Pope Francis: A Son and a Father

Reactions to the pope's in-depth interview and what it means for young adults

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for the general audience in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for the general audience in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of the Italian La Civiltà Cattolica, has created a masterpiece of an interview with Pope Francis, cobbled together from questions from 16 Jesuit journals, including America magazine here in the United States.

What’s the takeaway for young adults? In this initial reflection, I’m going to share my thoughts on that question. Later, and as we continue to see Pope Francis in action, I’ll reflect more deeply on the issues he’s covered in the interview. For now, my thought is that synthesis makes for easier reading.

Be a humble sinner

The interview starts with a simple question and a short answer: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (Pope Francis’ given name) and his simple yet profound response — “I am a sinner.”

He goes on further.

“Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And he repeats: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”

Many young adults I have encountered in spiritual direction come with a very deep knowledge of their own sinfulness, some even overly scrupulous of their own sins. For the pope to admit that he, too, is a sinner gives one the immediate reaction of, “Oh, go on! How much of a sinner could the pope be?” But the truth is holy people still sin. Sometimes good people end up doing some very bad things.

And holy people have a past. St. Paul was a murderer. St. Augustine’s life of luxury might make Hugh Hefner blush. Ignatius of Loyola had insufferable pride. And the pope, too, makes mistakes and is human, but more importantly, the pope, as all Jesuits know, is a “loved sinner.” Someone who is aware that they need God’s mercy and are grateful for the gift of God’s grace. The takeaway is that God’s mercy is available to all of us. We are never “unforgivable” but always “loved sinners.” Young adults resonate with Pope Francis’ admission of being “a man like us, in all things, including sin.”

Build the Church together

Francis talked candidly about his need for community:

“I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta. At the time of the conclave I lived in Room 207. (The rooms were assigned by drawing lots.) This room where we are now was a guest room. I chose to live here, in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”

These statements will challenge young people committed to the Church. Often young people think they need to lock themselves away in order to be holy or be a kind of “ultra-contemplative.” Many enjoy the solitude that comes with silence and contemplation, but often they overdo this and eschew the community aspects of our faith in favor of a more contemplative lifestyle. To hear the pope say that he needs community will remind people that we need both contemplation and community. We do not live life in a vacuum and holiness is not merely being in this for one’s self. Many young adults will be comforted by the idea of community, of being together and building up the kingdom of God as a unit and not just for themselves. These are the ones who spend a year doing volunteer service and who get involved in social justice causes and who are inspired by working for a better tomorrow. The kingdom of God may be within you, but what you do with what is within you exists outside of yourself.

Be a big Church

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” Pope Francis said.

Too many young people think that the Church is a club where they are not worthy of membership. Pope Francis is throwing the doors of the Church open and hoping that young people will answer his invitation. And he even offers a caution:

“For me, the relationship between the ancient Catholic churches and the young ones is similar to the relationship between young and elderly people in a society. They build the future, the young ones with their strength and the others with their wisdom. You always run some risks, of course. The younger churches are likely to feel self-sufficient; the ancient ones are likely to want to impose on the younger churches their cultural models. But we build the future together.”

Together. Over the years I have preached this in workshops to older and younger people alike. Sometimes the older crowd will not cede their places as lectors, for instance, to someone young. There’s a lack of flexibility sometimes among the young as well. They feel entitled to have things their way and think nothing that came before them was of value. Both groups need to see each other as valuable members of the church and welcome one another deeply into community. May we take Pope Francis’ words to heart, value community — despite age, despite agenda, despite fear — and come into a new way of being a church where indeed all are welcome.

Show mercy

The Pope uses the image of a field hospital for the church of today:

“…the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds… I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. … The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

We are hardly above being reminded that sins can be healed rather than demonized. These are the great failures of the Church that drive people farther and farther away from it, often when people have a holier-than-thou attitude toward a particular person’s sinfulness. Francis calls us all to look at our own wounds, so that we might be able to more mercifully look at the wounds of others.

On Homosexuality: Consider the person

Pope Francis said:

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

The mantra that keeps getting repeated is “consider the person.” And perhaps by extension: “Be merciful as God is merciful.” That doesn’t mean that we can’t hold high standards on issues. Instead it means that we need to admit that many will not meet those standards, and we need to show mercy instead of condemnation. Young people, especially gay young people, will find these words a huge comfort and they will help both them and those of us who will minister with them a good guiding point for welcoming gays and lesbians back to the Church.


Often in Catholic circles, we focus on certain sins that often make their way into our media culture. Most of these involve (as sociologist Bill Dinges calls them) “the pelvic issues.” Pope Francis tells us that we are not merely a Church concerned with these issues alone:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Notice what he says here and what he doesn’t say. He says the Church has spoken pretty clearly on these issues but that we don’t necessarily have to hammer them constantly. We have to be about more. We have to talk about not just sin, but mercy. Not just abortion, but motherhood and support for families. Not just gay marriage but pastoral care for gays and lesbians.

Develop a theology of women

Here we find a doozy of a comment:

“The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.”

The question that will remain is what will a “profound theology of the woman” look like? We will tie this up with whether it means the diaconate will be open to women, or whether there are more roles for women in the Church. But in a sense, this is not the point. The pope’s point is that we have “de-theologized women” by focusing only on these matters. If we develop a theology of women more holistically it would become clear whether a woman can be ordained to the diaconate. So much work is needed in these matters.

Live the questions

Often young adults tell me that they want to be sure about God. To know that God, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is real. I caution them not to be so hung up on certainties but to be more comfortable with ambiguity because none of us can ever completely know God. If we stop asking questions, then we become the person who is holier-than-thou, and Pope Francis is asking us to take on a humbler position, one that leaves room for questioning. Gaining an adult sense of faith — merging your critical knowledge with what you’ve been taught as a child — is what young adulthood is all about. We test our certainties to find out what is truly certain and solid.

Pope Francis also cautions against those who preach that they have all the answers:

“If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions — that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.”

I’d also argue that this person is placing themselves at the level of God. There is nothing more for them to learn. Truly, God is the only one who need not ask any questions.

His last words in the column struck me personally and deeply:

“But above all, I also know that the Lord remembers me. I can forget about him, but I know that he never, ever forgets me. Memory has a fundamental role for the heart of a Jesuit: memory of grace, the memory mentioned in Deuteronomy, the memory of God’s works that are the basis of the covenant between God and the people. It is this memory that makes me his son and that makes me a father, too.”