In his Sept. 19 interview with various Jesuit journals, Pope Francis said that religious "are called to be prophets," and "being prophets may sometimes imply making waves … noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’"
The first pope to be a member of a religious order in 167 years has been showing that he certainly knows how to cause not just waves, but media tsunamis. And some are saying that he’s also making quite a mess for Catholics dedicated to upholding Church teachings on life and marriage.
Headlines in various secular newspapers declared that the Pope said too many Catholics were "obsessed" and spoke too much about homosexual persons, abortion and contraception. Articles claimed that he was minimizing the importance of these issues, comparing concerns about them to worrying about trivial cholesterol readings of maimed soldiers on the battlefield. The Pope said that he has consciously chosen not to speak much about these issues himself, and he shows no signs of changing course.
The general tone of much of the media coverage has been that Pope Francis seems to be discouraging Catholics from mounting a vigorous defense of the Church’s teachings on family and the protection of human life at the very time they are being aggressively attacked by Western secularists.
All of this has left many Catholics — who don’t understand what Pope Francis is doing or why — dazed, disconcerted and disheartened. Many fear that if the media interpretations are right, Pope Francis’ words and inaction portend that he is going to treat what the Church has always taught as grave offenses against life and love as venial sins, or no sins at all, something that will obviously make them multiply. They also sense that, if the portrayals are accurate, the Pope believes that continued advocacy of Church teaching on marriage, life and family is harmful rather than helpful.
When one reads the whole interview, one grasps clearly how mistaken these impressions are. Pope Francis is not abandoning at all his mission to call people to conversion, but merely trying to put that perpetual summons to repent and believe into a context where it will have a chance to be more effective.
"I see clearly," the Pope declared in the interview, "that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up."
The first thing the Church needs to do, Pope Francis insists, is to assess the most basic wounds a person has and try to help bring them to the Lord for healing. Until those lesions are mended, they’re in general not going to be receptive to a conversation about anything else, especially how their moral behavior in other areas may be wounding them even further.
The Pope recognizes that there are many who are deeply wounded in their relationship with the Church, who feel that they bear invisible scarlet letters because of sins or irregular situations. They feel judged, rather than embraced, by those in the Church, that their sins are hated more than they’re loved.
In short, they believe that many in the Church relate to them more as the older brother than the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We know that the worst sin of the Prodigal Son was not the life of debauchery but relating to the father as if he were dead or simply a slave owner. Likewise, the first and biggest wound that needs to be healed is not a particular sinful behavior but a person’s overall relationship to God and to his family, the Church.
The Church is supposed to be a great hospital of souls, but many think that hospital is closed to them or that the cost of care is too high.
That’s why Pope Francis is calling all Catholics to be "ministers of mercy above all." This mercy does not mean overlooking serious sins, but it also means not obsessing about them.
The Pope stressed that laxism and rigorism are both false mercies because "neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that."
He says that true ministers of mercy "take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin."
The Pope is the Church’s prime minister of mercy. He is neither a rigorist nor, as many in the media are pretending, a laxist. He’s, rather, a Good Samaritan caring for sinners and not just their sins, trying to help them grasp that, no matter what they’ve done, God is greater than sin; his mercy is greater than their misery.
He’s one who lives by his papal motto —
Miserando atque Eligendo ("Having had mercy, he called him") — and wants all Catholics to remember that Christ came to call sinners, and he calls them precisely through his mercy.
With words and example, Pope Francis is trying to change not only the public perception of the Church but the attitude of all those in the Church with regard to those who need mercy most. "The first reform must be the attitude," he says, so that everyone can perceive the Church as a mother who loves rather than disowns those in need of help.
That change in attitude must also impact how the Church communicates our faith.
First, in terms of location, the Pope states we need to "proclaim the Gospel on every street corner," not just within our churches.
Second, it must be "the Good News of the Kingdom and healing" that is proclaimed, not a "transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines [that], although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus." Rather, our preaching must focus on the "essentials," the
kerygma, the "proclamation of salvation" that "fascinates and attracts" and "makes the heart burn."
That means it must preach, with words and witness, that Jesus loves us and wishes to help and save us the same way he transformed sinners like Peter and Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus and the Good Thief.
The Pope grasps that, without this life-changing relationship with Jesus, many will never grasp how the most countercultural parts of Church teaching are actually part of the Good News and the truth that sets us free. Without the power that comes from the merciful love of God and the life of faith, many won’t have the strength to eliminate behavior incompatible with the Gospel.
While it may seem that the Pope is making a mess, what he is actually trying to do is to clean up the mess of sin by making the waves of Christ’s mercy flow. Rather than neglecting the great spiritual cancers of our age, he’s seeking to make the Church ever more a great hospital for wounded souls.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette parish in Fall River, Massachusetts, and is national chaplain of
Catholic Voices USA. He provided expert commentary for EWTN during the conclave that elected Pope Francis.