God (and the Pope): Always a Surprise

Commentary on the Pope's big interview


"Because God is first; God is always first and makes the first move. God is a bit like the almond flower of your Sicily, Antonio (Spadaro), which always blooms first. We read it in the prophets. God is encountered walking along the path. At this juncture, someone might say that this is relativism. Is it relativism? Yes, if it is understood as a kind of indistinct pantheism. It is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where or how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter. You must therefore discern the encounter. Discernment is essential."

Pope Francis, interview with La Civiltà Cattolica


Actually, I read an online version of Pope Francis’ interview with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro before I had seen any of the comments on it in the major press. As in the wide-ranging interview with the Pope on his return from Rio, practically the only thing the press was interested in was what the press was interested in, to wit, homosexuality, abortion and how backward the Church was.

One wonders how boring and single-minded they can be to pass over as irrelevant the things of real importance to each human being, beginning with the salvation of his soul. Now, that is a topic that really interests Pope Francis. The Pope wants to talk about everything else in creation before he gets around to these sticky topics that the media insists are the only ones worth talking about. He does not want to get bogged down in single issues, but he does not deny their importance.

The actual interview was in excess of 12,000 words, of which a few paragraphs were devoted to these sexual-related issues that the media see to be so urgent. Yet, on these issues, the Pope said what he always says, which is what the Catechism says: namely, that if someone really has a clear (but erroneous) conscience about some act, it is God’s to judge.

The Pope gives no hint as to whether he thinks most people who perform or undergo abortions or those who indulge in homosexual acts have good consciences. How could he know that? What he does know is that if they do not have such a clear conscience, they better have someplace to go to deal with it. He is also clear that he does not disagree with the Church’s usual judgment about the objective nature of these acts. Whether the Pope is aware of how his remarks are being interpreted, indications seem to be that he is and does not much care.

This interview is wide-ranging and rather fascinating. It is basically an interview of the first Jesuit pope by Jesuits who wonder how it is going. Presumably, if the conclave had elected a Dominican, an order Jorge Bergoglio thought he might enter, as he says, they would have talked of Dominican traditions.

Actually, the Pope mentions St. Thomas Aquinas, only to say that he himself seems to have studied under a form of Thomism that was rigid and formalistic. In any case, the main lines of Jesuit spirituality — discernment, contemplation in action, the greater glory of God, seeing God in all things — constituted much of the conversation. None of these things, of course, are exclusively Jesuit, but their emphasis comes from St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises.

One of the surprising things of the interview was the interest in music and literature that the Pope has, something he shares with Pope Benedict XVI, though I do not think, however much Francis likes Mozart, that he can play Mozart on a piano as Benedict could.

The Pope has a surprisingly well-worked-out understanding of teaching literature to young men and women. He knows opera, loves Dostoyevsky. He tells of going to St. Louis of France Church in Rome to see the Caravaggio there, especially The Calling of St. Matthew. Christ points at Matthew as if to say, "Yes, you." Francis says that he felt this himself when he realized in the conclave that he would be pope. The Lord was pointing at him — "Yes, you."

The Pope is asked a wide range of questions. What does he think about the Curia?

He thinks that, with some glitches, it is designed to serve the bishops and the papacy. He does not think everything should be done in Rome. Rome should serve as a last resort.

He tells us that when he delegates authority to someone, he leaves him alone to carry it out, unless he really messes things up. He is a fan of John XXIII and emphasizes the Vatican II liturgical changes. He thought Benedict was "prudent" to allow the Tridentine rite, but that it should not become isolated.

Indeed, Francis tells us that one of the reasons he joined the Society of Jesus and one of the reasons he stays in the St. Martha House is because of community life. While he does not disdain speculation and solitude, he is more comfortable in a more active setting. He does not think the Spiritual Exercises should be seen primarily as a period of silence, asceticism and penance. He tells us that he is himself more of a mystic than an ascetic. He finds God in the mysterious places where God is, which is, indeed, everywhere.

As to governance, the Pope tells us that he was first appointed provincial in Argentina when he was very young. He was rather authoritarian. He learned a lot in his mistakes. Indeed, at the very beginning of the interview, he is asked basically who he is. He responds by saying the he is "a sinner." He is not bragging. But it is in the consciousness of his sinfulness and his failure to consult and be sympathetic with those over whom he had authority that frames the context of his thinking on ruling in the Church.

All the way through the interview, we find a conscious effort to teach and live the life of Christ. Some remarked, about earlier interviews that seem to make him seem ready to approve everything hitherto frowned upon, that sinners of various types, including homosexuals and abortionists, should be very careful when they read this Pope as if he is approving everything they are doing. What he seems, rather, to be doing is to lead them to the confessional, of which he speaks often. The Pope seems to have a wide-ranging pastoral experience that he is striving to make central in the Church: The confessional box is not a torture chamber, but, rather, a place where one can finally reconcile himself with God. The Pope’s openness to everyone seems to be designed in this context to create a world wherein we are also aware of God’s pursuit of us. He looks upon the Church rather as a "field hospital," so aware is he of the deep sins and disorders in so many lives.

This interview is well worth a careful reading. If we look for what it says and not what we want it to say, we will find it, I think, a guide for our time to see what really is basic in our lives — the getting rid of our sins and the worship of God.

Jesuit Father James Schall retired from teaching

political philosophy at Georgetown University in 2012.

A prolific essayist and author, his latest book is

Remembering Belloc

(St. Augustine Press).