More than just a headline – Pope Francis’ asks forgiveness

h=300Pope Francis is making headlines again, once more following an in-flight press conference on his return from a papal visit abroad, in this case to Armenia. The headlines generally follow one format: “Pope asks forgiveness from gays” or some variation thereof. While this is essentialy correct, the Holy Father’s complete answer is more nuanced and different from what more than a few readers will conclude from the headlines.

From the translation provided by the National Catholic Register comes the relevant part of the answer to a question about how the Church is said to have marginalised homosexual people in the past:

“I will repeat what I said on my first trip. I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally. One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior … Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no? … But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well … this is what the catechism says, a clear catechism. Then there are traditions in some countries, in some cultures that have a different mentality on this problem. I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness — like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) — must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times — when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners! — Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families …”

It is clear that Pope Francis said a whole lot more than that the Church must ask forgiveness. He starts from what the Catechisms says, and so places his comments within the larger doctrine of the Church: this is not something new that he is saying, but the Church has consistently taught that people should nto be discriminated against for their sexual orientation, that they must be respected as human beings and that the Church has an obligation to accompany them pastorally. In short, she is to treat them as she treats all human beings, starting from their innate dignity.

The Church has failed in this in the past, and sometimes still does, just like she did and does in regard to women and children who are exploited, or the victims of war and nationalism. For this, Pope Francis, says, the Church, meaning all Christians, must ask forgiveness, for it is contrary to what she is tasked with.

While the Church must always be open to accept all people regardless of gender, sexuality, race, occupation or whatever other characteristic, the story does not end there. The Church is more than just people and has a message to convey, a teaching, a relationship with a Person. And everything she does must stand in the light of the encounter with this Person, who is God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This includes how she relates to the people she welcomes.

A second interesting part of the Pope’s answer is that he says “one can condemn”. And what one can condemn is not people, but “political behaviour”, since “certain manifestations are a bit too offensive”. One can wonder what exactly is meant here, but I have seen some commenters see this as a condemnation of pride manifestations and similar. That may be so, but it could also be more general and refer to various sorts of behaviour stemming from one’s sexual orientation which could be offensive to others. The problem is then not so much about homosexuality, but consideration of the other’s thoughts and feelings. As Pope Francis says, this has little to do with the problem of marginalisation. One can disagree, even be offended, without pushing away the person one disagrees with or is offended by. Sure, it is hard, but, to mention a cliché, it is what Jesus would do. He did not shun his opponents. He entered into dialogue, challenged them to change their thoughts and behaviour, but never because he did not respect their human dignity (on the contrary even).

And then he repeats that earlier line, which caused so much debate: “The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?” It is important to not make the same mistake as many people do with that line from the Gospel of Matthew (7:1), which is not simply a commandment not to judge, but rather a warning to remember that judgement goes two ways. Pope Francis describes a rather specific situation in which we should be careful not to judge: a person in some situation that is either objectively sinful or disordered, in this case someone who is homosexual, but who has the desire to do what is right and is seeking the Lord. The second part is important. Of course we should not refrain from judging actions committed by a similar person which are directed against his own or others’ wellbeing or his relationship with God, especially not when that person has no desire to do what is right or to find God. These latter conditions, good wil and seeking God, are frequently overlooked, and people are content with claiming that Pope Francis has said that we are not to judge homosexual people. Like he suggested before, the Church is not in the business of judging people, but actions. But, the Pope has insisted time and again, the Church, and therefore all Christians, are to accompany people who are of good will and seek God, not condemn and marginalise them. For, as Pope Francis also reminds us, we are all sinners, we all have our obstacles that sometimes make it hard to live according to the ideals the Church holds up.

In closing, Pope Francis’ answer is not revolutionary in that it contains any new teaching. It does, however, emphasise a different approach, a recognition of where we run the risk of failing to follow the example of Christ. Only then can ways be mended, and that, in the end, is what a Christian life is about.

Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/Pool photo via AP

Dutch Prime Minister meets Pope Francis

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had a private audience with Pope Francis today. The 20-minute meeting took place not in the Apostolic Palace, as such meetings normally do, but in a small backroom of the Paul VI Hall. Things always have to be different with the Dutch, I suppose.

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While the timing of the meeting, relatively soon after a personal meeting of the Dutch royal family with the Holy Father in late April, had led to some speculation about a papal visit to the Netherlands, it was fairly standard. The two men discussed youth unemployment in Europe, the wars in the Middle East and the refugee crisis. The prime minister said he was impressed by Pope Francis’ simplicity, and called him “a man with authority”.

The Pope gave the prime minister a tablet with peace symbols and copies of three papal documents (one would imagine including Amoris laetitia and Laudato si’).

Mr. Rutte also met with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin and the Secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Gallagher.

And the papal visit? “That’s up to the bishops,” Mr. Rutte commented.

Photo credit: ANP

One more day in Sweden – papal visit extended

The papal visit to Sweden has been extended from one to two days, the Diocese of Stockholm recently announced. Pope Francis will not only be marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with the Lutheran World Federation on 31 October in Lund, but he will also celebrate All Saints in Lund on 1 November. We may assume that this is because of the wish of many Catholics that the Holy Father not only come for the non-Catholic Christians but also for the growing Catholic Church in Sweden and all of Scandinavia.

