Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

Vatican Pope Zika

When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

‘Embracing’ mercy – Bishop Hoogmartens’ message for Lent

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens’ message for Lent, like many others, revolves around the special signifigance of Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy. He describes the Holy Year as an opportunity to become “better and more joyful Christians”, and mentions some of the means to do so in his own Diocese of Hasselt – the Holy Door, the Blessed Sacrament and the sacrament of confession at the cathedral and the preparation for the diocese’s 50th anniversary in 2017.

While treading carefully around such ‘hot button’ topics (or so some seem to perceive them) as personal prayer and sin, Bishop Hoogmartens joins Pope Francis in inviting his readers to make the mercy we receive from God an integral part of our lives, penetrating down into everything we say and do and into eveyr interacting with other people.

11-Mgr-Hoogmartens“Dear brothers and sisters,
Good friends,

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent: a time to prepare ourselves in order to fully experience Easter. This year, Lent is very special because of the Jubilee of Mercy which Pope Francis opened in early December in Rome.

In our cathedral too, in the ambulatory, in front at the left, a “Holy Door of Mercy” has been opened for the duration of the Holy Year of Mercy. Faithful – alone or as a group – are expected to enter through it as pilgrims, with the intention to enter into the reality that Jesus has revealed to us, the mercy of the Father. The image on the Door is that of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He leads us – in the Spirit – to the mercy of the Father. Further along in the ambulatory of the cathedral one can physically go this path: past Mary, the Virga Jesse which will be placed there for the entire year, via a personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, for which the presence of a confessor is assured.

For us faithful it is important to make use of the Jubilee of Mercy – wherever in the world – to become better and more joyful Christians. Lent offers rich opportunities for that. The liturgy frequently mentions God’s mercy. It also invites us to ’embrace’, which should be a part of the lifestyle of the Christian who always wants to make room in his heart for people living in poverty. It also invites us to personal prayer, each perhaps in his own rhythm and his own way, but best after the Biblical example. We are also invited to take part in the confession services which will be organised in the parish federations and deaneries. I will be leading the service in the cathedral on Monday in Holy Week.

By experiencing the Year of Mercy with many others in all its depth, we also prepare for living the glory of God’s mercy in the cathedral on the “starter evenings” on 20 and 21 September. A greater gift our diocese can not receive on the 50th anniversary of its founding.

As modern people, with so many other things on our minds, with a frequently busy life, and each with our own concerns, we perhaps wonder what this mercy means for us and the world? Pope Francis wrote a beautiful letter about it. But we ourselves also sense what it is about. We all know we are often weak, careless, focussed on ourselves, and yes, also sinful. From the mercy that we experience from God we in our turn can then be more merciful towards others, including people living in poverty. ‘Embracing’; Pope Francis calls it the key to the Gospel! The name of God is mercy, after all, as the title of his latest book says.

Would our world, with all its concerns, with so much violence, with the refugee crisis and poverty issues, not gain much when many would experience and contemplate the “mercy of the Father” as Jesus showed it to us?

When that mercy also becomes an incentive for political and economical leaders, of pedagogues and parents and of communities, the world can only become better. It is the joy of Easter which for us Christians always remains the corner stone in this context. And we can already look ahead to that Easter now.

In the meanwhile, let us practice in this Lent for a simpler life, the application of prayer and the sacraments and the love for everyone encountered, who we want to embrace out of God’s mercy.

I gladly wish you a meaningful and blessed Lent, in this Jubilee of Mercy.

+ Patrick Hoogmartens
Bishop of Hasselt”