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

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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.