Bringing the Church back to its core

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  • September 26, 2013

Reading through Pope Francis’ fascinating 12,000-word interview in the Jesuit journal America Magazine, many thoughts and sentences leapt out, especially this one.

“The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” the Pope said. “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

In other words, back to the future, back to the Gospels, back to the core of the Church — Jesus Christ and what He taught us.

As a friend wrote me, “What I really like is that Francis’ focus is on the core message of Jesus: God’s great and unconditional love for us. And somehow the political fights around abortion and gay marriage became the starting point — i.e. you have to believe in the Church’s official position before you can get admitted to ‘true’ Christianity. Francis is returning the Church to its core. And everything else will work outwards from there — in no small part because of the revitalization that occurs within each of us as we place this tenet front and centre in our lives.”
Since being elected Pope on March 13, Francis has proven to be a dichotomy of small gestures with big meaning; from washing the feet of prisoners to reaching out to gays, atheists and divorced people.

There is little doubt he has upset the apple cart. But he has revitalized the Church, and energized the priesthood and the laity with fresh breezes streaming through the stained-glass windows.

Though his comments fall well within the realm of Church doctrine, Francis has been painted by some as an appeaser of “liberal” Catholics, or worse. Indeed, when this column praised Francis earlier this summer, several readers wrote in to say such writing was disparaging toward former popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. There was no intent to do such a thing and it is my belief that history will look far more kindly on Benedict than many view his legacy today. But Francis is a different kind of Pope and these are ever-changing times. This lengthy interview released last week proved that beyond reasonable doubt. (He and the Vatican read and approved the transcript so no one can say he was taken out of context or misquoted.)

Francis moved beyond previous comments such as “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuals. He clarified and affirmed his support for gays and lesbians, admitted past mistakes made while leading the Jesuits in Argentina, denied ever being a right-winger, said it is okay to have doubts about faith, and made it clear that for too long the Vatican has been fixated on a narrow set of controversial issues and “small-minded rules.” He pointed to a growing role for women in the Church but did not come right out and advocate ordination for women.

By offering a glimpse into his mind, we can see he does not want to be labelled in political terms but as a plain-spoken servant of God who is a self-admitted sinner who, every day, asks himself: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ?”

He explains that this “new balance” of thinking he advocates means the Church is “not a small chapel that can hold only a small number of select people” but a home for all. “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the Church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the Church,” he said.

His language is both challenging and plain. He talks like us, but thinks on an incredibly high level in which he understands the reality of the times. Indeed, he has a bone to pick with inflexible dogma. “The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

Francis is a Pope for our times who is making a strong case for the relevancy of the Church in the 21st century by grounding his arguments in the best tradition of Catholic teachings: concern for the individual.

And for those fearing he is moving too quickly, don’t worry. With 2,000 years of history and 265 popes before him, Francis knows the strength of the Church is in its past even if it must change with the times.

“Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he said. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change.”

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@ abc.ca.)

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