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^Pope Francis and Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, photographed before the canonisation Mass of Swedish Saint Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad, 5 June 2016. Bishop Arborelius will be the Catholic host of the Holy Father in October.

The plans as they exist now, as outlined on the website of the Scandinavian bishops’ conference, include the Reformation service in Lund’s Lutheran cathedral (which will be broadcast live on Swedish television), and a three-hour meeting with the Pope for a broader audience (with a special focus on the young) in Malmö Arena, Sweden’s second largest indoor arena which can house up to 15,000 people, on 31 October. On 1 November Pope Francis will celebrate Mass for the feast of All Saints in Lund. The location for this Mass has not been revealed yet.

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Malmö Arena (pictured above) is located in an industrial and shopping area south of the city of Malmö. Not the most appealing of places, certainly not when compared to the charm of the old city. But, when drawing tens of thousands of people, needs must, as they say.

Photo credit: [1] Osservatore Romano, [2] malmotown.com

The obligation of compassion – On Lesbos and St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos today, one of the vocal points of the European refugee crisis: here and on other Mediterrenean islands, people from the Middle East arrive in small boats, often extorted by ruthless traffickers for the privilege, on the run from war, violence and poverty in their homelands. Their future? Uncertainty, strange societies, crowded camps and, at worst, a forced return to where they came from.

naamloosIt is perhaps no coincidence that today is also the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in the 18th century, he had the streets of Rome for his home. Often denying himself what he needed, his concerns for his fellow homeless caused him to share his food and even cure the sick in body and mind. In 1783 he died in a hospice, only 39 years old.

Many of the refugees may find themselves in similar situations. Just like St. Benedict Joseph Labre was rejected by the Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians and so began his years wandering the streets, refugees are met with the same indifference, contempt even. To them, their future may not seem so different from that of today’s saint: moving from one place to the next, nowhere at home. They may have a physical roof over their heads in refugee camps and asylum centres, but mentally they may feel homeless.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, while not having enough to eat for himself, nor a dry place to sleep, still found the will and the means to care for others who had it even worse than he. Can we do less? Can we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if we may not like them, distrust them, want them to be somewhere else than in our backyard?

St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent his days in cathedrals and churches, in prayer and adoration. Before God, he learned that mercy and compassion are not dictated by our own situation in life, that we are all called to help, to accept people, not reject them, even at the cost of our own perceived wellbeing. And yes, of course there may be risks in acceptance. Rejection is always the safer option if we want to avoid burdens or challenges. But when comparing risks to the inherent human dignity of everyone, it should be clear where the priority must lie.

Pope Francis’ visit will be a clear example of our obligation to care for others. That obligation does not go away, becomes even greater perhaps, when we hide those others in camps on the edge of our world.

Francis to Lund – Pope or Reformation?

Pope Francis will make a one-day visit to Sweden in October, and while it is still more than six months away, details of the visit remain scarce. All we know for certain is that the Holy Father will take part in the opening of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Lund, together with the World Lutheran Federation, which was established in that city in 1947.

142434The president of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference, Copenhagen’s Bishop Czeslaw Kozon, noted yesterday that there is a desire among Catholics for a specific event with the Pope for them, and there have indeed been rumours that the Holy Father is to celebrate a Mass in either Lund or nearby Malmö. Bishop Kozon also observed that, despite all intents and purposes, the Pope will mostly be seen as the Pope, and not chiefly as a participant in the Reformation anniversary, “and people will be coming more for the Pope’s sake than for the sake of the Reformation”.

The papal visit, on 31 October, will be co-organised by the World Lutheran Federation, the Diocese of Stockholm and the Council of Churches of Sweden.

Photo credit: Peter Kristensen

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.

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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

It starts with sorry – another Catholic apology in Lund?

“I do not have a direct line with the Pope, but I certainly expect that there will be a Lund Declaration”. Words from Bishop Gerard de Korte about Pope Francis’ October visit to Sweden, where he will attend a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation. From protestant circles comes the hope that this declaration will include a Catholic acknowledgement of past mistakes  in dealing with the church communities that came of the Reformation (and also with Martin Luther himself). I have to wonder if the recent apologies made by Pope Francis, and those made by Popes Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II before him, are anything like the acknowledgements hoped for?

Fact is that the Catholic Church has long been aware and honest about mistakes made in the past. Have the Protestant churches done anything similar? I know of none. Father Dwight Longenecker had a thoughtful blog post about that recently.

We can make all the declarations, acknowledgements and apologies we want, but if it ends with that, ecumenism is going nowhere.  They are a starting point, and as such we shouldn’t repeat them over and over. An apology once made remains valid, of course. After acknowledging our past, we can proceed to the future. With Father Dwight I wonder, are the Protestants that far yet? Maybe what we should hope for is a declaration in which they also honestly acknowledge their mistakes and apologise for them, and not always look at the Catholic Church to repeat how wrong they have been. We know. We have said so. We regret it and are now looking forward to right the wrongs. In that way the Reformation can be commemorated for what it is: not a reason to celebrate, but a very painful rupture in the unity of the Christian church.