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Going beyond the papal headlines

Religious leaders and laypeople in the Westerly area offered insightful comments over the weekend on Pope Francis’ statements, published in Jesuit journals on Sept. 20, that the Roman Catholic Church needed to “find a new balance” and focus less on divisive issues like abortion.

Francis has had, at the age of 76, a lifetime to master the arts of public relations, and his candor, genuine acts of humility, occasionally scary exposure to huge crowds, and one-on-one phone calls to ordinary people have helped to make him immensely popular in his first six months. It is telling that he has received his highest favorable rating, 86 percent, among U.S. Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted this month. Here and elsewhere, the reaction to his interview among both practicing Catholics and representatives from other churches suggests that reasonably well-informed people know that the pope’s message is not a departure from the church’s traditional teachings. The Sicilian Jesuit who conducted the interview, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilita Cattolicà, acknowledged as much on the day it was released: “We have a great pope,” he said. “There is a big vision, not a big shift.” In fact, Francis delivered strong anti-abortion remarks the next day.

In this light, attempts to characterize the treatment of the pope’s interview as liberal media hype don’t seem particularly germane. Anything can be branded as political if you so wish, but secular politics surely was not the pope’s intent, nor was that the way the stories were reported. A local Protestant pastor put things in better perspective with her comment about “the incredible genius” of the pope: “He never undermined the teaching of the church, he reframed it from the dogma to a more practical reality.” And Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, who has done little to hide his partisanship, and whose criticism of Francis on the abortion issue was widely reported earlier in the month, seemed to step back a bit on Friday. He expressed gratitude to his boss and issued a statement noting that “Being a Catholic doesn’t mean having to choose between doctrine and charity, between truth and love.”

There is a nugget of truth in the criticism of the secular media, but it has nothing to do with politics. The problem is simply the inadequacy of mainstream news formats in conveying the breadth and complexity of thought that went into the Jesuit article. Fortunately, the journal America, The National Catholic Review, has made the interview readily available. Readers who take on the whole thing will find it to be a daunting experience in some ways, with its Latin sayings and references to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Spadaro noted that “Talking with Pope Francis is a kind of volcanic flow of ideas that are bound up with each other.” He asked the pope, “What element of Jesuit spirituality helps you live your ministry?” and Francis’ reply dealt with his understanding of “discernment” — a way of contemplation and perspective that can give a person the ability “to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others.” He said that Pope John XXIII had this attitude, and he quoted John’s motto on church governance: “ ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ ” Francis indicated that he was well aware of the obstacles ahead but was committed to laying the foundations “for real, effective change.”

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