There was some head-scratching after Pope Francis offered an apology at his general audience on Wednesday. According to the BBC, the Pope said

Before I begin the Catechism, in the name of the Church, I want to ask you for forgiveness for the scandals that have occurred recently either in Rome or in the Vatican. I ask you for forgiveness."

He most likely meant the scandal, and the resulting eruption of anti-Catholic sentiment in the popular media, that came when Msgr. Krysztof  Charamsa, a Vatican official, announced on the eve of the Synod that he had been flouting his vow of chastity and was "happy and proud" of his gay identity. Charamsa called the Church "backward" and "inhuman" for not condoning his sexual relationship with another man. 

Even those who are generally friendly to the Pope and open to his style were unsure of how to interpret this apology, even in the context of this most recent scandal. Kathy Schiffer acknowledged that there have been troubles in the Church, but wondered, 

[W]hy must Pope Francis apologize for all of the shortcomings among the members of his flock?


To have yet another apology coming from the pontiff for these sins which were beyond his control– Well, sometimes you’d like to just give him a hug and tell him “Don’t worry, Papa. It’s not your fault.”

If this is how you feel, I refer you to this illuminating if not scholarly listicle, 15 Differences Between a Normal Friend and an Argentinean Friend. Here are a few of my favorites.  See if you can't imagine Pope Francis doing all of these things:  

4. A normal friend sends you flowers and a card when you’re at the hospital. An Argentinean friend goes to see you and falls asleep on a chair next to your bed.

6. A normal friend offers you her couch to sleep on. An Argentinean friend gives you her bed while she sleeps on the floor next to you, keeping you up all night talking.

11. A normal friend plans a visit a week ahead of time and asks for a confirmation. An Argentinean friend calls anytime and says, “I’ll start cooking in five minutes, bring the vino.”

13. If you’re going through hard times, a normal friend tells you, “I didn’t call you before because I wanted to give you your space.” An Argentinean friend calls every hour saying, “Boludo, let me know what you need.”

9. A normal friend knocks at your door. An Argentinean friend opens the door and happily yells, “I’m here!”

It's a funny list, but there's something real going on here, which describes Pope Francis to a T, whether we like that T or not:

To the Pope, everything is personal. 

This accounts for why he takes the trouble to call individual people, and why he can't help chatting with reporters, even while his press office does a collective face palm every time he puts his prepared remarks down. If there are people there, he treats them like people. Everything is personal.

Oddly, this attitude also accounts for why he says things that, frankly, sound the opposite of overly personal, like when he reminds us to say "please," "thank you," and "I'm sorry" to family members. This advice sounds bland, generic, flatly obvious -- the opposite of what you'd say if you were sincerely involved in and concerned with someone else's troubles.

But here is the key: He believes in words. He believes very strongly in the power of saying something directly and sincerely to the people who need to hear it, the people you love. It sounds like a cliche to remind spouses to say "I'm sorry" to each other -- but if you're an injured party, and need to hear that apology? There's nothing generic or bland about it, and no other words or actions will do.

Words have power. Fr. Denis Lemieux wrote last week about how damaging it is to treat language wrongly and frivolously. He says

Language as a roar of verbiage, a clamor and clash of agendas, a fighting for a slight fleeting flicker of attention from the mob, ultimately language as click-bait in the service of generating advertising revenue—this is a perversion of what it is to be. Language is degraded from a quest for truth and understanding ordered towards communion and love to being, essentially, a sales pitch.

 He says that "the constant blah-blah-blah" is not only irritating and unhelpful, but actually sacrilegious, and explains:

Yes, strong language and so forth. I don’t care. Language is debased and in that debasing of language, actual human beings are damaged, the path of salvation in Christ is obscured, the way of truth and love in the world is made hard to find and ultimately souls beloved of God are made to stumble and fall from that way. 

Pope Francis never simply "blah blah blahs," never just seeks a flicker of attention (and actually seems unaware, sometimes, that he has caused a stir) -- but he does speak like a friend, directly, sincerely, with the privilege of friendship that knows it will be forgiven for coming in uninvited. He knows that words of contrition, made without excuse or qualification, are exactly what some people are waiting to hear. To them, it's personal; and so it's personal to him, too. 

My advice is to listen most closely to the Pope when he is using the plainest language. Some Catholics deplore his lack of formality; but I think that his greatest strength is in saying the obvious things that need to be said -- including, "I am sorry" -- or, in this recent case, "I ask for your forgiveness." Someone needed to hear those words, and no other words would do.

This is how I take Pope Francis' apology: as the proper use of language. The Vicar of Christ speaks for the Word made flesh. How will the Word dwell among us, if words of love are not spoken? This is what the Pope is doing when he speaks so sincerely. He talks because he sees a need, he sees an injury, he sees someone lost, and, as your Argentinian friend, he feels the need to come in without knocking, to find out what he can do for you.