He’s great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women. He is the most shining example of that agape we talked about earlier.
Pope Francis’ description of his namesake, given in his recent interview with Eugenio Scalfari, is a popular one, both in style and content. In it is found the reason why the St. Francis-with-the-bird statue winds up in many a garden of those whose identity as Catholics is otherwise nominal. St. Francis had a love for nature. For some that will be the take home from the above statement of the Pope. But there is more in the Holy Father’s description. St. Francis was like Jesus. His life was poetry. He achieved a life of charity rarely found in mere mortals. Pope Francis is building, like his namesake. He is making something more significant of that statue in the garden. Thus, the pastoral method of Pope Francis in his interviews is personal, direct and spontaneous, but I believe we would be mistaken if we took them has haphazard.
As popular presentations, the Holy Father’s recent interviews are examples of dialogue with the world and of the new evangelization proposed to those whose link with the faith finds its greatest expression in a garden statue of St. Francis. So it is understandable that to the faithful who are cultural and intellectually rooted in Catholic tradition these interviews are often disconcerting and confusing. Catholics with a strong sense of identity expect the Holy Father to speak like the Pope to the all faithful and not like a friend who identifies with people whose problems keep them from completely embracing faith in Christ and the Church. This is a difficulty related to the challenges modernity presents to the furtherance of the Church’s aims.
But it is also a problem that we have been struggling with for the last fifty years, ever since Blessed-soon-to-be-Saint John XXIII challenged the Church to defend and promote the faith by learning how to speak the language of the modern world. To some extent the “defense of the faith” and the “voice of modernity” seem to be mutually exclusive, but this has not been the whole perspective of the Church in the light of Vatican II. Granted after fifty years, we can look back and acknowledge how naïve the spirit of the 1960’s was. And his leads Catholics to one of two conclusions: that the project of updating the promotion of the faith has been per se naïve, or that the proposal presents the Church with complex but not insurmountable obstacles.
It is clear on which side Pope Francis comes down on this debate. The nature of these interviews, indeed, the mere fact that they are interviews at all, place the Holy Father’s responses somewhere loosely in the categories of dialogue and evangelization, less so in that of catechesis and not at all in that of the exercise of his magisterial authority. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman calls them a “genre to which we were not accustomed.” The fact that Pope Francis chose to speak his mind through the press is indication enough that he wanted his responses to be discussed and debated. But in this he takes the mandate of the Council seriously and he exercises his pastoral authority, asserting that whatever risk is taken on is worth the benefits to be gained.
The popular style of the interviews lends itself to statements that are spontaneous, without the nuance and clarity that one would expect in magisterial teaching. Take for example his recommendation of the “modern spirit” and “modern culture,” which is a complex and difficult issue addressed by Vatican II, especially in Gaudium et Spes. What exactly the Church means by this is still under debate. Even Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has stated that the idea of modernity in Vatican II lacks clarity. But when Pope Francis mentions it in an interview spontaneously the phrase “modern spirit” can easily be interpreted in the broadest fashion.
The idea of “dialogue with non-believers” as well, lends itself to broad interpretation, especially in the context of off-the-cuff remarks. And yet Pope Benedict’s continual recommendation of “dialogue” is clearly distinguished from the mandate of the Church to evangelize and teach. Dialogue is about mutual understanding, neither about conversion, nor about arriving at the lowest common denominator. Pope Francis’s rejection of proselytization and promotion of dialogue can easily be misunderstood, but that does not make his position wrong or any less necessary. It is difficult for those with a strong Catholic identity to accept the fact that the best way to bring men closer to Christ is sometimes not the most direct path.
Nor is it easy for many Catholics of strong identity to accept position of Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI in which he posited that a no longer dominant and more spiritualized Church would be more powerful and that the new springtime in the Church would consist, not in mass conversions, but in a Church of martyrs who proclaim by their conviction that the Church is the future.
The practical difficulties in the modern world of proclaiming the full gospel, including the social reign of Christ the King, without turning the Church into some kind of separatist clique are very real. Zealotry for world domination eventually reveals itself to be reductive. The zealot eventually tries to conform the Church to something less than it really is. Pope Francis, like his predecessor refuses to reduce the Church to one of the popular polarities of right-left, progressive-traditional, conservative-liberal. At the heart of this refusal is perhaps the most positive, though often distorted, contributions of modernity to the promotion of Church’s ideals: the inviolability of the dignity of the human person. Conversions only take place when they are consented to by free men.
So Pope Francis is engaging in a conversation with society. He does not always speak in certainties, because our way forward is a matter of discernment that requires cooperation and collaboration. And he is not only talking. He is also listening. And I am sure he will be responsive to criticisms, even if he does not respond exactly the way his critics would like. But I would suggest that his critics need to presume a bit more sophistication on the part of Pope Francis and not accuse him of irresponsibility and self-indulgence.
We are not accustomed to the genre of the papal interview. We shall see what place this new genre comes to occupy over time. Pope Francis is sure to be responsive, but probably not reactive as his critics have been. We shall also see who was the wiser in this matter. I suspect it will be Pope Francis, because even now it is clear that he, like his namesake, is building, not tearing down.