John Allen, a Vatican reporter whom I’ve always found factual and fair-minded, was on the Alitalia flight that carried Pope Francis from Brazil back to Italy one week ago tonight. “As is by now well-known,” Allen writes at the National Catholic Reporter, “we were treated to a pope standing in the press compartment for an hour and 20 minutes, taking questions on every topic under the sun with no filters and no limits, speaking without notes and delivering straight answers.” Whereas seemingly every other reporter fastened on the Pope’s comments on homosexual priests–“Who am I to judge?”–Allen saw Francis’s comments in the wider context of his entire, if still young, papacy.
Below, Allen’s analysis, which will prove of particular interest to the many who (like me) participated last week in Rachel Lu’s conversation, “Pope Francis Temperature Check”:
As I’ve written before, each recent pope has had a catchphrase that represents his core emphasis. For John Paul II, it was “Be not afraid!”, a call to revive the church’s missionary swagger after a period of introspection and self-doubt. For Benedict, it was “reason and faith,” the argument that religion shorn of self-critical reflection becomes extremism while human reason without the orientation of ultimate truths becomes skepticism and nihilism.
For Francis, his signature idea is mercy. Over and over again, he emphasizes God’s endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the church above all today is a message of compassion.
Sorting through all the comments Francis made during the on-board news conference, probably the single most revealing came in response to a question about divorced and remarried Catholics. We’ll come to the specifics on that issue another time, but it was the preface to his answer that provides the best window into his pastoral philosophy.
Here’s what he said, word for word, translated from Italian.
“Mercy is a larger theme than the question you raise [divorced and remarried Catholics]. I believe this is the time of mercy. This change of epoch, also because of many problems of the church — such as the example of some priests who aren’t good, also the problems of corruption in the church — and also the problem of clericalism, for example, has left many wounds, many wounds. The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don’t have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It’s a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn’t say: ‘But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?’ No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there’s someone … but, it’s not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy. And I believe that is a kairos: This time is a kairos of mercy. John Paul II had this intuition first, when he began with Faustina Kowalska [a nun and mystic who emphasized God’s mercy], the Divine Mercy [John Paul named the second Sunday after Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday”] … he had something, he intuited that it was a necessity of this time.”
Kairos is a deeply evocative Gospel term that means an appointed moment in the plan of God, as in Mark 1:15: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” The Greek term for “time” in that passage is kairos. In the Christian imagination, the term kairos conjures up a special moment in history when a particular aspect of God’s plan for salvation is unfolding.
The Church, our merciful mother.
The Pope’s formulation here proves so compelling–so apt, so moving, so right–that it renders divisions between Catholics of the right and left, the trads and the libs, pretty nearly irrelevant, doesn’t it?