“A Church that finds new roads”

It’s a little ironic to me now that on early Thursday morning I prepared a brief blog post that opened with a reference to a new Catholic World Report essay by James Schall, SJ. Though Father Schall is a talented writer (and is, in fact, the author of one of my favorite books of all time), a point he made in the opening paragraph of his new essay struck me as nearly bizarre. He wrote:

In contrast with his usual custom of keeping what he says brief and to the point, Pope Francis wrote a fairly long message (about one full page in L’Osservatore Romano) for Mission Sunday, which will be observed on October 20, 2013. This letter is rather wide ranging. It strikes me as giving more insight into what Pope Bergoglio is about than almost anything I have previously come across, except perhaps Lumen Fidei.

I thought: After all the startling off-the-cuff remarks this pope has offered us, all the insightful and unscripted morning homilies, the impromptu trip to Lampedusa, the insistence on adding a visit to one of Rio’s favelas to the World Youth Day itinerary, the Holy Thursday washing of feet at the youth detention facility, the choices regarding residence and cars and clothing — after all that, Fr. Schall is going to choose Lumen Fidei, which is a fine document, but which is also the one thing that everyone knows reflects more of Pope Benedict’s personal thinking and pastoral initiative than Francis’s, as the thing that tells us most about “what this pope is about”?

I prepared a little post on that, and on the fascinating words and gestures I’ve just listed above, noting what an interesting and valuable window they are into what this pope really is “about” and what he sees our Catholic Christian faith as being about. I prepared the post and then scheduled it to be published here this morning.

Well, neither I nor Fr. Schall need wonder any longer about which comment, writing, or gesture of Francis tells us the most about him thus far. All the other possible candidates for that distinction were blown out of the water at 11 am Eastern time Thursday, when America magazine posted, with very little prior notice, a stunning 12,000-word interview with the Pope. What an extraordinary experience it is to read! The Pope and all involved in this project deserve our thanks.

There is a tendency with the publication of any significant ecclesial or papal statement for people to cherry pick and point to their favorite parts, the parts that reflect most clearly their own pet convictions or causes (or at the very least the ones for which they can spin out an explanation that stretches the passages onto a procrustean bed of their own thinking).

I was struck, for example, by one American bishop’s suggestion, after reading the Francis interview, that the real take-away is: “The Church is not a body of doctrines, a smorgasbord from which we may pick and choose what to preach, but the Word of God which must be proclaimed in its fullness” (The Church is the Word of God? Vatican II had major documents on both the Church and the Word of God, but neither one equated the two) and that “If we don’t agree with what the Holy Father teaches, we don’t need a new Pope, we need a new attitude.” (Sure, that’s what Francis said.)

I can understand that sort of cherry-picking. It’s natural. But I always wonder if the same people paid any attention at all to the points that don’t quite fit their own conception of Catholic faith and life. Not that they have to point these out with enthusiasm, but did they at least stop and think about them and wonder what exactly about these passages makes them uncomfortable and should these passages, just maybe, be the source of some personal intellectual (or moral) change, development, or conversion?

Anyway, for that reason, I prefer to resist the temptation to point out my “favorite” quotes and offer commentary that ends up making the Pope think surprisingly like, well, me. Still, I keep coming back to one particular comment of Francis’s from that interview which seems to me to sum up everything he was saying there, and, really, to sum up so much that he has done and said these past six months that have caught the attention (and caused the consternation) of so many. The Pope said:

Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.

Indeed, that short passage seems to me to be the very thing for which Fr. Schall was somewhat ineffectively grasping in that opening paragraph of his essay — a summary of Francis himself and his papal ministry. Being “a Church that finds new roads” to the people in our world, especially those who distrust or ignore the Church (sometimes for good reason), seems to be exactly what Pope Francis is all about.

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