Thursday 11 June 2015

“Pope Francis is a missionary of mercy”

Full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Austen Ivereigh, journalista and author of “The Great Reformer”, a biography of Pope Francis. The news story, in Portuguese, can be found here

Transcrição integral da entrevista com Austen Ivereigh sobre o seu livro “O Grande Reformador”, uma biografia do Papa Francisco. A notícia pode ser lida aqui.  

Let’s start with the title. The Great Reformer? What reforms are we talking about here? Reforms of church teaching and discipline? Or a more general reform of style?
There are two provocative words in the title. One is "Reformer" the other is "radical", because I describe him as a radical Pope, and part of the reason for choosing that title is I wanted to demonstrate that he belongs to a tradition of radical Catholic reform, which goes back to the Middle Ages, to St. Francis of Assisi. But he is a reformer, he is not Luther; he is radical, but he is not Che Guevara. The tradition he belongs to is about recovering the church's original mission, entrusted to it by Jesus Christ, which is to announce God and God's mercy to the world. 

So that actually the reform that he is engaged in, the “great reform”, as I refer to it in the epilogue, is a culture change within the Church, a refocusing on the priorities of the Church and a deliberate attempt to remove all those things which impede the Church offering Christ to the world. In other words, the Church should not depend on ego, on power, as it were, the things of this world, but focus on what he calls the “kerygma”, the essential, offer of the Church, the Good News of the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.

Your conference this afternoon [June 9th, Lisbon] is about four key aspects which are essential to understanding Pope Francis’ reform. Could you tell us briefly what these are?
The four keys, as I call them, to understanding where Pope Francis is taking us begins with Mercy as Evangelization. This is a new idea in the church, one which is very familiar in Latin America, but not to us in Europe and the United States, which is that the way people are converted is not so much through an encounter with an argument, but rather having an experience of God's love and mercy. So that is the key for Francis to the New Evangelization: How do we represent the gospel to societies which appear to have rejected it? We do that through Mercy.

The second key is that his reform belongs to a tradition of true Catholic reform, and I use a theologian who is very influential on Francis, Eve Congar, to distinguish between true and false reform. There are criteria for true reform: One is that it does not question core Catholic doctrine and tradition, it is innovating within the tradition, its purpose is pastoral, it is about enabling more people to go to Church and have contact with God and in prayer, and thirdly it is about the centre opening up to the periphery. 

The third key is “no to spiritual worldliness and yes to mission”. This is all about how the Church can recover its missionary purpose, but that requires rejecting a lot of things which have become attached to religion but which do not belong to it, which is his war on what he calls “spiritual worldliness”.

And the last one is about his communication, and the importance of “parresia”. Parresia is a form of apostolic courage, a gift of the spirit which allows us as Christians to speak freely and boldly and directly to the human heart, and that is the way he is now communicating as Pope, a way which of course is surprising, controversial, disconcerting, but of course incredibly effective.

So those are my four keys for understanding where Francis is going.

All eyes are, of course, on the upcoming synod of the Family. Do you expect changes to be made?
I am saying that the synod is going to produce no change in doctrine, and I don't believe it is going to produce any change in sacramental discipline. But what it will produce, or what Francis hopes it will produce, is a refocusing.

So it is not just about how the Church can defend the indissolubility of marriage from the threats to it, from a secularized, relativistic society, but rather how do we enable those who have not been properly catechised, who entered marriage with the horizon, not of the Gospel, but of society, who ended up estranged from the Church... How can we bring them back in?

The tension that Francis is inviting the Church to live in is to say: “How do we open the Church, open the paths for people to come back to the Church, while at the same time defending the absolutely essential value of the indissolubility of marriage”.

People who are very worried about the synod say that can't be done, that if you do one you are going to end up undermining the other. Francis is confident that he has created in the synod what he calls a protected space for the Holy Spirit to act, that this is actually how the Church has always developed and how the Church has always learned to evangelize in new ways, it is not by changing the doctrine, but by living in the tension between the truth of the doctrine and the pastoral needs of people, which is of course what Jesus does, Jesus left the Church with that tension. He is happy to sit in that tension, and the Synod is all about learning to live in that tension and allowing the spirit to act through that.

