The following comes from an August 2 posting by John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter.
In most respects, Alitalia flight 4001 from Rio de Janeiro to Rome on Sunday night was nothing to write home about. The seats in economy class were fairly uncomfortable, and the food was merely adequate. The main course was a lukewarm square of lasagna roughly the size of a Ritz cracker.
I’ll say this for it, however: The in-flight entertainment was spectacular.
As is by now well-known, we were treated to a pope standing in the press compartment for an hour and 20 minutes, taking questions on every topic under the sun with no filters and no limits, speaking without notes and delivering straight answers. Among other things, one had to be awed by the energy of the 76-year-old pontiff, who had just finished a grueling seven-day trip to Brazil yet seemed capable of going on almost indefinitely.
As I said Monday on CNN with Michael Holmes, when you cover the Vatican, you sometimes sit around late at night dreaming of moments like this, but you never really think you’ll live to see them happen.
While the headline was the pope’s comments on gays — “Who am I to judge?” — it was a sprawling conversation, with the full transcript extending to almost 10,000 words. It’s dangerous with such a wide range of topics to try to reduce the pope’s message to a single word, but in this case, I believe it can be done without leaving anything essential out of view.
The one-word interpretive key to Francis’ news conference and arguably to his entire papacy to date: “mercy.”
As I’ve written before, each recent pope has had a catchphrase that represents his core emphasis. For John Paul II, it was “Be not afraid!”, a call to revive the church’s missionary swagger after a period of introspection and self-doubt. For Benedict, it was “reason and faith,” the argument that religion shorn of self-critical reflection becomes extremism while human reason without the orientation of ultimate truths becomes skepticism and nihilism.
For Francis, his signature idea is mercy. Over and over again, he emphasizes God’s endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the church above all today is a message of compassion….
Francis’ emphasis on mercy is nearly ubiquitous. In a recent essay for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Enzo Bianchi, founder of the celebrated ecumenical monastery of Bose, offered a statistical analysis of the words used most frequently by Francis since his election. He found that the single most commonly used term was “joy,” more than a hundred times, followed closely by “mercy,” which the pope has used almost a hundred times.
This conviction that we are living in a kairos of mercy makes sense of everything else the pope said on the plane and, for that matter, most of what he’s said and done since his election in March.
It explains his unwillingness to pass judgment on gays, and it also explains his refusal to be drawn into a political diatribe when a Brazilian journalist asked him about recent laws in the country liberalizing abortion and permitting same-sex marriage. Asked why he didn’t address those issues during his trip, the pope said, “It wasn’t necessary to speak of them, but of the positive things that get young people going. Anyway, young people know perfectly well what the position of the church is.”
Pressed for his personal conviction, Francis didn’t duck: “That of the church. … I’m a son of the church.”
There you have it in a nutshell. Francis is no doctrinal radical, and there will likely be no substantive upheaval of the church’s positions on issues of gender and sex or anything else. On the one specific question Francis fielded along these lines, women’s ordination, he reaffirmed “that door is closed.”
The revolution under Francis is not one of content, but of tone. He believes it’s time for the church to lift up its merciful face to the world, in part because of its own self-inflicted wounds and in part because of the harsh and unforgiving temper of the times. This is a pope who will look for every chance to express compassion, steering clear of finger-wagging unless it’s absolutely necessary.
His focus on mercy also helps explain why the sacrament of confession is so important to him, why he made a point of hearing confessions before Mass during his first visit to a Roman parish May 31, something John Paul II and Benedict didn’t do. As I wrote July 26, it’s quite possible that when he went to Rio de Janeiro’s Boa Vista Park to hear five confessions that morning, in his own mind, it was the most important thing he did all week….
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