(Andrew Medichini/AP )
As soon as word broke of Pope Francis’s interview the gears of the 24 hour news cycle began to grind. Words were parsed, opinions were opined, support was given, concerns were voiced. In much of this commentary (my own favorites include: David Gibson, Eve Tushnet, Eric Sundrup) there is more than a little to be grateful for.
To my mind, the best of these pieces evoke gratitude for one reason: they take the first words Pope Francis says in the interview seriously. Those words: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description [of me] I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
I’ve been a Jesuit for nearly 12 years and still I had to force myself to stop and read those words again. Ask yourself, for just six seconds, what response does that neuralgic word “sinner” evoke in you? I don’t know how it is for you, but I can offer this: a dozen years and I still recoil from it. And without those years I’d probably have thought something like: man that guy is really hard on himself, or: don’t worry, Fr. Bergoglio, I’ve made mistakes, too. Or (if I’d been in a more vulnerable place) I’d have just thrown up the old brick wall between myself and the kind of association with wrongness the word “sinner” carries.
And despite the gratitude I felt at many of the media responses, most of those same responses mirrored something similar, moving quickly away from “sinner” to ask the kind of questions that public life teaches us to ask. Thank you Pope Francis, they say, but what we really want to know is, will anything really change? What’s your plan? How will you execute it? And underneath those (not at all irrational!) questions lies another, the clincher: do you agree with me, or not? Yes, you’re able to admit that you’ve been “naive,” Pope Francis, and that’s great, but what we really want to know is: will what I want to happen happen? Will my program be put into effect?
It’s not just one person that is asking this. Over at Religion Dispatches, for example, theologian Mary E. Hunt argues that “What remains to be seen is if structural changes in the institutional church, inclusive forms of participation—yes, democracy—will flow from his words. Will Francis be as good a theo-politician as he is a pastor?” Eminent NCR reporter John L. Allen, Jr., writing of Francis as the Pope of the “Catholic middle,” says that “the drama now is whether the Catholic middle will mobilize effectively to support the best pope for their interests they’re likely to see in a long while, because the truth is that over the long run, other ideological camps may not always have the pope’s back.”
I want to be clear here: it’s not that these are irrelevant questions, or that they’re somehow inappropriate to ask in the context of an interview with Holy Father. And it’s not that this essay will prove that I have remained clean of some dirty mistake I am accusing Hunt or Allen of making. That is not it. It’s the fact that when Francis says of himself: “I am a sinner,” well, it changes pretty much everything. If we will let it.
This is why: for those deeply immersed in the spirituality of Ignatius, being a “sinner” does not mean “having done things wrong” (although that is true). It doesn’t even mean that we will always do things wrong in the future (also true). It means that humans are — at root, ontologically — always in need of the living mercy of God. Michael Ives, author of Understanding the Spiritual Exercises, puts it this way: “sin is always considered in the Exercises in the light of mercy The essential grace [ ] is that of a conversion arising out of the literally heart-breaking experience of being loved and forgiven” (Ives, p44).
The literally heart-breaking experience. This is the reason Pope Francis calls himself a sinner. It is the reason he speaks so relentlessly about mercy. It is because he knows what all women and men who live deeply an Ignatian life know, that God’s mercy reframes our interpretation of everything, institutions included. It does so because, having understood the joy of being wrong, we have learned to hold our own plans loosely so as to be better lead by God. This is what St. Ignatius means by another of his famous spiritual terms, “indifference,” he means the ability to be lead by God into the previously unimaginable. The ability to do a new thing. The ability to let mercy be more fundamental than any plans or theo-political categories.
It’s this triptych of mercy-sin-indifference that, I think, makes Francis seem so strange and so attractive to us. It’s also why he’s able to get free of the need to provide immediate answers to the kind of sincerely important issues that Hunt and Allen and others raise. And it’s how he can seem both so politically naive and astute at the same time. All of these things are possible because Pope Francis knows himself as a loved sinner, as a follower of the one who is actually setting the direction for our pilgrim church.
It’s because he knows himself to be a loved sinner that he is able to, again and again, throw a wrench of mercy into the gears through which we grind our world’s information. It’s not that he doesn’t care about change, or institutional reform, or theo-political structures, or the mobilization of the Catholic middle –actually, yes it is. He doesn’t care about any of those things in themselves. Or, more accurately, he only cares about them indifferently, only when the God who shows sinners mercy also cares about them first.
All this to say that Pope Francis is simply not playing by the rules of the game as we know them. He’s not keeping score, not tallying up points on one side or another of a Vatican 2 “continuity vs. discontinuity” argument. Neither does he have some secret plan to reform doctrine (or to pacify the prophets among us with his charm). He simply doesn’t care about any of that. He only cares about proclaiming God’s merciful love for sinners, and letting everything else everything follow from that. This is how he is cutting the Gordian knot of our furiously divided theo-political discourse.
It sounds naive, doesn’t it, laid out like this. And it would be if it wasn’t working. If there weren’t so many signs that the mercy and indifference of Pope Francis is actually helping us to stop believing that we already have all the answers, already know the plan that would save the church, this world, ourselves, if only others would do what we know to be right.
It would be naive if his relentless proclamation of mercy wasn’t letting us know it’s okay to be wrong, okay to be led by another. That it’s okay to cast mercy into the teeth of the gears we use to grind out our interpretations of the world, force them to stop turning and let our heads lift up for a moment to see where God is already at work.
Patrick L. Gilger, SJ, is Editor-in-Chief of The Jesuit Post.