By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
The idea seemed too daring to contemplate even as Jorge Mario Bergoglio stunned the world on March 13, 2013, with a long list of “firsts”—the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope since the Syrian Gregory III in 741.
Now, the idea is emerging with each news item blossoming from the Vatican: The world may be experiencing what Christianity could look like with an inclusive pontiff at the helm of its largest branch—the billion-member Catholic church.
The first blossom emerged two years ago—and befuddled journalists. Was it just an off-hand remark, when Francis uttered his now-famous “Who am I to judge?”
Those five words were, in fact, an answer Francis gave to a question about any concerns he might have regarding a prevalence of gay priests within the church. The question itself was loaded. The iron-fisted Pope Benedict XVI, his predecessor, had insisted on using phrases like “moral evil” and “objective disorder” when talking about homosexuality—and Benedict had declared that gay men shouldn’t become priests.
The setting for this question was itself an unprecedented, wide-ranging press conference aboard a plane bound for Rome in late July 2013 after a triumphant seven-day tour of Brazil. Veteran religion writers all knew the rules: Popes don’t give press conferences. But then? The Vatican press corps suddenly found the pontiff casually answering questions for more than an hour. Someone raised the red hot question about homosexuality and the priesthood.
Francis answered with a startling: “Who am I to judge?”
“Befuddled” is the correct term for the collective response from news media. Veteran journalists knew what to do when they heard a remark like this little bombshell: Check with Vatican insiders about whether this remark represented a change in Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
The answer they got was: Absolutely not.
The New York Times‘s Rachel Donadio reported that the words “Who am I to judge?” from this new pope were just a sign of his “compassionate” tone. She focused on Francis’s kind phrasing—a stark contrast with Benedict, who never seemed concerned about his often-offensive choice of words.
Some news reports about the press conference neglected to mention the other bombshell the pope dropped on that historic flight—this time, in response to a question about women’s roles in the church. Francis said to the reporters on the plane, in part: “We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more.”
These veteran journalists followed their training. Was there any sign that this was a shift in Catholic teaching or church policy regarding women’s roles? Might Francis be talking about a desire, someday, to ordain women priests? The official answer: No, women’s ordination was off the table. No surprise there. Once again, these remarks, if they were reported at all, were chalked up to the kindly tone of this pope.
At that point, just a few months after his election, journalists had collectively pegged him as “a man of the poor” and radically “humble” in his own daily habits. His public utterances seemed to be part of this softer, gentler style of the world’s most influential religious leader. News editors continued to look for quirky stories like the new pontiff’s decision to, as The Telegraph put it, “Ditch the Red Shoes.” (That story was another sign of “humility,” the Telegraph reported: Francis would no longer wear the expensive, custom-made, red Prada shoes favored by his predecessors.)
FRANCIS’S ACTIONS SPEAK AS LOUD AS HIS WORDS
Quirky. Kind. Compassionate in his choice of words about the world’s most vulnerable people.
But, the truth is larger than that: This pope also is a man of action and some of his actions are only now rising to the surface. Consider the headline news that Francis now is streamlining the formerly cumbersome and often emotionally wrenching process for married-and-divorced Catholics to remarry and remain in good standing with their church.
The byzantine threads of theology and canon law woven through this issue are the subject of another in-depth article. Suffice it to summarize: For many years, American Catholic leaders have been in the forefront of trying to repair the painful breach between their church and millions of divorced and remarried Catholics. The American church helped to push through an earlier streamlining of the annulment process, although the process remained—until now—a very long and emotionally painful process, so daunting that many Catholics simply ignored it. The shift Francis is signaling is so new and unsettling that most American Catholic leaders aren’t quite sure how it will unfold.
When he wants to, Francis can act fast.
Veteran journalist Patricia Montemurri of The Detroit Free Press, who has covered the Catholic church for decades, summarized it nicely in her story a few days ago: “Advocates hope major reforms announced Tuesday by Pope Francis will encourage more divorced Catholics to go through a quicker annulment process, lessening the likelihood they’ll drift away from their faith.”
