Well, since everybody else is talking about it, I guess I should.
I’m speaking about, of course, the Holy Father’s remarks to the journalists on the plane returning from World Youth Days in Brazil.
Since I finally got to read the whole text of his conversation, it’s a good time to weigh in with a half-dozen or so of my own observations.
For one, the Pope was visibly “on a high” from his first international pastoral visit in Rio. Understandably so. Because I was there with him, I can verify that the superlatives being used — “oceanic” crowds, “frenzied” welcomes, “inspirational, heartfelt” words — are not exaggerations at all.
After the conclave, one of my brother cardinals predicted to me that, as Pope John Paul II “won back” the formerly communist controlled “Eastern bloc” countries, Pope Francis would revive the Church on his home continent of Latin America. From what we saw in Brazil, he’s sure off to a great start.
In Rio, he was so positive, upbeat, forward looking, realistic, and challenging. Look at his heartfelt pleas for “a Church that is poor and for the poor” as he visited hovels in the favela; his rejection of a “throwaway culture” that marginalizes elders, youth, babies, weak, handicapped, and refugees; his embrace of a “youthful, energetic faith,” with 3,000,000 young people giving the lie to the stereotype of a withered, listless, moribund Church; and his ringing chant that “lasting hope and joy comes from our faith in Jesus, from a God who enjoys surprising us.”
Two, mercy is the word that seems to summarize Francis’ talks: both God’s tender mercy for us, and the mercy He wants us to have for one another. I recalled his first Angelus in Rome after the white smoke, when he spoke of God’s lavish mercy, and his homily at his inaugural Mass on St. Joseph’s Day, when he asked us to be tender.
This mercy flows, not instead of or in spite of the Church, but through her! This pastor reminds us that Jesus Christ and His Church are one.
Mercy, he claims, is not just for those who show-up. No, says the world’s parish priest, “We shouldn’t just wait for the wounded to come to us; we go out and reach for them.”
Three, mercy was not just the theme of those radiant World Youth Days in Rio, but also of his now renowned hour-and-twenty minute comfortable conversation with the press on the plane.
So, his brief remarks on homosexuality were about mercy: everyone has a welcome home in the Church; the Church considers unjust discrimination against any homosexual a sin; and homosexual acts, which are contrary to Revelation — as are heterosexual acts outside of lifelong, life-giving, faithful marriage between one man and one woman — can always be healed by God’s mercy. And when God’s mercy is sought, it is always given, the sin wiped away and forgotten; because of this, nobody — not the Pope, not a bishop, not a priest — can judge another! Actions? Yes; the heart? No. No change in Church teaching here . . . or no intended “correction” to a more “dour” approach by his predecessors. After all, it was under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that the Catechism was composed, which reminded us that people with same sex attraction were as much God’s children, deserving dignity and respect, as anybody else.
Four, his comments on the alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican were perceptive. What bothers him is any lobby. There can be only one agenda in the Church: that of Jesus Christ, His Gospel, His Church. He even praised the favorite “whipping boy” of all of us — bishops included — the Curia, which is made up, he insisted, of a vast majority of selfless, generous, virtuous priests and people, with, okay, a few lemons.
Then, five, there’s his reaffirmation of the need for a “theology of women,” who hardly need a Roman collar to lead and serve in the Church. After all, Pope Francis reminds us, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, “is the most important of all the apostles.”
A few final words.
One wonders if the Holy Father is frustrated by all this attention to his interview. For six days he spoke powerfully about lofty issues such as friendship, service, trust, joy, hope, love for the poor, humility, discipleship, faith, and simplicity. Those words got a bit of coverage. The “hot button” issues such as women’s ordination, contraception, divorce and remarriage, abortion, homosexuality, or celibacy, as I noted in my blog Monday, did not seem of any concern to the three million youth, or to their beloved Pope Francis.
But, as usual, the press predictably brought these weary issues up, and have given them more ink than any of the other noble themes that rang through Copacabana Beach. It’s not the Church that is obsessed with those topics, but the media!
And haunting all of the coverage is the hint that we now finally have a Pope who will change the Church’s ageless teaching. Of course, Catholics know that the Pope, like all of us, is a servant of the truth of the Gospel, not a crafter. Doctrine is a given; it is settled, inherited, faithfully passed on. That’s his duty, and he’s sure doing it well. As Gayle King commented during our interview on CBS This Morning yesterday, “This really seems a change in style rather than substance.” Bingo! And the change I find refreshing!
Then the very event of a Pope comfortably, glibly, confidently visiting and dialoguing with the press! That in itself, as more than one journalist remarked to me here in New York, is what’s really “revolutionary.”