There is no question that something about Pope Francis catches the imagination of those who might otherwise have nothing to do with the Catholic Church. From the displays of humility that splash across the news to the refusal to live in the apostolic palace or follow time-honored papal traditions to the endless string of off-the-cuff comments signaling a change in rigid doctrinal certainty, Pope Francis marches to the beat of his own drum. And the song it’s playing is ¡Hagan lío! – “Make a mess.”
Amidst controversial papal comments this week that “All Christians and men of good will are called today to fight … for the abolition of the death penalty in all its forms, whether it be legal or illegal…” and that life sentences are a “hidden death penalty,” a story written in Newsweek paints a picture of the pope’s past that in bold strokes depicts a cleric surrounded by his own mythology – and possibly his own theology as well:
He was not what she was expecting, in several ways. The man who would one day be Pope Francis had come to hold a service far from the grandeur of the great cathedral of Buenos Aires. He had travelled – taking the subway train and then the bus – to arrive in one of the shanty-towns, which Argentines call villas miserias – misery villages. He had picked his way down crooked and chaotic alleyways, criss-crossed with water pipes and dangling electricity cables, along which open sewers ran as malodorous streams when the rain came. There, amid ramshackle houses of crudely- cemented terracotta breezeblock, he fell into conversation with the middle-aged mother.
She told him of life in an impoverished slum, terrorised by gangs peddling paco – the cheap chemical waste product left over from processing the cocaine sent to Europe and the United States, or sold to the affluent middle classes of the Argentinian capital. Dealers mix the residue with kerosene, rat poison or even crushed glass and sell it for a dollar a hit to the people of the slums. So addictive is the drug that one day’s free supply is enough to get hooked, creating a short-lived high followed by an intense craving, paranoia and hallucination. The dealers target the children of the poor and adolescents who hang around because there is no work to be had.
The woman looked at the prince of the Church and apologised to him for the fact that her son, amidst all that, had stopped going to Mass. The man, who as Pope was to take the name of Francis – the great saint of the poor – looked into her eyes as though she were the only person in his world. “But is he a good kid?” the priest asked.
“Oh, yes, Father Jorge,” she replied, eschewing the grander titles of the cardinal archbishop. “Well,” pronounced the prelate, “that’s what matters.”
Certainly, the story is apocryphal, we may be tempted to think, and at the very least it has lost clarity through the haze of memory. What priest or bishop, let alone one who would become pope, would say that the first precept of the Church doesn’t matter?
But there is a far more recent story that paints a nearly identical portrait of Bergoglio, now the pope. This time, the account comes from July of this year, when Marie Kane, a victim of Irish clerical abuse, gave a radio interview about her meeting with the pope:
“I think I’ve been angry my whole life at the Catholic Church. I, you know, I could never sit in a Mass without feeling anger…”
“I prayed for change, change in the Church. Um, maybe that’s very naïve of me, I don’t know. But when you’re sitting there and in a very small chapel and the homily was written in English so you could read what he was saying, because [the pope] speaks Spanish, so, it was very moving for me personally, and, yeah, change. That’s…you know, just, do more. Get these guys out of power that shouldn’t be there. That are guilty of coverup. And who covered up in my case as well. And they know who they are, like, you know? So yeah. Change. Change. I’ll never get my faith back. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the church. And actually the pope, I said that to him. And he said, ‘You know you don’t need, you don’t need to be in the Church, you are part of the Church, you don’t physically need to be in it, inside it you know to be part of God’s family like.’ So, little messages like that were really nice, you know. He put thought into what he said to me today. It wasn’t just answers off the cuff. So a very positive experience, for me.”
When it comes to matters of ecclesiology and adherence to settled teaching, it is hard not to get the impression at times that the Holy Father is, to borrow a phrase from the popular culture, “breaking bad.” There are several accounts from Protestants and Jews and even Atheists who said that Pope Francis (or Cardinal Bergoglio) showed a complete disinterest in their conversion to Catholicism:
1. “When he speaks about evangelization, the idea is to evangelize Christians or Catholics,”to reach “higher dimensions of faith” and a deepened commitment to social justice, Skorka said. “This is the idea of evangelization that Bergoglio is stressing — not to evangelize Jews. This he told me, on several opportunities.”
– Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and close personal friend of Pope Francis
2. “Bp Venables added that in a conversation with Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, the latter made it clear that he values the place of Anglicans in the Church universal.
‘He called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the Church needs us as Anglicans.’”
– Rt. Rev. Greg Venables, Anglican Bishop of Argentina and close personal friend of Pope Francis
3. “And here I am. The Pope comes in and shakes my hand, and we sit down. The Pope smiles and says: ‘Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me.’
It’s a joke, I tell him. My friends think it is you want to convert me.
He smiles again and replies: ‘Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.’ ”
– Eugenio Scalfari, Atheist founder of La Repubblica (and grantee of three papal interviews despite his habit of reporting quotes without taking notes)
4. “At lunch I asked Pope Francis what his heart was for evangelism. He smiled, knowing what was behind my question and comment was, ‘I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.’ ” (Of course Evangelicals do evangelize Catholics and Catholics do the same to us. However, that discussion we will raise another day.)
– Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance
Reading these statements from men whom Pope Francis has treated as friends, it’s hard not to wonder what his vision is for the Church, and for evangelization. His approach is also thrown into stark contrast with the mind of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose thoughts on “mission” were also revealed this week in an address to faculty and students of the Pontifical Urbanian University in Rome:
“The risen Lord instructed his apostles, and through them his disciples in all ages, to take his word to the ends of the earth and to make disciples of all people,” retired Pope Benedict wrote. “‘But does that still apply?’ many inside and outside the church ask themselves today. ‘Is mission still something for today? Would it not be more appropriate to meet in dialogue among religions and serve together the cause of world peace?’ The counter-question is: ‘Can dialogue substitute for mission?’
“In fact, many today think religions should respect each other and, in their dialogue, become a common force for peace. According to this way of thinking, it is usually taken for granted that different religions are variants of one and the same reality,” the retired pope wrote. “The question of truth, that which originally motivated Christians more than any other, is here put inside parentheses. It is assumed that the authentic truth about God is in the last analysis unreachable and that at best one can represent the ineffable with a variety of symbols. This renunciation of truth seems realistic and useful for peace among religions in the world.
“It is nevertheless lethal to faith. In fact, faith loses its binding character and its seriousness, everything is reduced to interchangeable symbols, capable of referring only distantly to the inaccessible mystery of the divine…”
Pope Bergoglio’s unorthodox approach to the papacy has indeed garnered the interest of the world. But is a papacy that attracts the interest of unbelievers — but doesn’t bother to convert them — truly effective? Is a shepherd who welcomes but never disciplines his flock leading souls to heaven? Is a spiritual father who chastises his own children for believing too firmly in their own faith but speaks with fondness and affection toward children not his own inspiring anyone to live the True Faith?
There are issues facing the Church today that desperately require attention, but we find ourselves constantly drawn back into the discussion of the latest controversial statement or action of Pope Francis. Around and around we go, trying to determine, “Is it orthodox?” or “Can he say this?” or “Was it a translation issue?” We are inevitably reminded that there is some way to construe it that should let us sleep at night, if not soundly, and that there are several proof points in this regard “to know and share.”
Through it all, distraction, confusion, and frustration arises. In an email I received recently from someone struggling with their faith, the question was pointedly asked, “How can I believe in a Church that doesn’t even seem to believe in itself, in its own mission or purpose?”
It’s a question many are pondering. It grows exceedingly difficult for many to focus on Christ when His vicar, whom we are meant to love and obey, seems often to be standing in the way.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.