Pope’s compassion opens way to second look at church teaching

Interview emphasises mercy, not legalism

Pope Francis washing the foot of a prisoner at a youth prison in Rome in March –   “with his utterly refreshing candour and openness, and his blunt description of himself as a ‘sinner’, he is allowing people to see Catholicism in a new light.” PHOTOGRAPH:  REUTERS/OSSERVATORE ROMANO

Pope Francis washing the foot of a prisoner at a youth prison in Rome in March – “with his utterly refreshing candour and openness, and his blunt description of himself as a ‘sinner’, he is allowing people to see Catholicism in a new light.” PHOTOGRAPH: REUTERS/OSSERVATORE ROMANO


Bishop Frank Caggiano, recently appointed bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is from Brooklyn. He is a regular visitor to Ireland, and to this Irishwoman he has always looked and sounded as if he could moonlight as an actor in a Mafia movie, if only his eyes were not so kind.

Bishop Caggiano spoke presciently about Pope Francis days before the media frenzy surrounding the exclusive interview printed in 16 Jesuit journals.

Speaking about the contemporary phenomenon of indifference to Christianity, Bishop Caggiano suggested there were two “moments” that help to overcome apathy. The first is a “wow” moment, when “people are invited, and sometimes forced to take a second look”, a moment that means the person who is indifferent is “at least minimally engaged”.

The second is “for for someone on the local level to be able to engage the person personally, so the healing process may begin”.

Hot-button issues

Bishop Caggiano said “Pope Francis is creating that first step across the whole church, in every venue and walk of life, among believers and nonbelievers, which is remarkable”. However, the bishop pointed out, “what most people in
leadership don’t realise is that he’s creating a window that will not last forever”.

If local church communities do not step up to the challenge, and provide spaces where people can experience for themselves the joy and challenge that the Pope embodies, then his example will be in vain.

I think Bishop Caggiano is right. Pope Francis, with his utterly refreshing candour and openness, and his blunt description of himself as a “sinner”, is allowing people to see Catholicism in a new light. He is allowing people to see the breadth and depth of Christian belief, that extends far, far beyond a few hot-button issues.

He has a profound compassion that allows people to take a second look at church teaching, even regarding these same hot-button issues.

In the interview Francis says: “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says.”

Change in style
But the way that he is saying it emphasises mercy, not legalism. For too long, gay people felt condemned in the core of their being. Francis is saying that they are people first, as deserving of care and respect as any other child of God.

People are naturally contrasting the change in style from Benedict’s papacy. The irony is, of course, that Pope Francis would not be Pope if it were not for the radical step taken by his predecessor.

By retiring, Benedict demystified the papacy, reduced the dangers of “pope-olatry” and paved the way for Francis. Only someone with Benedict’s heavyweight intellectual and theological credentials could have had the credibility to do something so completely unprecedented.

Fans of Susan Cain’s TED talk (bit.ly/wxlmQO) about how our culture lionises extroverts and fails to value the distinctive style of the introvert, might feel a little put out on Benedict’s behalf, but I suspect the Pope Emeritus is perfectly happy to witness his successor’s

Pope Francis’ interview is well worth reading in its entirety. Don’t accept any spin, whether it be of the “Pope said stop talking about abortion, gay marriage and contraception” variety, or the “Pope said nothing new whatsoever” slant. Read it yourself – americamagazine.org/pope-interview.

Pope Francis is neither a populist nor a restorationist. He is someone at once more complex and more simple than those two poles. He is a follower of Jesus in the Catholic tradition, one who is steeped in spirituality and discipline of the Jesuit order.

I tried to pick out a favourite passage from the interview, and failed. Too many invigorating choices. Perhaps the
most original passage is likely to be overlooked – his reading of “thinking with the Church”.

Fr James Martin, SJ, explains that this phrase originated with Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Fr Martin describes Ignatius’ description of thinking with the church as “an invitation for a person to incorporate himself or herself deeply into the life of the church and align himself in the most profound way with the church’s teaching”.

Inspirational figure

However, Pope Francis has changed the emphasis from thinking with the hierarchy, to thinking with all the “holy, faithful people of God”. It is a subtle but tremendously important difference. In the long-term, it may be the most significant aspect of this interview.

For me, though, this passage is very special: “A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God – this is the sign that you are on this right path.”

Pope Francis really is an inspirational figure. Now, those of us with the temerity to call ourselves Catholics have the challenge of remaining as conscious of our own flaws as he is of his, but also as
confident as he is of having something far greater than himself to offer.

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