The Pope’s Approach Can Be Frustrating, But He’s Still Our Pope

Pope Francis gives his Urbi et Orbi address to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square on Easter morning, March 27, 2016. (© L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis gives his Urbi et Orbi address to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square on Easter morning, March 27, 2016. (© L'Osservatore Romano) (photo: Screenshot)

Here's the full translated text of the latest in-flight interview with Pope Francis, which wasn't very long. This is the first time I've read an interview with the Pope and though, "Ohh. I see. All right, then."

Let me explain. The interviewers brought up a wide range of topics. One was a question about his brief meeting with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and what it signified. The Pope explained (and all emphasis throughout this post is mine):

 This morning when I walked out, there was Senator Bernie Sanders who came to the congress on “Centessimus Annus.” He knew that I was leaving at that time and he had the courteousness to greet me. I greeted him and his wife, and another couple with him that was staying in Santa Marta, because all of the members of the congress, except the heads of state who I believe were staying in their embassies, were staying at the Santa Martha residence. I gave a greeting and nothing more. A greeting is an educated thing to do and does not mean to be mixed up with politics. If someone thinks that to give a greeting means to get mixed up in politics, I think he needs a psychiatrist.

At another point, they asked him why he chose to bring Muslim refugee families back with him, rather than sending a message by rescuing Christian refugees. He said:

I didn’t make a religious choice between Christians and Muslims. These three families had their documents in order. There were, for example,  two Christian families who didn’t. This is not a privilege. All 12 of them are children of God. It’s a privilege to be a child of God.

What do these two responses have in common? They show a man who responds directly to the situation and to the people in front of him. Rather than thinking more broadly about all the possible ramifications of all the possible interpretations of his behavior, and rather than refusing to act until all the possible ducks are in line, he simply responds to the needs of the person in front of him. Bernie Sanders shows up? He greets him. Muslim families need rescuing? He rescues them.

This is the kind of person he is. It is also the kind of pope he is. There are benefits and drawbacks to being this kind of pope. We're already pretty familiar with the drawbacks. I think the CDC is ready to acknowledge a new public health risk: Franscogenic Panic Disorder. It afflicts conservatives and progressives equally, and is marked by hair pulling, teeth grinding, hypertension, and a general feeling of confusion, disorientation, and an uncontrollable urge to leap to conclusions.

On the other hand, he is setting an example of immediacy which we would all do well to follow. He responds directly to the person and the need in front of him, putting other concerns on the back burner, and he seems to expect us to do the same when we're confronted with his words and his behavior: responding to what is immediately in front of us.

One of the interviewers on the plane asked him about the infamous footnote 351, the one that has been causing American Catholics to tear out their hair and call down fire from heaven.

"Jean-Marie Guenois (Le Figaro): I had the same question, but it’s a complementary question, because you wrote [a footnote for] Amoris Laetitia on the problems of the divorced and remarried (Footnote 351). Why put something so important in a little note? Did you foresee the opposition, or did you mean to say that this point isn’t that important?

Pope Francis: One of the recent popes, speaking of the Council, said that there were two councils: the Second Vatican Council in the Basilica of St. Peter, and the other, the council of the media. When I convoked the first synod, the great concern of the majority of the media was Communion for the divorced and remarried, and, since I am not a saint, this bothered me, and then made me sad. Because, thinking of those media who said, this, this and that,---do you not realize that that is not the important problem? Don’t you realize that, instead, the family throughout the world is in crisis? Don’t we realize that the falling birth rate in Europe is enough to make one cry? And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that the youth don’t want to marry? Don’t you realize that the fall of the birth rate in Europe is to cry about? Don’t you realize that the lack of work or the little work (available) means that a mother has to get two jobs and the children grow up alone? These are the big problems. I don’t remember the footnote, but, for sure, if it’s something general in a footnote it’s because I spoke about it, I think, in Evangelii Gaudium."

In other words, he's saying that he saw an immediately problem and wanted to address it. He realized that many people (and don't forget, Americans are not the entire Church! We tend to think that our concerns are The Concerns of the Church; but it ain't necessarily so) were pantingly awaiting clarification, one way or the other, on how the Church is to respond to Catholics who are divorced and remarried; but he did not think that this was the immediate problem in front of him. So that is not the main thing that he addressed in Amoris Laetitia. That problem, he relegated to a footnote, to be addressed in other ways at other times; and on the plane, he directed people to Evangelii Gaudium and to the words of Cardinal Schönborn.

Am I crazy in love with his approach? No, I am not. I wish that he would be more careful and more slow-moving. I have heard people say things like, "The Church says that I'm living in adultery, but Pope Francis says that I should follow my conscience. Now I don't know what to think." The Pope is not actually saying this, but he's not making it hard to imagine he might be about to, if they listen mainly to "the council of the media." So, boo.

But, look here. He is the Pope. If we continue to wish that he were not the Pope, or  if we continue to wish that he had a different approach, then after a while it really does begin to be our fault. If wishes were fishes, then the Church would be even more of a mess than it is today, because we that we all wish for things that we cannot have, rather than looking for the benefit in the things that are.

And there is a benefit. There is a lesson to be learned; and if we continue to refuse to learn this very clear lesson, then we are fools. He is the Pope; this is his approach. If we're going to call ourselves adults in the faith, then it behooves us to respond to him in the way that he clearly wants us to respond to him, by the example he sets and by the actual words that come out of his mouth. He wants us to take him at his word, to listen to what he's saying right now. He does not always speak methodically, but he definitely doesn't speak in code.

He's the pope of the immediate. Unless we really like that feeling of having our hair on fire, then we need to learn how to be the flock of the immediate.