Read the interview in which Pope Francis startles the church

In a stunning move, Pope Francis coordinated with journalists in a carefully orchestrated, in-depth interview published simultaneously by Catholic media around the world. In English, the complete version of the lengthy interview appears in America Magazine.

NEWS ANALYSIS by David Crumm, Editor of ReadTheSpirit:

To be clear, Pope Francis did not change church doctrine. Not a line of the church’s canon law was revised by this interview. But—in a shot heard round the world—he broke open a window into what the world’s billion-plus Catholics consider to be the Mother Church. Then, he stood at this newly opened portal and waved the reluctant toward what he regards as Home.

As a journalist, I have reported from the Vatican a number of times during the reign of Pope John Paul II, who was followed by Pope Benedict XVI. During those papacies, the Vatican sought to gather more and more authority in an effort to purge the church of what Benedict viewed as heresy. Benedict openly talked about the need to lead a smaller, purer church in an era of history that he viewed as a threat to faith itself. During those decades, traditionalists in the church’s grassroots and Catholics with a political agenda—in growing numbers—would conduct their own witch hunts in regions of the church and send charges directly to the Vatican. In this interview, Francis clearly rejects that approach and urges that most future disputes over doctrine be handled “locally.”

For all the high liturgy and all the media glitz of Francis’s election and inauguration in March, this seems to be the true deck-clearing start of Pope Francis’s papacy. Remember that, for decades, his official motto has been miserando atque eligendo, drawn from Bede‘s homily on Matthew 9:9–13 in which Bede wrote: “because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him.”

That entire passage from Matthew 9 says: As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”


In the thousands of news media reports about Pope Francis’s interview, one of the most overlooked sections of the interview is his explanation—through several Questions and Answers—of his own dramatic evolution in understanding church leadership. He admits and actually seems to apologize for being too authoritarian as a young man, thrust into a position of power in the church in his mid-30s. Now, he realizes that earlier style was wrong. Here’s the key paragraph in which he describes the true wisdom of the Church:

“The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this ‘infallibilitas in credendo,’ this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.”


Then, here is a sample of the portion mid-interview where Francis startles the world:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. 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.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”


Here is the key section, which often is quoted only in phrases or single sentences in news media reports:

“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. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”


In English, the complete version of the lengthy interview appears in America Magazine.


This year, the world is rediscovering Pope John XXIII—especially since Francis plans to canonize him as officially recognized saint.

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    Wonderful good news all this. The mother-heart of God seems to be in the air. I also note some similarities to the arc of Abraham Lincoln’s life and words: Lincoln started out pretty arrogant and hard-edged as a young man, and grew to a broader compassionate inclusive spirit. He, too, spoke of the people as God’s tribunal, of not judging, and of showing mercy to the wounded.

  2. Debra Darvick says

    This is the heart of so much: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person. From that one statement all else should flow when it comes to deciding who gets to “join the club” as it were.