The media are getting Pope Francis wrong, again

So, yes, the Pope is still Catholic. And no, he didn’t say what they claim he said.

Those are the basics. And Pope Francis is pretty basic, which is probably why he was elected in that conclave by brother cardinals in the first place. They knew what the church needed at this time in history, and this man fit the bill. Why? He’s humble, simple, accessible, speaks plainly and to everyone. He both admonishes and exhorts, and includes himself among the flock who need constant examination of conscience and reminders of who started the church and what he taught and did by way of example.

Which all came out in the interview Pope Francis did with a Jesuit editor in Rome in August, which came out in English Thursday in the Jesuit journal America.

This interview with Pope Francis took place over the course of three meetings during August 2013 in Rome. The interview was conducted in person by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal. Father Spadaro conducted the interview on behalf of La Civiltà Cattolica, America and several other major Jesuit journals around the world.

It’s really quite remarkable, not for the reasons big media outlets are reporting, not at all. In fact, they’re selectively and surgically excising words or lines that fit a narrative or agenda, using the same small excerpts, likely not reading the whole interview at all. After all, it’s about 12,000 words of profoundly personal, deeply reflective thoughts by a pope who has opened himself up to a lengthy exchange with brother Jesuits about Ignatian spirituality and dedication to the social Gospel.

Somebody tell that to the New York Times, which said the ‘Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion,’ and led with this:

Pope Francis, in the first extensive interview of his six-month-old papacy, said that the Roman Catholic Church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.

That is a lead befitting the Times’ anti-Catholic campaign carried out for some years now.

And MSNBC, which trumpets the report that ‘Progressives hail Pope Francis’ position on social issues‘.

Progressive Catholics are applauding the pope’s remarks on homosexuality, reproductive rights, and the role of women, calling his views perhaps the beginning of a new era at the Vatican, as well as a return to the Gospel.

Seriously? That’s a dead giveaway that they didn’t read the interview.

Reuters reports the pope said the church must ‘end obsession with gays, contraception, abortion.’ Yikes.

And the Wall Street Journal declares, awkwardly, that the ‘Pope warns church focusing too much on divisive issues.’

Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church’s focus on abortion, contraception and gay marriage risked overshadowing its pastoral mission and threatened to bring down the church “like a house of cards.”

Really? So, did these reporters read the interview in America? Just wondering, because in it, he mentions abortion and homosexuality a total of three times. In 12,000 words, about 18 pages printed out, a total of 3 times.

Whereas a search for other buzzwords shows that Pope Francis referred to God 37 times, Jesus 26 times and St. Ignatius 15 times. As Word On Fire‘s Fr. Steve Grunow told me on radio (along with those stats on buzz words), “Pope Francis referred to Italian and German opera more than he did abortion and homosexuality.” Who knew?

Anyone who read the interview. It’s compelling. Kathryn Jean Lopez points that out in a piece she wrote for Fox News.

Not everything in the world is about sex and politics. That message may take the New York Times a few more homilies and interviews with Pope Francis to understand.

The Catholic Church – or at least those preachers and teachers who are outspoken on matters concerning human sexuality, especially when catechetical discussions are turned into clashes in the public square for political or cultural reasons – is often accused of being obsessed with sex. But the obsession might just be the media’s.

Again, good opportunity for self-examination here.

So what are the highlights of Francis’ remarks in this wide-ranging interview? Start with the fact that he isn’t comfortable with interviews.

The pope had spoken earlier about his great difficulty in giving interviews. He said that he prefers to think rather than provide answers on the spot in interviews. In this interview the pope interrupted what he was saying in response to a question several times, in order to add something to an earlier response. Talking with Pope Francis is a kind of volcanic flow of ideas that are bound up with each other. Even taking notes gives me an uncomfortable feeling, as if I were trying to suppress a surging spring of dialogue.

Very cool. Puts you there, in the presence of the exchange.

Read it. From the first question, ‘Who Is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ It’s fascinating.

Then as Kathryn Lopez reports

Francis talks about the Church as a “field hospital after battle.” He talks about the need for the church “to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.” He says: “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

And when he does get to those social issue buzzwords…

When reading his words about homosexuality and abortion – which are drenched in love and mercy as well as justice – it is only fair to read them in the full context of what the pope has to say, representing the Gospel of Christ, the Catechism of the Church, and his own pastoral interaction with men and women living in the world as it is today.

Here’s how it went from the interviewer’s question, to Francis’ response:

I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.


The pope is challenging us all to see what Christ wants for us and our brothers and sisters, each one of them: It’s exactly what he says in the interview is the reason he wound up a Jesuit: He wanted “something more.”

“God is to be encountered in the world of today.” We don’t find God by making him in our own image. Pope Francis calls on Augustine here: “Seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever.”…

And so the pope pleads that hearts might be open to the alternative lifestyle that has a world leader asking himself daily: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ?” These are not only questions for a pope. This is the radical call of Christianity. And that’s the message this son of the Father is preaching as the Holy Father.