The New York Times coverage hauled out a different i-word to describe Francis’s motives in this latest announcement: Interaction. Here’s part of what Jim Yardley and Elisabetta Povoledo wrote in the Times: “The new rules demonstrate Francis’s approach to his papacy: Change procedures and tone, so as to attract people back to the church, without changing doctrine. They are also a tacit acknowledgment of the challenges the church faces in the modern world, and Francis’s attempts to find points of interaction.”
A CHALLENGE TO PAPAL OBSERVERS
But, let’s—as journalists who are veterans of covering trends in global religion—begin to report on the larger idea that seems to be unfolding here. And that daring idea is: Pope Francis envisions a radically inclusive church.
Still skeptical of this notion? In light of his latest actions and his upcoming September 22 to 27 visit to the United States, it’s a perfect time to re-read the encyclical on creation care that Francis published on June 18, 2015.
If one dares to envision this pope’s vocation, his larger spiritual pilgrimage, as focusing on radical inclusion, suddenly many passages in his encyclical take on a larger scope and urgency. Read even a condensed version of the encyclical—ReadTheSpirit‘s Best Quotes—and you’ll find this passage from the encyclical’s opening pages calling for a cosmic embrace of inclusion:
The encyclical says: Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason” His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.
This vision runs thorughout the book-length encyclical and resurfaces in sections on themes such as The Common Good. At one point, for example, the pope writes:
The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. The global economic crises have made painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from inter-generational solidarity.
The final prayers, which Francis urges people to share and recite together in coming years, take on a larger scale as well. The pope even opted to offer two prayers—one aimed at Catholics and Christians in general and one more inclusive in its tone. That more expansive prayer says in part:
Fill us with peace,
that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Viewed in the light of a larger calling—an inclusive vision of the church—the hundreds of news stories and expert commentaries about the pope’s encyclical on the environment begin to seem narrow. The primary theme of most news coverage was Francis’s warnings about a looming ecological crisis and his criticism of giant corporations and politicians blinded to environmental dangers. National polling focused on whether the pontiff could move the needle on public opinion about global warming.
And, those concerns certainly are in that encyclical
But, what if the pope’s vision was—and remains—even larger: an inclusive vision of not only his church, but of all humanity on this small blue ball orbiting the sun?
LOOK TO THE PAPAL CREST
Is this idea of an inclusive pope simply a wishful interpretation of small signs and passages coming from the Vatican these days? Or, is it something deeper that has evolved and grown throughout this pope’s life?
Perhaps a clue lies in the papal crest and motto: “Miserando atque eligendo”
Here is how Vatican Radio describes the crest and the meaning of the motto:
Pope Francis has chosen the motto Miserando atque eligendo, meaning lowly but chosen; literally in Latin it means “by having mercy, by choosing him.”
The motto is one the pope had already chosen as Bishop. It is taken from the homilies of the Venerable Bede on Saint Matthew’s Gospel relating to his vocation: “Jesus saw the tax collector and by having mercy chose him as an Apostle saying to him : Follow me.”
This homily, which focuses on divine mercy and is reproduced in the Liturgy of the Hours on the Feast of Saint Matthew, has taken on special significance in the Pope’s life and spiritual journey.
In fact it was on the Feast of Saint Matthew in 1953 that a young 17-year-old Jorge Bergoglio was touched by the mercy of God and felt the call to religious life in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
Turns out—this inclusive vision of humbly and graciously making room for all has grown, matured and blossomed from the roots—from this pontiff’s deepest stirrings of vocation.
DAVID CRUMM is founding Editor of the ReadTheSpirit publishing house. For more than 30 years, he served as a religion news writer, covering the impact of religion and cross-cultural issues in the U.S. and around the world. He extensively covered the Catholic church during the papacy of pope John Paul II, including traveling with John Paul during his 1987 tour of North America.
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