Father James Martin on the Pope’s Interview: ‘We Knew We Had Spiritual Dynamite’

The story behind — and the real message of — the Pope's first official interview

  • Share
  • Read Later
Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on Sept. 18, 2013

It was hard not to spill the beans about the exclusive interview that America magazine published yesterday with Pope Francis, entitled “A Big Heart Open to God.” Pope Francis’ first miracle may be the fact that Jesuits and their colleagues at 16 Jesuit magazines across the world kept a secret for so long.

We knew that what we had in our hands was spiritual dynamite. The Pope touched upon almost every area of concern for modern-day Catholics, from the role of women and the need for reform in the Vatican curia to tensions between traditionalists and progressives. He also spoke about his own spiritual journey with great feeling and his own failings with brutal candor.

(MORE: The Four Reform Themes of Pope Francis in New Interview)

The freewheeling interview, released simultaneously yesterday by the Jesuit journals, mirrored his now famous in-flight encounter with the media coming back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Stunning journalists by his willingness to speak on any and all topics, the Pope made headlines by answering a question on gay priests by responding, “Who am I to judge?”

Most of the media attention yesterday was focused on a few sections of the 12,000-word interview, particularly the Pope’s comment that he preferred not to talk about hot-button issues like gay marriage, contraception and abortion “all the time,” and, again, his comments that the church needs to treat gays and lesbians by “accompany[ing] them with mercy.”

Yet one area overlooked by many commentators may have immense ramifications for the church. In a lesser-noticed section, Pope Francis used a rather “in-house” Jesuit phrase and gave it a new interpretation: “thinking with the church.”

The concept comes directly from The Spiritual Exercises, the classic text by St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit order. In its simplest interpretation, “thinking with the church” asks a person to align himself or herself in the deepest possible way with church teaching. St. Ignatius was clear about what that meant: agreeing with the “hierarchical church.” At its best, it is a call to incorporate oneself into the teachings of the Gospels and the rich theological tradition of the church; at other times, it has been used as a threat against Catholics who do not follow particular Vatican pronouncements.

Pope Francis makes it clear in the interview that he understands this concept more broadly than even St. Ignatius did, seeing the church not as a top-down organization imposing rules but as a people, a community, in dialogue. And so his comment: “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

Perhaps only Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit and a Pope, could say something like that.

(MORE: Viewpoint: What It Means to Have a Jesuit Pope)

After the Pope’s Rio-to-Rome press conference, some observers brushed aside what he said, averring that the Pope merely was speaking off the cuff and was bound to be misunderstood by naive journalists eager for a scoop. Some said that his comment “Who am I to judge?” referred only to gay priests. (In the new interview, the Pope made clear that he was referring to gay persons in general.)

But this new interview came with the Pope’s complete approval and cooperation.

Originally, the editors of America approached the Vatican for an interview, but we were told that the Pope generally doesn’t enjoy the interview format. Not long afterward, we learned that the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica was also interested in the idea. Once we teamed with Civiltà and later joined forces with other Jesuit journals, the Pope agreed. Questions were sent to Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editor in chief of Civiltà, and in a series of sit-down interviews, Spadaro and the Holy Father had a long conversation.

Finally, and most important, the Italian-language version was personally approved by the Pope. Thus, this interview is an even more reliable indication of the Pope’s desires for the church and affords us a clearer idea of the Pope’s new course for the church.

And what is that course?

In a word, mercy. Throughout the interview the Pope — without setting aside any Catholic teaching — asks us to focus on the essentials of Christian life: love, forgiveness and, above all, mercy. Whenever I hear him speak (or edit his galleys!), I am reminded of a mysterious line from Thomas Merton, the 20th century American Trappist monk and spiritual master: “Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

It has long been one of my favorite sayings. But I don’t think I ever understood what it meant.

I do now.

28 comments
MikeHosley
MikeHosley

There's a number of religious leaders right now that are signalling that the time has come for change, including powerful forces inside Iran, Saudi Arabia, and within the church. 

It's an unprecedented opportunity, with Twitter leading the way to discussion and open communication. 

All of them face strong opposition to change from within the confines of cultures and established powerful factions that make up governments and institutions, and the beneficiaries of the status quo are unlikely to just dovetail in behind the spokesperson of the day. 

In a wired world, it's simply more difficult to hold together a house of cards with violence, it's not possible to spread a message like the Gospel if you can't recruit enough willing preachers, and you can't justify the actions of hard liners that act like dictators. The church has been steadily losing ground in a wired world because younger people build online support systems and communities that are efficient and cost efficient.  

 It's a tough sell to convince someone to tithe- that is, donate or give  ten percent of income to an organization that condemns your family members, excludes your co workers, and promotes an I'm OK, but these people are not OK mentality.

