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When Father Jim Martin, editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine, first saw the transcript of the pope’s interview, it was in Italian. He doesn’t read Italian very well.
“I thought, ‘He couldn’t possibly be saying that,’” he said. In the end he was both surprised and not surprised. “I was surprised,” he said, “because we’ve never had a pope speaking so informally or with such candor about his own failing. People are usually not that blunt about how wrong they were.” On the other hand, he says, “Jesuits are trained to be down to earth, to live simply.”
Pope Francis stunned Catholics last week with his lengthy interview in which he talked about how the church should no longer be “obsessed” with issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception. “We have to find a new balance,” Francis said. “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.”
Martin says he spent a lot of time with the galleys of the interview. “I had a hard time not praying while I was reading it,” he says.
“Elation” among his Catholic colleagues was the general response. “Most people were overjoyed.” Online, his magazine went from an average of 5,000 page views per day to 175,000 the day the interview was published. He says there has been very little negative response except from the most conservative of Catholics.
At a parish talk last night a man told him that after 40 years away from the church he had come back because of Francis and another told him that the interview had changed his life.
Martin thinks that what touches people about the pope is that “people respond to holiness. It’s attractive. It makes people feel closer to God. People see a glimpse in him of the way Jesus was. They’re not even conscious why that is. People want to be around holy people like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.”
Martin is writing a book on the life of Jesus. “When Jesus preaches and does hs miracles,” he says, “He does it with authority by the way he lives his life. His deeds inform his words, and his words inform his deeds.”
Martin points out that Francis, when he is being driven around, uses a Ford Focus. When he drives himself he uses a 1984 Renault. That apparently led a host of “Car Talk” to joke that “there’s a man who believes in the power of prayer.” The pope has made people change the way they do things. “If the pope is driving around in a 1984 Renault, the Cardinals can’t very well be driving around in limousines,” he says.
Though Martin respected both John Paul and Benedict, he says, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable hugging (Benedict). With Pope Francis, everyone wants a hug.” He says his friends who have seen all of the pomp and circumstance at the Vatican see that “it is a long way from the carpenter of Nazareth.”
Of the change in this pope’s lifestyle and language, Martin says that “it shows that nothing is impossible with God. People have despaired that nothing would change and here is change. People said before the election of this pope that because Benedict had appointed so many of the cardinals there would be no change. Every time you put God in a box,” he says, “God gets out.”
Martin emphasizes that there has been some misinterpretation of what the pope has said. “There has been no change in church teaching” he says. “There has been a shift in emphasis. His comments on those things have a different tone and language. He is moving us away from some of the issues that have bedeviled the church back to God, Jesus, love, forgiveness and mercy. It’s very beautiful. It’s like Jesus.”
Where all this is heading Father Martin can’t say. “Though most of his homilies are creative but traditional, he seems to be getting bolder and bolder. People used to ask Father Pedro Arrupe where is the Society of Jesus going? And he would say, ‘I have no idea.’ Martin predicts that the meeting between the pope and eight cardinals coming up in October will be interesting to watch. “The pope has said he wants to reform the Curia. He wants real consultations, not fake consultations.”
“Who knows?” says Martin. “The Holy Spirit blows where it will. “