— listening to his words. For sin is what strongly defines the present age —let us not forget that not even the Catholic Church remains free of the stains of this sinful era— and yet neither the world nor the Church has been denied God’s redemptive attention. Even in this critical situation God continues to reach out with the instruments of His grace. One of the tools God uses is the Church, now led by Francis.
Francis’ self-definition is no mere gesture. He has expressed the very central tenet of the Catholic Faith: we are sinners chosen by God for a search and rescue mission. We are to participate with God in reaching out to everyone in the world, giving witness of God’s love for mankind. Our first Pope defined himself in just the same way as Francis: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). All have sinned and fall short of the grace of God but at the same time, miserando atque eligendo, we are the object of divine grace that seeks to save us while we are still sinners. Thus through the many tribulations that come with it, the very malady of sin is transformed in a place where we can encounter God. That is grace, the first priority, the place where God begins to work and where the divine presence is felt more intensely. That is the center of the Gospel and continues to be the center of the catholic mission throughout all time: to present the Church to the world as a place where sinners can encounter God.
If we forget to enter through that door of grace, if we choose to use the Gospel exclusivelyas a platform to condemn abortion, homosexual unions, or any other matter of greater or lesser importance, we run the risk of placing more weight on the gravity of sin while forgetting the capital importance of God’s redemptive grace. In some cases we may lose sight of our objective of saving the sinner by inviting him to the embrace of divine mercy. We may turn our message into a sterile condemnation, the empty enunciation of rules that not even we ourselves can honestly comply with. We would be sleepwalking blindly through the landscape of grace, lost in a nightmare of our own making, oblivious to the work of God in the world.
Pope Francis is reminding us that the Church is not a little chapel for a few good men. That is perfectly in accordance with Holy Scripture and Tradition. God said that magnificently in Isaiah 56: “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This does not convey the idea of a few chosen ones congratulating each other for their extraordinary holiness. Saints do not have to sacrifice anything. Sacrificing is the business of sinners in need of atonement. To call all the nations to the house of God has been the mission of all godly men since the days of the Old Testament and continues to this day.
In the mystery of His redemptive work, God has not called the morally perfect (i.e., the holy angels) to witness to mankind. We see that clearly in two stories that are well known to all Catholics: the story of Jonah, and the story of Peter’s “quo vadis.” Jonah was selected by God to go and prophesy to the sinful city of Nineveh. God’s prophet tried in vain to skip town and go somewhere else instead. In time he was forced to obey the divine instructions. Nineveh repented and was spared. But in a strange case of schadenfreudeour prophet was very frustrated when God called off the city’s destruction. God showed us in Jonah the not-so-rare case of those who preach against rebellion forgetting their own disobedience. Peter’s case is equally well known. Running from his mission, Peter the Bishop of Rome was taking a quick hike up the Apian Way when he saw his own Lord and Savior going in the opposite direction. He asked Him “Domine, ¿quo vadis?” and the Lord’s answer shamed our first Pope all the way to repentance and martyrdom: “Romam vado iterum crucifigi”. Peter turned around and eventually Rome was turned around also.
If we listen to Pope Francis having those things in mind we should be able to understand his “controversial” words much better. He says the Church has been mired in small insignificant rules that had a detrimental effect in her great mission. He reminds us that we must put first things first and understand that we have been entrusted with the most important message that mankind will ever hear: “Jesus has saved you!” That is the meaning of the initials IHS that are found everywhere in our temples: Iesus Hominum Salvator. We are invited to first bring man before Christ’s mercy. From that moment of encounter and salvation, man begins the slow ascent towards the perfection of moral rules, advancing towards a cleaner and holier life through many struggles and tribulations. That is how the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.
Inside the heart of God, invisible to our eyes, the miserando silently happens and is manifested in the world in the eligendo. In time we will get to wipe out the last speck of sin in our soul, and there will be a time when the last trace of sin will be cleaned on the last sinner’s soul. We must understand though that beginning with the details can be counterproductive —no matter how important a problem is, it is always small compared with the enormity of God’s grace. No one starts to clean a huge muck-covered truck with a toothbrush. In the same fashion it is useless to address a sin-ridden world with rules or mere politics. That would be the best way to fail and be rejected. Souls will not be ready for a detailed clean up until they get some heavy hosing with grace.
Pope Francis did not say that moral rules are no longer valid. He did not say that the Church is no longer a moral referent for the world. We know very well that in the past he has condemned abortion, homosexual unions, and other errors that our society should avoid. Yet none of those things should be presented in such manner as to make people believe that prohibitions define our mission. The Church cannot be defined exclusively by its opposition to the dissolute morals of a society that has made abortion a necessary evil, and turned homosexual unions into an egalitarian ideal. We cannot allow ourselves to be defined by a negative because what really defines us is the most positive thing ever known to man: the infinite grace of God! For example, no one in his right mind would define Judaism primarily as “a group of people that do not eat pork.” That being true would still be an utterly nonsensical definition. In the same manner we cannot forget the primordial message of our mission, the truth that gave us everlasting life: “Jesus has saved you.”
By leaving a few things in the shadows, Pope Francis has skillfully engaged the international media in a dialogue. Catholic writers and thinkers, used to the diaphanous definitions of Woytila and Ratzinger, had to read with extreme care —and with some trepidation— the provocative statements of this new Pope. The result has been a proliferation of Catholic commentary all over the media and no small amount of reflection. Pope John Paul said, “Unless it appears on the media, it did not happen.” Score one goal for Pope Francis for making the world and the Catholic media talk about faith!
The media will continue misinterpreting the words of Pope Francis because their ears are filled with their own noise and they always hear what they want to hear. We must pay attention to Francis carefully, like Catholics grown up in the faith, able to understand some of the rules we were talking about before. In this case there is a clear rule: Francis is the Pope and we are not. He does the talking and we do the listening. That is in the nature of theocracies —and the Church is a theocracy— If the phrasing of the Vicar of Christ is not clear, there is a good opportunity to have faith in the promises of Christ, namely that Peter will not teach error.
This is a wounded generation in a wounded world. We live among millions of people that have lost their way. Many of them don’t even know where they are trying to go. If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there. But we know that all roads lead to Rome eventually, except that “broad road that leads to destruction.” Jonah saw how Nineveh was saved through repentance; Peter began in Rome the transformation of a pagan empire into the glorious Christendom. We have to do our part in our own time. We want to be counted with Peter, and with Francis who is Peter for our time. We have to help in bringing to others the good news of the Gospel and let the truth bring about a change in the world. If we can achieve that through God’s grace, like Jonah and Peter, then abortion and homosexual unions will go the way of the cruel games at the Circus Maximus and the Roman custom of infanticide. Our mission is to lead men to encounter God’s grace. The rest is just details. Everything remains the same: we will continue to pray the rosary in front of abortion clinics; the Church will continue to be the last moral referent in this world darkened by disobedience. Francis in his interviews simply reminded us that the horse goes before the cart.
Vespers of the Anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun by Our Lady of Fatima, 13th May 2013.