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Humble strength

/ 08:39 PM September 24, 2013

“Pope says pill OK” was a text message I got last week, and I knew right away it was a misinterpretation of a much-publicized interview with Pope Francis, one which has been picked up all over the world, with mostly positive responses.

Much of the mass media coverage of the interview focused on one of the Pope’s statements: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. 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.”

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I did some research after news came out about the interview (or The Interview) with Pope Francis. I didn’t want to depend on the newspaper articles alone so I looked for the original interview, which was published in the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica.

What was released to the public was an article about the interview, conducted by no less than Fr. Antonio Spadaro, the editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica. The article had many direct quotations from the Pope, but also gave many other details about the interview, and background information about the Pope. The article was then translated into several languages for 15 other Jesuit publications. I compared the English ones, which appeared in Thinking Faith in Britain and America in the United States, and except for the usual differences in British and American spelling of some words, the articles were identical—products of a team of five independent translators.

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I did realize, as I was going through the article, that I was operating on a Roman Catholic mode, looking for what the Pope actually said, almost as if he had issued an encyclical. I was in a sense looking for dogmatic declarations, losing sight of something more important, and that was the spirit of the conversation. The newspaper headlines all over the world were in fact more focused on that spirit. In the case of the Inquirer, it was “Love over dogma.”

Field hospital

If you read the article itself, you’ll find that the Pope’s statement on abortion, gay marriage and contraception appears in a section with the subtitle “The Church as Field Hospital,” where he talks about the greatest need for the Church being “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” much like a field hospital after battle. Further on, he says he dreams of a Church “that is a mother and shepherdess,” emphasizing mercy (which he has done in many other public statements). He talks, too, of Catholics wanting “pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”

He refers to confession, and how the confessional should not become a “torture chamber,” giving a hypothetical example: A woman with a failed marriage and who had an abortion has since remarried, and is happy with five children. She goes to confession because her past “weighs heavily on her conscience.” How should the confessor respond?

A number of newspapers picked up another papal quote: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”

Sinner

Also escaping media attention was the way the article started, with a question “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” To which the Pope answers, after some silence, “I do not know what might be the most fitting description… I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

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I can understand why the secular mass media did not pick up that line because it sounds too religious, but that confessional statement sets the tone, the spirit, for the entire article. I can understand now the other headline-making statement the Pope had made a few weeks back, in an airplane interview, about gay clergy: “Who am I to judge?”

Now that’s humility, especially coming from the head of a Church with 1.2 billion members.

There is much more to this interview than the Catholic Church. The emphasis on humility is especially important because here is a very powerful man who can follow a centuries-old authoritarian and often arrogant papal tradition, and I am sure there is pressure for him to do that. If he does, though, he will not only be succumbing to older traditions but also following an alarming trend in modern politics, which is increasingly becoming combative and noncompromising. Just look at the way the US government might grind to a halt soon because of a stalemate between the Republicans and a Democrat president.

The Pope uses words like “collegial” and “consultative” not in abstract or rhetorical terms but with concrete examples. Perhaps the most radical part of his interview, one that many of the newspaper articles missed out on, is his reflections on infallibility. In the past the emphasis has been on papal infallibility, but this Pope says there is also “infallibility in believing,” the “faith of all the people walking together,” and he says this is not necessarily with the “hierarchy of the church.”

Some people may find it paradoxical that while the Pope does not want to keep talking about issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception, he does emphasize the need to “proclaim the Gospel on every street corner.” To understand what may seem to be a contradiction, we have to understand his Jesuit identity. He talks of how the Society of Jesus is “always fundamentally in tension” and that a Jesuit “is a person who is not centered in himself.”

Elsewhere in the interview, the Pope emphasizes that St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, was a mystic, but not an ascetic, meaning someone who withdraws from the world.  This is a Pope then who reconciles spirituality without withdrawing from the world.

The Pope sets a model for engaging the world with humility, but without giving up on firmness. He has declared a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and recently sacked Gabino Miranda, a bishop in Peru who used to head the youth ministry of the Peruvian bishops’ conference. The last time a Pope “fired” a bishop was 20 years ago.

In the years to come, we will see more of this Pope’s strong humility, and we stand to learn from him in matters of family, community, the nation and the world. I’ve written in the past about my discomfort with dividing Catholics into conservatives and liberals and instead prefer “open” and “closed.”  We’ve heard more often about “katolikong sarado” (from the Spanish cerrado, or closed), mainly because an “open Catholic” seems like a contradiction in terms. The Pope sends signals that an open Catholic is not only possible but also essential to the survival of the Catholic Church.

E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: abortion, Catholicism, church teachings, column, contraception, homosexuality, Humility, la civilta cattolica, Michael l. tan, Pope Francis
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