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What You Should Know About the Pope's New Interview
Image: Rex Features / AP

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?

Humility

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."

The pope's appreciation for community is only magnified in his discussion of the church. Belonging to a people has strong theological value, the pope said. "In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships…. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together." Perhaps this is a prophetic word for Christians who want Jesus apart from institutionalized religion.

For Francis, the church consists of "the people of God, pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God's people." He even said that we all can be part of a "holy middle class." Protestants reading this will likely hear echoes of their own understanding of the "priesthood of all believers"—that all Christians (despite class, rank, or title) are considered "spiritual" before God. For the pope, there seems to be no sacred-secular divide: "I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity."

Discernment and Reform

When asked what element of Jesuit spirituality helps him to be pope, Francis said, "Discernment is one of the things that worked inside St. Ignatius. For him it is an instrument of struggle in order to know the Lord and follow him more closely." He also said that the Jesuit "must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking." He also said he aims to "hear the things of God from 'God's point of view.'" For him, discernment, reform, and change take time.

So what needs reforming? He wants to see the church as a "field hospital." He said, "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, 'This is not a sin,' or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds."

But he also wants ministers to live on the "frontiers." His Jesuit missionary mindset wants the church to "step outside itself and to those people who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent." And he wants to see clergy "who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people's night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials."

Many readers have focused on Francis's comments on homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. He said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." He explained that the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. Instead of focusing on controversial issues all the time, he wants to give primacy to the preaching of the gospel: "A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing."

Women in the Church

Francis also said that the church lacks a profound theology of women. However, he also said, "I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of 'female machismo' [supremacy of women over men], because a woman has a different make-up than a man." But he also said that the church "cannot be herself without the woman and her role…. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman…. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions."

Pope Francis also talked about ecumenism, being hopeful rather than optimistic, his favorite poetry, literature, and films, and he even admitted to falling asleep while praying! He concluded with some remarks on prayer and the love and mercy of Christ: "Prayer for me is always a prayer full of memory, of recollection, even the memory of my own history or what the Lord has done in his church or in a particular parish…. But above all, I also know that the Lord remembers me. I can forget about him, but I know that he never, ever forgets me."

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