09/20/2013, 00.00
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Pope Francis’ Church of Mercy is not a church of relativism

by Bernardo Cervellera
In an extensive interview to the magazine Civiltà Cattolica, Pope Francis outlines the Church's priorities, the importance of the mercy, of going out and encountering wounded situations and people. The Church as "a field hospital". Welcoming to divorcees , homosexuals, people who have had an abortion. Many applaud the "revolution", but in reality it is all in the purest tradition . The importance of women in the Church, collegiality with the Orthodox. "I am a sinner upon whom the Lord has looked ."

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all".

According to Pope Francis, the "greatest need of the Church today" is witness to mercy: he says as such in various ways during an extended interview-conversation with a fellow Jesuit , Fr . Antonio Spadaro , director of Civiltà Cattolica, and published simultaneously on many of the religious orders other publications.

Too often, - explained the pope - the Church is overly concerned with management and morality, and reaches out to the world by presenting a set of rules : " The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow".

The pontiff thus confirms what has become his slogan since his election (indeed, since the conclave): "Moving out " to " the existential and geographical margins". Even in the interview, he says: "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".

Several media have presented this interview as a "revolution", an "opening " that is almost a "repudiation " of the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In fact, every missionary and every Christian should know that first comes the proclamation of salvation offered by Jesus Christ, then catechesis ( and doctrine ), then morals. It is an error to emphasize always and only the moral teachings of the Church.

The real novelty of Pope Francis, more than at a doctrinal level, is in his attitude: "The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people's night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials".

"I dream - he adds - of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church's ministers must be merciful, 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 structural and organizational reforms are secondary-that is, they come afterward".

Anyone wishing to compare this attitude with past Church teaching , should remember that John Paul II even dedicated an encyclical to mercy ("Dives in misericordia"), while Benedict XVI placed witness to the mercy of God as the basis of human civilization .

Even what he says about the Churches attitude to divorced, homosexuals, people who have chosen to have abortions does not present a doctrinal novelty: it is enough to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the interview, Pope Francis says as much himself : "We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner," the pope says, "preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are 'socially wounded' because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person. "

Once again the Pope emphasizes the attitude of openness , acceptance of the person, without first calling into question principles and rules: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. "

"I see clearly - he added - 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."I see clearly," the pope continues, "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" .

Another interesting novelty for a reform of the Church is what Francis has to say about the certainty of faith.

In the "quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions-that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. " Such a statement is seen by some commentators as confirmation that finally the Pope is also one of us, the "party of relativism" ; finally we can toast to the fact that there is no truth. The same Pontiff asks, " Is it relativism? Yes, if it is misunderstood 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 and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him". In fact, the Pope does nothing but emphasize the very traditional Augustinian doctrine: "If you understand it , it is not God," God cannot be boxed into an idea, in rules, in speeches, but you can encounter Him. The Truth can be encountered in history, "We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us."

In the same interview, Francis explains the value of silent adoration before the tabernacle each evening to remember "what I have done for Christ," but above all to enliven their consciousness " that the Lord remembers me."

Another point is that in the interview touched on the role of women in the Church . The pontiff is pushing for a " theology of women in the Church " to give value to their specific contribution , even in places of responsibility, but warns against "machismo in a skirt ", the claims of feminists who want to make woman equal to man ("In reality women have a different structure to men " ) . Some theologians in vogue immediately applauded to the possibility that "finally" we might have women priests . But the Pope himself, in the interview , said: The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity". So the point is to find the specific contribution and dignity of the "feminine genius" - as John Paul II termed it - without wanting to lock up this rediscovery into a simple equivalence of functions.

A rather innovative point mentioned in the conversation is that of collegiality applied to the government of the Church and ecumenical relations.

"I believe that consultation is very important. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations."The consistories [of cardinals], the synods [of bishops] are, for example, important places to make real and active this consultation. We must, however, give them a less rigid form. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations. The consultation group of eight cardinals, this 'outsider' advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation."

And again: " We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality. The joint effort of reflection, looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit in due time.".

In this Pope Francis is somehow a debtor to the visits and meetings of John Paul II with a great many Orthodox and the ecumenical work of Pope Benedict XVI , who years ago asked the Orthodox Churches to help him express the Petrine ministry in a manner acceptable to them and true to the tradition of the undivided Church .

It is not possible to summarize the vast wealth of this conversation/interview : there are still issues such as the relationship between the younger and older Churches, between theology and the people, between laboratories of thought and the churches on the frontiers. For this we invite the reader to refer to the complete text.

But one aspect is still worth a mention: that of the personal attitude of Pope Francis, his heart, when he tries to describe himself: "I am a sinner upon whom the Lord has looked".  He speaks the life of Blessed Peter Faber (1506-1546) , one of the first companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola , so dear to him : ""[His] dialogue with all," the pope says, "even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving."

" My choices - he adds -  including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing".


 For the full text of the conversation -interview, click here.


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