On Thursday, September 19, Jesuit publications worldwide published an extensive interview with Pope Francis. The interview is being widely discussed in news outlets and blogs, with special focus being given to his statements on papal reform (in both attitude and structure), hot topics like abortion and gay marriage, and women in church leadership. While Francis addresses these controversial issues head on, they are not the full substance of the wide-ranging interview.
What all did Antonio Spadaro and the pope really talk about?
We've heard countless reports of Pope Francis's humility: his forgoing the luxurious, bulletproof popemobile for a vintage Renault 4, and his living in a Vatican guest room rather than the Apostolic Palace. But in this interview, we encounter a new dimension of the pope's modesty.
Spadaro asks Pope Francis point-blank, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" The pope's answer is shocking: "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. … I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance." It is striking, on a personal level, that the pope would declare himself first and foremost as a sinner. After all, he is the Holy Father, the head of the Catholic Church. Though many Christian leaders are reluctant to speak publically about their shortcomings, the pope nevertheless recognizes his tendencies as a sinner, and confesses wholehearted trust in God's unending grace. And he states that penance is a response to God's grace, not the mechanism that activates God's grace.
The pope was also honest about his past leadership shortcomings. When asked how his experience as a Jesuit superior can serve his governing the universal church (the style of governance of the Society of Jesus involves decisions made by the superior, but also extensive consultation with his official advisors), Francis said, "In my experience as superior in the Society … I did not always do the necessary consultation. And this was not a good thing. My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. … I made my decisions abruptly and by myself."
Yet he has learned from his mistakes: "I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins. So as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, I had a meeting with the six auxiliary bishops every two weeks, and several times a year with the council of priests. They asked questions and we opened the floor for discussion. This greatly helped me to make the best decisions. But now I hear some people tell me: 'Do not consult too much, and decide by yourself.' Instead, I believe that consultation is very important."
The Need for Community
When asked what drew him to the Jesuit order, the pope said: "Three things in particular struck me about the Society: the missionary spirit, community, and discipline." He claimed to be a "really, really undisciplined person" and then emphasized his craving for community: "I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community."
That's what led him to live in the Vatican's Santa Marta guest room 201. He said he didn't want to live in the Apostolic Palace because it's like an "inverted funnel." For him, the entrance is too tight: "People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others."