In the space of a few weeks, Pope Francis has apparently hit upon the way to get people to read what he has to say. It isn’t by issuing encyclicals, as he learned with his first. It is by talking to Jesuits and atheists.
The Pope has rattled some people and thrilled others with two (and counting) personal, provocative and always fascinating public conversations.
Francis has already shown a propensity for ad libbing during his speeches, and he is swamping social media with 9.3 million followers on Twitter (where his daily tweets are being retweeted an average of 11,000 times). Now he is using traditional print media to connect directly with people.
One interview, with Jesuit Anthony Spadaro, a 12,000-word reflection on everything from the Jesuit religious order to his favorite movies, caused headlines around the world with his comments about homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. Forty-plus years into the culture wars, many were surprised to hear the Pope say “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.”
The interview, particularly the handful of paragraphs dealing with sexual issues, created a firestorm of reaction. A pro-abortion organization even complimented the Pope — a masterful PR stroke that had pro-life Catholics gagging. (The organization had nothing to say the next day when the Pope stoutly upheld the church’s teaching on abortion.)
Little more than a week later, the Roman daily La Repubblica published the news of a face-to-face conversation between the Pope and its publisher, Eugenio Scalfari, an ex-Catholic and atheist.
They talked about religion, the soul, proselytism and the seeking of the good. Headlines came from quotes attributed to Pope Francis calling the papal court “the leprosy of the papacy” and criticizing the Curia for being too “Vatican-centric.” (Although the article was presented as a transcript of the exchange, subsequent news reports say that the account was a “reconstruction” of the conversation from memory.)
All of this has some Catholic conservatives concerned and some Catholic liberals cheering, but both seem to be misunderstanding this new papacy.
Barely six months into the reign of Pope Francis, it is clear that this is a truly new pontificate in a way that Pope Benedict’s was not. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had served for 25 years as one of John Paul II’s closest associates and put his mark on many of his policies and documents.
When he became Pope, Benedict left his own mark in terms of his writings, but in many ways his was a continuation of his predecessor. In this sense, Pope Francis is the first new papacy since 1978. What we are seeing is a significant shift in terms of style, priorities and communications. It might be comparable to John Paul II after Paul VI or John XXIII after Pius XII.
Which is to say that it is going to take the church a little while to catch up with the Argentine upheaval.
Churchmen and professional Catholics are likely to be the most nonplussed by Francis. He has made it clear he wants different kinds of leaders. His recent talk to the new bishops (warning them to stay close to their dioceses) and his decision to stop awarding monsignorships are warning salvos for those with clericalist or careerist ambitions.
On the other hand, his impact on ordinary Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been extraordinary, a lesson that should not be lost on other Church leaders. His example of humility and his exhortations of discipleship are being closely followed by folks of all religions and no religion. Even non-Catholic religious leaders seem transfixed by the eloquence of his example.
It is a risk, of course, that the Pope is simply this season’s favorite celebrity prophet. Jon Stewart, Garrison Keillor, even Barack Obama have expressed admiration. (Obama told CNCBC that Pope Francis is “someone who is first and foremost thinking about how to embrace people as opposed to push them away.” The possible application to the current political standoff was left unmentioned.)
Francis is a Pope who has made it very clear that he is not afraid to take risks. Shortly after he was elected Pope, he wrote to the Argentine bishops: “A Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms.”
He conceded that at times, like anyone else, in going out the church risks running into accidents. But, he added, “I prefer a thousand times over a church of accidents than a sick church.”
He is a risk-taker, but not a revolutionary. He is not out to scrap all those discomfiting teachings that make moderns queasy. He describes himself with good reason as a “loyal son of the church.” His concern is pastoral, not dogmatic: How the church “goes out of itself.”
He sees no value in being a “small chapel,” nor in constantly bemoaning the state of the world. “Complaining never helps us find God,” he told Spadaro.
When he talks with atheists, when he embraces the handicapped and speaks out for the poor, he is modeling how this encounter can take place.
Francis, despite the humility with which he describes his own flaws, is a very smart man.
In a brief four-minute talk during the General Congregations, he stated what should be the four priorities of the next Pope:
- The church must go to the “peripheries,” to the edges of society, to the places of sin, suffering and injustice.
- The church must overcome its tendency to be stuck in a kind of “theological narcissism.”
- The church must overcome its own temptation to worldliness, living “in itself, of itself, for itself.”
- The next Pope must be “a man who, from the contemplation of Jesus Christ . . . helps the Church to emerge from itself to arrive at the existential limits.”
It sounds like Cardinal Bergoglio wrote his own job description.
What excites many and disturbs some is simply that the Pope seems to be living this agenda. In word and in deed, he is inviting those who do not know Christ to “let God search and encounter” them. And to those who call themselves Catholic, he is challenging us that if we claim to be disciples, we had better get out there and meet the world.
Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also an adviser on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Read more reports from him — Click Here Now.
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