The question is, what choice does a leader have when the leader realizes you must adapt or die. The leader will choose to address the cause of the flight from the organization which in this case is based upon the actions and inactions of the organization itself. 

Adapting isn't easy but I appreciate the leaders that question issues from a different perspective. In the end, much of this is really about what? Respect. 




PacificSage
PacificSage

I admire the guy. They way he's standing up to Christianity, he must be some kind of intellectual.

Channah
Channah

I am not a Roman Catholic-------------but, I do like this man.  I hope in stays in his position as long as John Paul did.  The church needs him.

SteveGaines
SteveGaines

The Catholic Church is always focused on issues related to sex: abortion, gay, birth control, celibacy....  The Catholic Church is the last group that should be preaching sexual morality.  Remember all the gay pedophile priest scandals?

RamondeJsPolank
RamondeJsPolank

SANTIAGO,DR--Pope Francis see “Conception” as the beginning of life sounding more realistic than in other occasions—not contradiction from previous statements. Pope is just one of us—ready for argument that may bring a shining lamp  to the Catholic world. Controversial of not he has proved righteousness illuminated his path into day-to-day experiences--the need to reform.

demej00
demej00

Francis - pedophile priest posse - go get em cowboy!

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

No matter what the Pope says, Christianity is still a myth.

The dogma and rules haven't changed.  The approach hasn't really changed.  It still fosters dissent, exclusion, intolerance and a generally misogynistic attitude.  It is the offspring of a cherry-picked, bronze age myth combined with myths that are older than the first one.  It provides unfounded justification for division, hatred, fear and pointless guilt.  It indoctrinates people into a toxic mindset that prevents them from legitimately enjoying the only existence they will ever have.

The damage it inflicts on its followers and, by extending its influence beyond their followers in ANY WAY, everyone in the world far outweighs any alleged "good" it does for anyone else.  Given the damage it does on a personal and global scale, were I a believer in gods and demons, I'd say that Catholicism was Satan's way of bringing evil to the world.  But it's only man's greed and power-lust that did it, as is evidenced by history.  Perhaps they even believe the myth.  That still doesn't make the myth true, or what they do to people right.

It doesn't matter how much sugar the poison is wrapped in, it's still poison for the human race.  It erodes and diminishes the ability to think critically and rationally - traits that humans need in today's world more than ever.  The sooner it passes into the same level of obscurity and power over the people as all the other superstitious myths of the world, the better off mankind will be.

This is a position statement, not a debate - unless you really want to try to scientifically prove God exists.  In which case, good luck with that.  It ain't gonna happen.

JDH1004
JDH1004

Sinners are not a public debate. Sin is a broken relationship between God and the sinner. The purpose of a church is not to be a club with recurring entrance examinations.  The Church is meant to exist for those who need the solace that humans often deny one another. Whether that solace is acknowledged or not has nothing to do with the existence of the opportunity.  I'm a cradle Catholic, so the only Bible I was regularly exposed to took place during the Mass.  What I know is that Christ said to forgive without condition and to love with condition.  That the topics that Francis wants to include in the mixture of Catholic thinking, rather than let dominate, include an obvious reflection.  If we wish to honor life, we will not endorse executions, we will not endorse the poverty of suffering or the suffering of poverty.  What we have done is refuse to be involved in the hard questions of respect for life...using easy topics of discrimination as passwords for a lait club and not a Church.

tsvskibum
tsvskibum

...Pope Francis' words mirror what is good about Catholic Church.

franknnnstein
franknnnstein

The posting by DanBruce indicates he just doesn't get it. For that matter, neither does Pope Francis.

I'm glad Francis said what he said.  Nevertheless, he poses what is in effect a false dichotomy. Any conscientious professing Christian should know that we are to love and accept one another as sinners.  So, saying that the church should be loving and accepting is nothing new or revolutionary.  It is, however, simplistic in light of the present debates.

There are many problems with the "gay" and abortion debates. One is that proponents of said choices and lifestyles do not want to admit that they are sinners.  They are engaging in one of the oldest deceptions going back to the dawn of humankind, namely, self-justification.  Second, the churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, did not start these debates; they have been foisted upon them by those more interested in secular agenda than by solid theological and intellectual discernment.

DanBruce
DanBruce

Francis just pulled the rug out from under the Religious Right in America. Who says prayers are never answered?

RobbeLynReed-Sebesta
RobbeLynReed-Sebesta

Very good!  Pope Francis has been wonderful.  I pray it continues, as so much of our faith has been misconstrued.  Mercy is such a joyful way to label the Holy Father's approach, and is way overdue.  I remember when Fr. John Corapi (back when he was on his game) stated, "God's name is Mercy."  Indeed, and we can all use it.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@SteveGaines Why do you think that this pope wants to reform the curia, the"board of directors", if you will, of the Church?  It's because they brushed off so much that should never have been dismissed.