Whatever your politics, be careful what you read into this. He’s talking to you. He’s talking to me. He’s reminding himself. The news isn’t that he isn’t “a right-winger,” as he tells us. It’s that he’s a pastor. He’s a priest, not a politician.

Precisely, providentially, what Fr. Grunow told me on radio Thursday, right down to the three points that probably comprise the heart of the interview: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ?”

He said Francis is point out the missionary reality of the church here, that Catholics, Christians, must go to the periphery to reach people where they are. “He’s reintroducing the church to its missionary reality,” he said. I said that was a reminder of Vatican II, which was a missionary council. Fr. Grunow agreed and went further. “His two predecessors emphasized what Vatican II was about. Pope Francis is saying ‘Let’s do it.’ His emphasis is on holding us to the work of carrying it out.”

Don’t read what the media says about what the pope said. Read what the pope said. He’s trying to reach everyone in the world, even in ‘the peripheries’, wherever people are and whoever they are because they are human and alive and in the world and therefore desired by God and worthy of dignity and needing mercy and grace.

And, he added as he always adds, it begins with ourselves.

“Prayer for me is always a prayer full of memory, of recollection, even the memory of my own history or what the Lord has done in his church…

But above all, I also know that the Lord remembers me. I can forget about him, but I know that he never, ever forgets me. Memory has a fundamental role for the heart of a Jesuit: memory of grace, the memory mentioned in Deuteronomy, the memory of God’s works that are the basis of the covenant between God and the people. It is this memory that makes me his son and that makes me a father, too.”

This is a love letter for our times. It needs to be read again and again. Maybe someone in the periphery of the media will eventually get it.

‘Peter is not there’

The official Latin term for the time between popes holding the office of the papacy is the Interregnum. There is no pope. Vatican operations go into near shutdown or at least restricted mode with key officials doing only essential duties, attending to the most critical things, while the college of cardinals carry the weight of the church and world on their shoulders. But there’s no word for the uneasiness countless Catholics feel around the world for this time of the sede vacante, the empty seat. As one renowned cardinal put it last time around, in 2005, ‘it’s frightening, Peter is not there.’

Time and again over the past several days, I’ve heard Catholics in high places say they are unsettled, anxious, sad and even ‘orphaned’, which is especially poignant given that in his final message as pope, Benedict XVI said he takes each one of us with him (everyone in the world) and prays for us ‘with a father’s heart.’ One of his legacies is helping us see how we’re all in this together, that each one of us in the world has equal dignity and rights and responsibilities.

The cardinals are starting to work out the details of the process of going forward now. Benedict is finally resting and spending time in privacy, praying and reading and enjoying his favorite books and music, and praying some more. But his legacy is among the weighiest of the modern popes. Papal biographer George Weigel told me in an interview that he considered Pope Benedict XVI the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great.

Pause a moment with that one…

Carl Olson wonders, was he ‘The Last of the Giants’? It’s all hard to summarize, the pontificate and analyses of it. Read this whole piece, it’s a good one. But here’s the end of Olson’s commentary:

Judging Benedict XVI’s pontificate is a difficult thing to do, hardly possible on the day it has ended. The key question is: what criteria will be used to judge, and who will do the judging? With that in mind, I conclude this essay with two quotes, both from Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press, from whom I learned so much about John Paul II’s thought (when Mark was my professor in the late 1990s) and who has worked so tirelessly to bring the writings of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to English-speaking readers throughout the world.

First, in a 2005 interview with ZENIT, Mark was asked, “What will Pope Benedict XVI bring of himself and his theological interests to the pontificate?” He replied:

Although Ratzinger the prefect is distinguishable from Ratzinger the theologian, we are blessed in Pope Benedict XVI with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and her mission to the world.

He will, I believe, continue the twofold task of Vatican II — renewing the inner life of the Church and reinvigorating the Church’s mission in the world. He is committed to a renewal of biblical studies and a deepening of ordinary Catholics’ appreciation of and participation in the sacred liturgy.

He staunchly proclaims the universal call to holiness of Vatican II. He understands the importance of dialogue among Christians and dialogue with world religions and seekers, while he upholds the integrity of Catholic faith and insists on a renewed missionary drive to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

And he knows that in the areas of morality and social justice, the Christian message has not been tried and found wanting, as G.K. Chesterton noted, but has been found difficult and left untried. Furthermore, he sees the threat of radical relativism and many other “isms.”

And today, in a press release, Mark states:

Although Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been relatively short, he has accomplished a great deal amidst profound challenges, both within the Church and in the world. By stressing the “hermeneutic of reform” in contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” he has shown the way forward in clarifying the relationship between the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s Tradition. He has presented clearly, forcefully, thoughtfully, and winsomely “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and he has strengthened the Church’s efforts to evangelize the world. He has sought to deepen the renewal of the Church’s worship and sacramental life by fostering a recovery of “the spirit of the liturgy.” He has appointed and elevated men to the episcopate who perceive the importance of an authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council, in light of the Church’s Tradition and the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of our world (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 1).

