No one should be too surprised that Pope Francis has given an interview. After all, this is a pope who has surprised worshipers with inpromptu phone calls and kept his security detail on their toes by defying protocol to be closer to the people. In August he sat down with Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit who writes for the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, on three occasions, the fruit of which reads more like a screenplay than a serious sit-down, complete with a scene setter. Spadaro describes the pope’s office as simple and austere with a small desk. “I am impressed not only by the simplicity of the furniture, but also by the objects in the room,” Spadaro writes. “There are only a few. These include an icon of St. Francis, a statue of Our Lady of Luján, patron saint of Argentina, a crucifix and a statue of St. Joseph sleeping.”
Spadaro’s conversations with the pope, which were translated into English from Italian, begin with a question to the pontiff about who he really is. “I do not know what might be the most fitting description,” the pope tells Spadaro. “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
It should be noted that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and America is a magazine for American Jesuits or members of the order of the Society of Jesus, so there is a good amount of cheerleading for the order. Francis says he owes his openness and transparency—traits no one has seen in a pontiff in recent memory—to those that inspire him most from his religious studies as a young priest. “The Society of Jesus is an institution in tension,” the pope explained to Spadaro, also a Jesuit. “A Jesuit is a person who is not centered in himself. The Society itself also looks to a center outside itself; its center is Christ and his church. “
The pope went on to say that when he rose through the hierarchy of the Catholic government, he didn’t always handle his responsibility right. “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.” He went on to say that he had learned a lot since then, but he’s not sure he has learned enough to fix the current church’s problems.
Francis shows ample respect for his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, but he is not blind to the problems their legacies left. “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” he told Spadaro. “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.”
Carrying out that task will not be easy, and he says reform will come not from changing the rule book, but from changing the mindset. “The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude,” he said.
The interview is an astonishing step for a pope to make, but he still left several areas untouched. There was no mention of the church’s child sex-abuse scandal and no talk of the burgeoning financial crisis or real reform.
“The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths,” he explained to Spadaro, implying that the methodology of ministry has been far more off-putting than the actual message of the church. Francis wants the church leaders to wise up to the fact that a judgmental approach will empty the pews at an even faster rate. “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,” he said. “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.”
His words will be interpreted as confirmation that he is not going to turn away gays in the priesthood. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’” the pope said. “We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
He also spoke about abortion, divorce, and the role of confession, giving an example that is sure to make the Catholic Church’s ultraconservatives shudder. “The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?” The rhetorical question the pope poses may hint that confession could be seen as absolution in either case, meaning that a divorced woman or one who had an abortion could be forgiven and allowed to take communion or even remarry in the church.
The pope also said that the church had become too shortsighted, having lost the message. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.” The pope went on to imply that perhaps church leaders would like him to come out stronger on these core issues, even though the pope believes the church has even greater issues to address. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that,” the pope told Spadaro. “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.” He went on to say, “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. “
The pope may be softer on sins and sinners, but he seemingly is still not ready to give up ground on the role of women in the church. When Spadaro asked about the role of women in the church, he stuck to the party line. “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different makeup than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo,” he said, which won’t be welcome news to the world’s nuns and sisters. “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role ... We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
The interview is an astonishing step for a pope to make, but he still left several areas untouched. There was no mention of the church’s child sex-abuse scandal and no talk of the burgeoning financial crisis or real reform. For all the pope said, there are still many more things left unsaid.