PacificSage
PacificSage

@DeweySayenoff  

I find it ironic that the most 'individualistic' Americans, the kind who stave children & old people because they don't earn profits for corporate America expect a 'savior' to magically fix everything. They think they get beamed directly to heaven for joining a club. Totally insane & irresponsible.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@DeweySayenoff The Higgs Boson can only be "proven" by the effects it creates. It's the same with God. So, there is as much proof of God as there is the "God particle." Just open your eyes (and mind) and look around.

MikeHosley
MikeHosley

@JDH1004 Isn't sin missing the mark, like missing a target? I think of the archer and the bullseye. 

You must have enough arrows in your quiver, and enough wood behind the arrows to hit the target, and determination and practice. In this context, aren't we all just sinners? 

rpearlston
rpearlston

@JDH1004 The only true sins are those between people.  Everything else is moot because deities simply do not exist.  That's why the jewish tradition is to apologize to and asking forgiveness of, those whom you offended during the year before you seek the forgiveness on a deity on Yom Kippur.  In christianity, and in particular in the church, one can receive absolution without doing a thing to mend the fences that were broken.

Do you remember the public and interfaith memorial for the Columbine victims.  There were a number of clergy persons speaking, and most of them talked about forgiveness.  One and only one, though, talked about personal responsibility, as in the responsibility of every person to themselves and to all others.  That was the rabbi.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@tsvskibum Pope Francis is simply echoing the humanist basis of all so-called religions, including catholicism.  Of course, one can also be unencumbered by myths and simply be a secular humanist.  It works, and it works very, very well.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@franknnnstein You obviously did not comprehend what Francis said. He said that the RCC members should stop obsessing on the issues of abortion and homosexuality, not that church doctrine should be changed. That's why I said that he pulled the rug from underneath the Religious Right. The RR is based on obsession with abortion and homosexuality as issues, to the neglect of everything else. Francis is trying to re-establish some balance to the public ministry of the RCC. I am not Catholic, but I welcome his effort. 

sparrow
sparrow

@franknnnstein

"proponents of said choices and lifestyles do not want to admit that they are sinners"  -  how righteous and arrogant you are

"the churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, did not start these debates; they have been foisted upon them by those more interested in secular agenda" - because the secular agenda demands reason and evidence, not another justification for a psychological crutch like faith


rpearlston
rpearlston

@RobbeLynReed-Sebesta Franciscans simply believe in the humanist side of their so-called "religion".  That's all that this pope has been talking about - humanism within the church.  But humanists can also be secular and have no problems or conflicts between the right thing to do and what religions see as the right thing to do (AKA, thinking about homosexuality).  As a secular humanist, I applaud what has been said, so far, by P Francis.  Humanism is the basis of all "religions" (including Islam).  When people more away from humanism, they put themselves and those around them, including whole countries/religions, in jeopardy.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@DanBruce @DeweySayenoff Hardly.  The effects of the Higgs-Boson particle can be measured empirically.  The same cannot ever be true of any so-called deity, as they are all of them figments of collective imaginations, based on the need, in ancient times, to explain complex concepts to relatively simple people.  The bible itself, like all other holy books, is therefore written in allegory, a literary form well understood in those times but completely misunderstood in our times.  That's why you and others can still be transfixed by myths.

The bottom line is that it's high time that you woke up, used critical thought, and figured this out for yourself.  Why are you so afraid of the possible (hardly) consequences to you that you can't do that?

tsvskibum
tsvskibum

@rpearlston because we are human, in my mind, there is a humanist basis to all religions.  However, all institutions are filled with humans that forget that 1st the people must be served.  It is refreshing to see someone that remembers what is good about the Catholic Church is that sin is forgiven and aid is given with or without penitence as 1st principles. 

DanBruce
DanBruce

@rpearlston @DanBruce @DeweySayenoff I have a feeling that you are understanding what the Bible says about God second hand. If that is the case, I understand your confusion. The only way to understand God is to experience his love first hand in faith. If you demand empirical proof, then you will never understand. But, I'm not trying to convince you. After all, you are responsible for your soul, not me. I am only responsible for mine.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@DanBruce @rpearlston @DeweySayenoff Spirit cannot be measured empirically.  And without empirical measurements, there is no proof of anything.

Since deities are falsehoods of the worst kind, there is no reason to believe.  The real question here is why you can't open your mind and think your way through this.  Then again, all myths of this sort offer deterrents to such thinking, claiming that questioning at that level is forbidden.  Do you really want to spend your life believing in myths?  I have absolutely no interest in doing so, simply because I have thought it through, and find no basis for any of your claims.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@rpearlston @DanBruce @DeweySayenoff Why can't you sense things with your spirit? That is the question you should be asking. However, you do have the freedom between birth and death to choose not to do so.