Pope Francis embarked on the second year of his pontificate with a remarkable interview published in an Italian newspaper in which he offers insights on key issues facing the Church and dismisses any notion that he is some kind of superman in a cassock.
The interview with the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera was published on March 5, even as a new poll reveals that he enjoys immense popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the United States.
Pope Francis discusses the Church’s record in the clergy sex abuse scandal, the challenges facing the family, civil unions, the role of women in the Church and his working relationship with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
His answers reveal once again that the pope is committed to the approach he has embraced from the time of his election — standing firm in authentic Church teaching but making certain that those teachings are applied in a deeply pastoral and merciful way. The first question, in fact, dealt with Pope Francis’ habit of calling people who have written to him for help. After humorously noting that many people he telephones at first cannot believe he is actually the pope, Pope Francis notes his calls date back to his days as a priest in Buenos Aires when people would turn to him in spiritual need. And, while admitting being pope complicates such service, he is called to do it because he says, “I am a priest” and is committed to the care of souls. Some in the media tried to spin his comments on civil unions as acceptance of same-sex marriage. The pope actually stressed that marriage is between a man and a woman and was not even referring to same-sex marriage.
That care of souls brings into stark relief the pontiff’s great concern for the poor. In his interview, he discusses the need for “pauperism” in the Church, prescribing St. Francis of Assisi’s use of poverty to proclaim the evangelical path and teaching that “poverty distances us from idolatry; it opens the doors to providence.”
Likewise, the theme of the family has become an essential one for Pope Francis, so much so that he has convoked an extraordinary synod of Bishops in October on that topic. In his interview, he touches on the controversies of the divorced and remarried and civil unions, as well as contraception, end of life and the role of women in the Church. Regarding families, he is worried about the state of family life and the need for effective pastoral care in the face of modernity.
As he has done repeatedly, he does not propose changes in Church teachings and rejects any “temptation to resolve every problem with casuistry ... a simplification of profound things, as the Pharisees did, a very superficial theology.” Instead, he wants a “deep reflection” on concrete pastoral situations and finding ways to provide God’s mercy with “pastoral depth.”
Particularly notable are his comments on women in the Church. He has said in the past that the ordination of women is a closed door, but he stresses that “women can and must be more present in the places of decision-making in the Church.” He notes that the Church is feminine in her origin and unambiguously suggests the vital role the Virgin Mary must play in any true discussion of women in the life of the faith. As he declares, Mary “is more important than any bishop and any apostle. The theological deepening is in process.”
Reform and renewal
So too in process are the extensive reforms in the areas of clergy sexual abuse and the institutional and spiritual renewal of the Roman Curia. He acknowledges bluntly the terrible wounds that were left by the scandal but vigorously defends the record of the Church. Correctly seeing the abuse of children as a widespread problem, he asserts with equal accuracy that the “Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No other has done more. And the Church is the only one to be attacked.”
He also gives a noteworthy glimpse into the reform of the Curia. Even as the structural changes are being planned, Pope Francis is just as preoccupied with the spiritual welfare of those working in the Vatican and considers the two closely intertwined. He tells that he waits for the Lord to give him inspiration and relied on that to push for a new annual five-day spiritual retreat instead of just three days of intermittent talks between which Curial officials would go back to work. This could prove a powerful component in reinvigorating the spiritual life of the entire Vatican establishment.
In his defense of the Church’s real record in the sex abuse crisis, Francis acknowledges the important work of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Much attention and even speculation has surrounded his relationship with the pope emeritus, and Pope Francis is very open that he considers Benedict’s wisdom to be “a gift of God.”
Pope Francis also discloses that he wants Benedict to be active and not in some Benedictine abbey far from the Vatican as some apparently had wished. “The pope emeritus,” he says, “is not a statue in a museum.” That means Francis will continue to invite Benedict to public events and is completely comfortable with his predecessor.
A popular pontiff
That comfort level is an expression of how at ease Pope Francis is with the enormity of the papacy. The pope dismisses as offensive the idea of having rock-star or superman status and denies he has ever thought about going out of the Vatican at night to feed the homeless. Far from having any self-image as superhuman, Pope Francis describes himself as “a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone — a normal person.” He also misses Argentina, would like to visit his sister there and just renewed his Argentinian passport.
As for how the world at large is receiving this pontificate, a new Pew Research Center survey reveals he is wildly popular with both Catholics and non-Catholics. Some 85 percent of Catholics approve of Pope Francis, compared to a mere 4 percent of Catholics who say they have an unfavorable opinion. Overall, he is viewed favorably by 60 percent of non-Catholics. Seven in 10 U.S. Catholics also say Pope Francis represents a major change in direction for the Church, a view held by 56 percent of non-Catholics. And both groups see this as change for the better.
While it is difficult to assess the impact of the so-called Francis Effect in the long-term, 26 percent of Catholics say they have become more excited about their Catholic faith over the past year. More than anything else, Pope Francis has brought new confidence to Catholics and a genuine excitement in living their faith.
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.