And then he ended it all with utmost humility and simplicity. His final public words:

Thank you – thank you from my heart!

Dear friends, I’m happy to be with you, that I can see the Creator’s beauty around us, and all the goodness you’ve given to me – thank you for your friendship and your affection!

You know that this day of mine hasn’t been like those before. I’m no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church…now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.

With all my heart, with all my love, with my prayer and all my strength – with everything in me – I’d like to work for the common good of the church and all humanity. I feel your kindness so much.

Let us always move together toward the Lord for the good of the church and of the world. Thank you for bringing yourselves [here] – with all my heart, I give you my blessing….

Thank you and goodnight!

Tom McDonald, a savvy, witty blogger, hardly knew what to say.

And so it ends.

The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time, and reminds us that greatness is measured not by political machinations, military or economic might, or even important discoveries, but in staying grounded in the vast messiness of this frustrating and glorious human family with compassion, humility, and gentleness.

He was the teacher we needed at the time we needed him. The Holy Spirit is funny that way. As the world was careening towards armageddon, with almost half its population locked in near-slavery, He gave us a firebrand: a charismatic leader who spoke with a force that toppled nations.

When our greatest enemy was ourselves–our prosperity, our tendency to selfishness, our triviality, our refusal to be taught–he sent a quiet viticulturist of souls. In one of those great cosmic ironies that proves God is a brilliant joker, He sent a teacher to a people unwilling to be taught: a people under the delusion of a radical individualism that says each man is his own Lord and Master, and thus must find his own way by his own light, rather than by the one Light Who illuminates all.

For a people easily distracted by an infinitely multiplying, utterly inconsequential number of small things, he turned the bright beam of his intellect on the big things: the things that mattered: hope, faith, love. In an era when the people who have assumed the mantle of “humanism” are the most anti-human of all, he gave us a true Christian humanist rooted where it must be rooted: in the God who loves.

Non-Catholics can’t possibly understand the connection truly faithful Catholics have to their pope.  He’s not magic, he’s not a god, and oddly enough he doesn’t even need to be holy or even particularly inspirational. (Fortunately, this last part is rare in the history of Christ’s Church.) What he is, is this:  a promise. He is a promise, made by the Incarnate Lord, of a visible leadership that will last for all time, beginning with the flawed, hot-headed, cowardly fisherman who sat at His right hand, and stretching down through the millennia to us today. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam.”

And I will miss him more than words can express. He was “my” pope. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, marveling at a mind so sharp it could convey complex points with utter simplicity. As someone called to a teaching ministry, I was inspired by his ability to teach at any level required of him, and teach so well that he also could inspire.

And that, my friends, bespeaks my sentiments exactly. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, quoted him in articles I wrote and talks I gave and on radio shows, because he taught the depths of human truths with such clarity and elegance and art. All that Thomas said, yes.

In recent days, I’ve twice interviewed Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press and former student of the former Fr. Joseph Ratzinger with whom he has maintained a close 40 year long friendship. It has been enlightening and joyful and inspiring to talk with him, a priest who can really call Ratzinger/Benedict “my pope.”

“He was different, and people came to listen to him. He offered a very personal, meditative reflection. As people now recognize, he was articulate, organized and coherent,” recalled Father Fessio, during an interview that shared recollections of Ratzinger’s role as a teacher and offered an appreciation of his gifts as an author.

But Father Ratzinger’s intellectual gifts were even more striking during the graduate seminars, “where there would be five or six of us. In each session, one person would make a presentation, and others would respond,” Father Fessio remembered. “Father Ratzinger would listen, and then, in the discussion, he would make sure that others also spoke. My German was not good, and I couldn’t say very much.”

During the seminars, Father Ratzinger “would sit back, and then, at the end of the seminar, in two or three sentence, he would summarize all that was said. He pulled the discussion together into an organic whole in a way that was always illuminating.”

Fr. Fessio told me Ratzinger/Benedict had the gift of synthesizing thoughts in something like “an intellectual symphony,” a beautiful and perfectly apt description of Benedict’s exquisite expression. “He had a power of seeing,” Fr. Fessio told me again on Monday. “He wrote with clarity, depth and breadth. His deep faith gave him the power of seeing everyting integrated as a whole, with an inner unity.”

From the interview in National Catholic Register:

Father Fessio recalled a remark the Pope made during a meeting some time after his election.

Another Catholic publisher asked the Holy Father why only Ignatius Press was publishing his works. Father Fessio recalled  that the Pope calmly responded, “Because when no one else cared, they published my works.”

Those of us who knew the mind and eloquent expression of Joseph Ratzinger always cared, in fact valued it highly, and hung on every word. Fortunately, they will be with us for a lifetime and many more after us, no matter who his successors are to the Chair of Peter.