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Francis is Much More than Frank

The unfiltered reflections of Pope Francis have the Catholic world buzzing.  Liberal Catholics are hailing the new Pontiff as a breath – perhaps strong gust would be better – of fresh air in a church trapped in a stale past under the weight of a hierarchy discredited by the abuse scandal and its conservative social views.  Traditionalist Catholics are either dismayed or are gamely exegeting the Pope’s words to demonstrate that, in the end, nothing is really changing.  The princes of the Church, particularly in the United States, are busy interpreting the interview through the lenses of their own agendas; Cardinal Dolan in New York, well attuned to popular views and astute in the ways of the media is riding the tide of enthusiasm.  Cardinal George in Chicago is grimly pointing out that the interview does nothing to undercut signature public policy issues like marriage equality and alleged assaults on religious freedom represented by the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.  Regardless of where one sits on the ideological spectrum, all agree that the Pope has been remarkably frank in his first months.

But a careful reading of the Pope’s interview actually places these hot button ecclesial and social issues in the background.  For beyond headline making statements is a thoughtful meditation by the Pope on his own vocation, his ministry, and the roots of his spirituality.  (Read the entire interview at http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview.)  Rather than simply a set of observations about this or that issue facing the church, the Pope’s words explore a rich pastoral imagination which, while clearly shaped by a Jesuit spirituality, is worthy of grateful consideration by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox clergy alike. 

Read in its entirety, the conversation represents an extended meditation on the interviewer’s opening question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Part of the Pope’s answer struck me immediately as deeply centering for the increasingly high stress, low status vocation of the pastor:  “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord.”  These are exceedingly modest terms of self-reference, rooting life and ministy among all the baptized, indeed among all people.  Francis goes on to relate this to the gift of holiness:

“I see the sanctity of God’s people. . . 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.  I often associate sanctity with patience. . . , taking charge of the events and circumstances of life, but also as a constancy in going forward, day by day.”

To think of ourselves in this way is to decouple ministry from notions of status, professionalism, privilege, educational attainment, and entitlement.  It reminds us that ministry is, above all, solidarity with all whose sanctity is found in being “looked upon by the Lord.”  This sounds remarkable for one who is situated amid the trappings of the Vatican.  But is it any less remarkable for the rest of us, lured by titles, vestments, or degrees to claim some form of entitlement or privilege that separates us from the people?  “We must not,” Francis admonishes, “focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised.”

When asked about his prayer life, Francis returns to this sense of humility at the heart of his vocation and self-understanding.

“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. . . .  It is the memory of which Ignatius speaks when he asks us to recall the gifts we have received.  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.  Memory has a fundamental role for the heart of a Jesuit:  memory of grace, the memory mentioned in Deuteronomy, the memory of God’s works that are the basis of the covenant between God and the people.  It is this memory that makes me his son and that makes me a father, too.”

Frank talk tends to attract scavengers eager to pick out the morsels serving their particular interests or to identify the phrases that are in error.  Read in this way there is much to celebrate, as well as portions to critique.  Read, however, as a meditation or testimonial to the vocation of one of the people of God, it becomes a gift of hope rather than fodder for the culture wars or hints of direction in the latest ecclesial dramas.  For in it we see the inner life of a priest who, while finding himself in an extraordinary role, refuses to see it as entitlement or privilege.  And in it there are clues for the rest of us who, in our more ordinary ministries, also need to remember that in the end, as at the beginning, we are always no more and no less than “one who is looked upon by the Lord.”

John H. Thomas
September 26, 2013

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