I think if the synod produces a convergence around certain key ideas and attitudes, and so on, he will regard that as a sign of the action of the Holy Spirit similar to that which existed in the early councils of the Church.

You say you don't believe there will be any change in doctrine or sacramental discipline, but the propositions of Cardinal Kasper and his followers do point in that direction... 
Just to be clear about this, Kasper said only the other day, but he has said it various other times, that he has never suggested that the Church adopt the Orthodox practice of recognizing second unions, what he said is that he believes that we should discuss it, that the Church should look at it and consider how better it can embody the message of mercy. Because as far as Kasper is concerned, and I think Francis agrees with him, the Church at the moment has a message on marriage which appears to be devoid of the elements of mercy. So Kasper's challenge is how to reintroduce that question of mercy. 

Kasper denies that is what he is urging, and I don't think that is what will happen, nor do I think the synod will adopt that, nor do I think that is what Francis wants. So I think in a way the whole conservative critique of the synod is based, I think, on a misapprehension of what Kasper is trying to do.

I wasn't talking about second marriages, but the idea that some couples in irregular unions could be accepted to Communion after a process of repentance...
So the whole question is, what path of conversion or repentance is necessary for the Church to recognize as sufficient to be readmitted to the sacraments, and of course, if the original marriage has not been dissolved, then the first thing to do of course is to consider annulment. So a big part of the reform is reforming the annulment system, to make annulments easier and more accessible. 

But there will always be people for whom that system, which is a legal process, is not going to be appropriate, and yet the Church will recognise that in fact that first marriage was not valid, or that there has been this conversion. Then, very possibly, and this is what one concrete result of the synod could well be, that the synod agrees that bishops should, on a case by case basis, admit particular people or couples to Communion, having satisfied themselves of that path. And that is what, I think, is being examined. 

However, I actually think, looking at the synod at the moment, that there is not sufficient consensus on that point for there to be, in October, a resolution on that. But what we could get is a decision to study it in more detail.

Could the Pope move ahead with that even without the consensus of the synod?
I don't think that Francis can ignore the consensus of the synod, nor would he want to. Because he would see that as a sign of the Holy Spirit. So even though technically the Pope is not bound by the synod, ultimately he retains the sovereignty and the power in the Church, he has created a mechanism which is deliberately designed to discern the will of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Having created that mechanism, neither this Pope nor any future Pope would want to ignore it.

That is what is different in this synod from the previous synods, because this genuinely is a mechanism of Ecclesial discernment, whereas the previous synod was controlled by the Vatican and was actually designed to prevent any of that kind of novelty.

Recently when the Jubilee of Mercy was presented there was mention in the Vatican documents about an unspecified grand gesture of mercy. Do you know what that might be?
I think the particular initiative which was referred to in the bull, which has since been announced, is the so called missionaries of mercy, who are priests entrusted by the Pope with the power to forgive the sin of abortion. So even though in practise that dispensation has been given before, I think the idea is that there are sufficient numbers of these missionaries of mercy for the forgiving love of God to be much better known in the area of abortion.

The missionaries of mercy are hinted at in the bull, and it was afterwards that the Vatican specified what it would involve. Exactly how many, and where, I don't think is clear. That is one of the initiatives which will take place after the synod, because the year of mercy begins in December.

Interestingly, by the way, the Jubilee year has been entrusted by Francis, and very few people have noticed this, to the pontifical council for New Evangelization. This, again, makes the link between New Evangelization and Mercy very, very clear.

How important is it to understand Francis’ years in Argentina, and what exactly does your book bring which is new to this story?
I've said before, it is impossible to understand St. John Paul II without understanding something of the tortured history of Poland, and I think the same is true of Jorge Maria Bergoglio, that he is the product, in many ways, of the peculiarities of his extraordinary nation. 

It is a country I know very well, because I did my doctorate on it over 25 years ago, on the Church and politics in Argentina, and I wrestled back then, as a foreigner, with the complexities of Argentina and the Church. 

