"Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, asked Pope Francis.
The Pope responded, "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."
The Pope recalled a favorite painting he often studied during past trips to Rome: The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.
"It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: He holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze."
Thus he recalled when he was asked during the March 2013 conclave whether he accepted his election, and he responded in Latin: "I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance."
A 12,000-word interview with the Holy Father continues to make headlines across the globe, but the media coverage skips over the striking personal testimony of faith given by a humble Jesuit priest who was elected the Vicar of Christ.
"I am a sinner." Perhaps the reporters were too embarrassed to repeat that stark fact or perhaps they were disturbed by this glimpse of an alternate reality. Better to ignore those haunting words. Better to shift to political matters that can be easily understood and digested.
That is a pity, because the interview offers believers, the spiritually indifferent and even atheists a luminous and instructive portrait of a man of faith, whose reflections and actions are the fruit of deep and disciplined prayer in all its forms.
For Francis, the light of the Holy Spirit prompted his decision to spurn the papal apartments in favor of a residential guest house and now guides his plans for Curial reform.
As the Pope’s words make clear, Francis has a well-developed practice of spiritual discernment. This is the legacy of his Jesuit formation, including time spent with St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, which the founder of the Society of Jesus designed to help a believer "conquer oneself and regulate one’s life and to avoid coming to a determination through any inordinate affection."
According to St. Ignatius, the "discernment of spirits" guides the proper interpretation of the "motions of the soul" — the things that inspire, wound or tempt us. In time, the practitioner learns to perceive whether those things arise from "good" or "evil" spirits that will bring "consolation" or "desolation."
The Pope explained that, for Ignatius, discernment "is an instrument of struggle in order to know the Lord and follow him more closely. I was always struck by a saying that describes the vision of Ignatius: non coerceri a maximo, sed contineri, a minimo divinum est ("not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest — this is the divine").
In Francis’ roles as a Jesuit provincial, archbishop of Buenos Aires and now the Supreme Pontiff, St. Ignatius’ "vision" has guided his approach: When "becoming the superior of somebody else, it is important not to be restricted by a larger space, and it is important to be able to stay in restricted spaces." In this way, we learn to "appreciate the small things inside large horizons."
Further, the reader is reminded that God uses weakness to change the world. Asked to explain how he has learned to be a better leader, he observed, "Over time, I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins."
He suggests that he will likely adopt a cautious path toward Curial reform: "We always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment."
The Pope’s remarks make clear, however, that while discernment aids in the practice of Church governance and in the interpretation of Christianity’s paradoxical truths, it also benefits individuals who must come to terms with their own vulnerabilities. Thus the Holy Father recalls when he was shown the papal apartments, and an interior voice told him, "No": They were not for him. Why? Because "I need to live my life with others."
All of this is the fruit of a prayer life infused with the "memory" of God’s intervention in his own life and in that of a pilgrim Church. The horizon moves from intimate struggles to broad moral shifts, like the fight against slavery. "And I ask myself: ‘What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ?’" Francis asks, expressing gratitude for the Lord’s love and mercy.
Now, he calls on Catholics to move beyond an often predictable life of faith that he likens to a "small chapel." Now, at the very moment when so many believers feel under siege and want to run for cover, he calls us to "find new roads" that will take us to the fringes of the Church. As we ponder that call, the practice of spiritual discernment will become increasingly important.
"You can, you must try to seek God in every human life," the Pope — "a sinner" — tells us. "Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God."