Of course I was fascinated when I came to write the book and research it with where he located himself within all these tensions, particularly in relation to Peronism, which is a movement which very few people outside Argentina quite understand. 

So what does my book do? Well the first thing it does is it goes a lot into Argentine history, and I make no apology for that, because it is a dramatic history and one which is very important to Francis himself. Secondly, I am the first biographer to really enter into the Jesuit period in detail, I read everything he ever wrote, over 20 years, as a Jesuit, which oddly enough, no other biographer had ever done.

This is something which surprised me, that these writings are not well known. One volume, I have seen now, has been republished in Spanish, but actually most of them are out of print, and it was clear, in studying those writings of his as a Jesuit in the spirituality journals, that he had a conception, from the beginning, in his thirties, of himself as a reformer and the vision that he had of that reform, struck me as quite remarkable in the light of what we now see in Francis.

So even though he has developed and changed over time, sometimes in many remarkable ways – for example he became very close, as a cardinal, to charismatic spirituality in a way he hadn't before, so there is clearly growth and development in him – and yet, what is remarkable to me is the continuity from the early Bergoglio, through the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, to now, the Pope we know.

There are some unexpected stories about him in Argentina. Is it true that he also got himself into some trouble with the Jesuits at the time?
The big question I asked myself before this writing this biography when I went out to Argentina at the end of 2013 was: "What went wrong?"

Everybody knows that he became estranged from the Society of Jesus, that over many years as bishop and Cardinal he never went to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, that he cut his links with the society in any kind of formal level, and it was well known that he had suffered some kind of internal exile, he was ostracized within the company, so chapter 5 is dedicated to explaining that, and it is a remarkable story, it is a very dramatic story, it hasn't been told before.

All I would say is that to understand it is in many ways to understand him, and to understand Argentina as well. That many different things came together in that, but he was an extraordinary leader who ended up dividing the province. The young Jesuits adored him and saw him as a huge figure, the elder and more intellectual Jesuits, the more upper class Jesuits, and part of this had to do with social class, didn't like the direction he was taking the Jesuits in, and lobbied Rome to intervene. It was the new general in Rome, actually, which dislodged him.

The great thing about the story of Francis and the Jesuits is also a story of reconciliation, because shortly after he became Pope, the Jesuit generals, knowing a lot of this baggage and background, reacted very quickly in sending him a letter to say "please Holy Father, let's..." And the two of them had the most remarkable reunion, and it is an amazing story.

When I was in Argentina in October 2013 I spoke to a number of very old Jesuits, by now in their eighties, some in their 90s, in a Jesuit old people's home. And I knew that some of them had been his enemies, and they showed me letters that he had handwritten them, with tears in their eyes, obviously without showing me the contents, but these were very beautiful letters of reconciliation. 

It’s been two years since he was elected. What do you make of the Papacy until now?
Well I think it has been a whirlwind. It's been an extraordinary mix of things which have taken the world and the Church by surprise.

It’s been a restless and dynamic papacy in a way I think we have become unused to, and on the question of the reform and what he has succeeded in doing, my assessment is really this, in the Vatican – which by the way is not part of the big reform, I think reforming the Vatican is what any Pope would have had to have done, although I think he has done it better than most of them would have done it – I think he has been successful on finances. On governance he has introduced much greater collegiality, which is one of the big reforms left over from the second Vatican council, and I think that genie is now out of the bottle, as we say in English, and won't be able to be put back.

The restructuring of the Curia, however is going to take years, I think that will outlive him, but the big reform, the great reform, as I call it, which is this culture change in the Church, I think we have to say, two years in, is still a big question mark. When you go to your local parish, is it different? Is it now energized by a missionary focus? Does it have its doors open? Does it combat spiritual worldliness?

He is shaking up the Church, he is forcing the Church to look at itself in a new way, he is challenging the Church in all kinds of ways, but I think it is going to take time for the changes to happen, and I think that is probably true of all great cultural and political reforms in History, they take time to play out.

But one thing I think is remarkable about this Papacy is that he has got the world to look at him again and to look at the Church again. In writing this book everybody wants to tell you about Pope Francis. The taxi driver, the person at the dinner party, people say all the time: "Don't like the Catholic Church, got a problem with it, don't agree with its teaching, but I love Pope Francis". 

And one of the questions I think the book does answer is how is it that this Pope, who after all is a very traditional Catholic, who hasn't changed a single dot of church doctrine, and doesn't intend to, how is it that he can get the liberal secular individualistic world to look again at the Catholic Church and love what they see? And I think the answer is because he has grasped the power of mercy. In many ways he is a Jesuit who is restoring, as a missionary, the idea of the religious experience of God's love and mercy as the primary message of the Church, and because he embodies that so successfully and communicates it so effectively, he is awakening, in Western consciousness, the memory of the Christ that subconsciously we all remember but have since lost. 

As a journalist, how do you explain the media hype with the Pope? More specifically, in contrast with the way journalists covered Pope Benedict?
As you say I am a journalist, and I know the media well, and you are a journalist as well and you know this, that once the media gets a narrative it is very hard to shift that narrative. And I think poor old Benedict was always going to be seen as an old distant man who was out of touch with the world, even though, actually, so much of what he said was quite the opposite. So that now when Francis says something which Benedict said, before it created a storm of headlines, but Francis seems to be able to get away with almost anything. Some of the things Francis says, Benedict would have been massacred for. 

So this is the power of media frames and media narratives. So yes, I think a large part of it is due to that media narrative and of course there are many people, particularly in the United States, who are deeply suspicious of this Pope, precisely because the media love him. And it is almost as is they say: “Hang on, if the media love the Pope, there must be something wrong, he must be diluting the doctrine.”

Cardinal Dolan, who I saw recently in New York, for the launch of the book, told me that in Madison Avenue, which is where the big advertising agencies are in New York, they ask him who is the man behind him. They think there is some kind of genius PR strategy behind it, but of course there isn't.

Actually what Francis does is communicate in a completely unfiltered way, to the point where I have been at press conferences in the past where Father Lombardi is asked by a journalist about an interview the Pope had given that morning, and he answers that he doesn't know anything about that. Literally he will be the last person to find out. 

Francis communicates in a completely direct, unfiltered, spontaneous natural way and I think that is actually having its own galvanizing, dynamic effect, in a world in which the politicians, for example, are so bound by message discipline, in which we speak this dry, gray colourless language, precisely because we are so afraid of being misinterpreted, to have Pope Francis come along in his way and to give these incredible press conferences and remarks which are completely unfiltered, is in itself captivating. 

So why is it that Francis is getting such good press? Why is it that he has been able to reach the parts which other Pope's haven't been able to reach? I think it is a combination of things, but I think, ultimately, it is this incredible directness and integrity. He really is what you see.

A last thing on his communication: St. Ignatius Loyola, his hero and the founder of the Jesuits, used to say that love is known in deeds rather than words, and I think that Francis has understood that in a word glutted world, actions and gestures, speak in a way that reaches people.

Just to take one example, which I am sure we all can remember, when Francis embraced a man deeply disfigured by neuro fibromatosis, called Vinicio Riva, it caused the most astonishing impact. In the UK we have The Guardian, which is a sort of citadel of liberal secularism, and the columnists saying “gosh, this man is extraordinary, the love and the compassion which he embodies”.

I think Francis has understood that arguments are too easily dismissed. In the contemporary Western society, the idea is that we all have our own narratives and there is no such thing as truth, but if you take a gesture like that, it spins over every wall and every boundary of language and misunderstanding in culture and politics, and I think that is the great genius of Francis is that from a lifetime of meditating on Christ, he has actually learned to embody Christ in a really remarkable way.

Francis’s change of style alone worries many conservatives, not to mention the more radical traditionalists. How much change do you think he can accomplish without causing a serious rift in the church, if not a real schism?
One of the questions about Francis's governance of the Church is very interesting. In many ways, even though he is a very collegial Pope, which means he has introduced reforms which allow the bishops to take part in the governance of the Church, and he consults very broadly, and he encourages disagreement, and yet, actually his own government is very centralized, very personalistic. He is well known in Rome for bypassing institutions and burocracy, he governs through people, rather than documents. That, of course, is very, very disconcerting for the Vatican.

Some of the criticism directed against him in Rome is very fierce, and comes precisely from those invested in the existing systems. Part of that objection is because their interests are being affected, but there is also a very valid criticism which is: “Ok, he is shaking things up, but what is he building?” And I think that question still has to be answered. 

O Papa abraça e beija Vinicio Riva
I think he will be seen as a Pope who shook things up, who opened things up, who created processes in a very dynamic way, and who has enabled a profound reform to take place, precisely because he has bypassed the existing structures, but I think it will need to be consolidated, and there will come a period, whether under Francis or under his successor, where, if you like, we will have to put back together a little bit of what has been shaken up.

But I think for some conservatives, particularly those engaged in the Culture Wars, in the United States, Francis will continue to be bad news, because ultimately there is a risk that some of them put their faith precisely in the fact that the Church is an unchanging institution, whereas Francis's conviction is very different. Precisely because God and the Holy Spirit is in charge of the Church, the Church must always be changing and reforming, must be alive, and I think there is a clash there between two visions of Church and I think Francis will never be able to satisfy a certain kind of traditionalist.

But I do think his popularity – and I can back this up with statistics – is remarkable across the board, among ordinary Catholics. Some elites may have a problem with him, but actually ordinary Catholics love him and all the statistics show that he has phenomenally high ratings and ultimately Francis, and this comes through in my book, will always root himself in what he calls God's Holy Faithful People, in other words the ordinary believing people, not the educated elites or the powerful, but the ordinary believing people, the people who have popular devotions, who go to sanctuaries. He believes that they carry, to some extent, Christ, and that the church and the Pope and the bishops must be in contact with God's Holy Faithfull People.

That is why every week in the square he gives 15 minutes of Catechesis, and then one hour and a half of another kind of catechesis, which is reconnecting the teaching authority of the Church with ordinary people. And that is a very strong idea in him from the very beginning, the idea of “el santo pueblo fiel de Dios”, as he calls it is very powerful in him. 

Ultimately those people who are disillusioned with Francis will probably always be the intellectuals who are invested in certain narratives, but I think ordinary people will continue to love him.

Your account of the election of Francis came under some heavy scrutiny, due to allegations that there was a “Team Bergoglio”, led by your former boss Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Oconner, and also Cardinal Walter Kasper. O’Conner even had to write a letter to dispel any “misinterpretations” which might have arisen from your account. Could you explain to our readers what it was that you wrote, and do you stand by your version of those events?
Just to clarify what it is that Cardinal Murphy O'Conner wanted corrected. What he wanted corrected was the implication of one of the sentences in my book, which is that those Cardinals who were urging his election, and he doesn't deny that... But one unfortunately written phrase I had which gave rise to the misinterpretation that Bergoglio was in some way part of that, or knew about it. 

Cardinal Murphy O'Conner wrote a letter to that effect, saying "we never spoke to him", and I immediately put out a statement saying I was sorry if it looked like I said that, because I never meant to say it, and in subsequent editions that has been corrected, and indeed in the paperback edition, to come out in September, not only have I corrected it but I have also drawn attention to it in the prologue, to say Bergoglio had nothing to do with this process.

However those cardinals were involved in urging his election, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, there is no breaking of any conclave rules. Popes get elected because groups of cardinals vigorously organize. That is how Benedict got elected, it is how John Paul II got elected, it is no surprise. The Holy Spirit does choose the Pope, but the Holy Spirit does work through human processes.

Those cardinals weren't the only people involved in his election, but they were certainly the ones who were most vigorous, and they were mostly over 80, or some of them were, and on the whole Northern European cardinals, who had been meeting for some years, as I reveal in the book, and were very concerned about collegiality and saw the problems in the Vatican and in Rome as a consequence of the lack of that collegiality.

It was this group of cardinals who combined with another large group from Latin America, who came together in the election of Bergoglio and then the others came in behind. That, basically, is how Bergoglio got elected, and the reason most journalists didn't spot it is because it was happening below the radar. 

Austen Ivereigh é fundador do grupo Catholic Voices, que se está a lançar em Portugal

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