Sunday, January 10, 2016

"A Small Step Toward God... Even Just the Desire" – In Jubilee Book, The Pope's Call to "Mercy"

A key thread of a speech that dearly needs revisiting (coming as it did amid peak input overload), in his September talk to the US bishops the Pope sought to instruct the bench that, in episcopal ministry today, "Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love."

Much as Francis' preference for conversations over lectures has fleshed itself out in any number of ways over nearly three years on Peter's chair, what would arguably be the boldest step of said "method" couldn't be guessed that morning, even by those of us sitting in St Matthew's Cathedral. But barely three months later, having already been set into motion by that point, it now arrives in print, introducing a new means of papal communication: dialogue as magisterial text.

Likely to be Papa Bergoglio's principal thematic document of this Holy Year, The Name of God Is Mercy – releasing Tuesday in six languages across some 90 countries – elevates the book-length Papal Q&A (now a two-decade old format) to an act of Petrine ministry given its focus. While St John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1995) consisted mostly of philosophical reflections, and Light of the World, Benedict XVI's 2011 discussions with his longtime collaborator Peter Seewald, took a wide-ranging survey of the state of the church, Francis has adapted the style to instead offer a conversational exegesis on a truth of the faith – as he underscores, "mercy is doctrine" – and the guiding principle behind an act of governance: the Extraordinary Jubilee now underway at his direction across the Catholic world.

Stacking out at 100 small pages in its English edition – a copy of which was obtained by Whispers – the book took shape in a series of summer interviews Francis had with the top Italian vaticanista, Andrea Tornielli of Turin's La Stampa, in the pontiff's room at the Domus.

The idea pitched by Tornielli in light of the Holy Year, while its result – extensive, casual answers to brief, lightly-steered questions – can be taken with the authority of a formal document, the manner of delivery reads less like the "World Series" of a promulgated text than the Pope's more comfortable style of "batting practice." In more ecclesial terms, a treatise that could've been produced as an encyclical (as John Paul himself did on mercy with 1980's Dives in Misericordia), has emerged in a significantly more concise, less intimidating format akin to a vademecum (practical guide-book) – or even a longish "bulletin column" from the church's Universal Pastor – making for an easy read that almost seems to have parishes and classrooms in its sights to fully explain the concept Francis himself has indicated from his pontificate's very outset, and again here, as a critical end for the church. In essence, then, the discussion he takes on boils down to three questions: What is mercy? How is it sought? How is it lived?

One last word on the format: three years into his reign, it'd seem that Francis is only now sufficiently self-assured to take his own advice and change things up. Despite his lament in Evangelii gaudium "that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten," the Pope felt little recourse but to unleash the sprawling programmatic monologue seven months after his election. Yet after pleading with the Italian bishops last spring to resist "the drawing up of documents — our own — in which the abstract theoretical-doctrinal aspect... for some scholars and specialists" was paramount,  urging that "instead we must endeavour to translate them into concrete and easily understood recommendations," his treatment of mercy arrives as an apparent stab not just at said approach, but an even clearer truth: "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

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For all the hubbub surrounding the unprecedented Holy Year rooted in a theme (as opposed to a milestone of time), continuity looms large from the text's first lines – asked by Tornielli what inspired the declaration of the Jubilee, the Pope cited "the teachings and declarations of the Popes who preceded me," mentioning contributions from each back to John XXIII. Accordingly, no less than the book's title comes from a B16 quote the now Pope-emeritus wrote into his Angelus on Divine Mercy Sunday 2008 – a feast so designated by John Paul in tribute to the 20th century Polish devotion.

Yet as the questions delve deeper, even as the pontiff ventures into Greek etymology and obscure prayers from the Milan church's Ambrosian rite to make his points, what becomes the golden thread of the answers is uniquely Bergoglio's own, returning Francis to his strongest suit: his own experiences of "falling" and forgiveness, and those of the people whose paths he crossed in Buenos Aires as the bus-riding cardinal who spent his vacations in the city's slums until the day he left for the Conclave.

The characters are memorable, perhaps even relatable: prisoners; women forced into prostitution to support their families; the "spiritually mature" relative kept from the sacraments due to civil remarriage... indeed, "the weary eyes of a mother exhausting herself with work to bring food home to her drug-addicted son" who, as a living example of mercy, "loves him, in spite of his mistakes."

To be sure, no Francis text would be complete without some colorful language, and a hit or two at his favorite targets. Ergo, the Pope describes his beloved confessionalunsurprisingly, the topic of a whole chapter – as a place that must be neither "dry cleaner" nor "torture chamber"; a corrupt person is (using his grandmother's phrase) seen as someone for whom "butter wouldn't melt in his mouth," and when it comes to the "scholars of the law" the Jesuit pontiff almost delights in tweaking, he admits that "at times I have surprised myself by thinking that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners and thus meet Jesus."

If there is one curveball or piece that's bound to be sensationalized, it's almost certain to be Papa Bergoglio's return at Tornielli's behest to Francis' "Who am I to judge?" retort about "a person who is gay, seeks the Lord and has goodwill" at his first in-flight press conference.

In response, Francis repeated that entire context of the original 2013 statement, adding this time that "I am glad that we are talking about 'homosexual people' because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.

"I prefer that homosexuals come to confession," he said, "that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it."

All that said, it's a striking testimony to Francis' "Teflon" status in global media that "Pope Tells Gays To Confess" hasn't dominated the initial round of headlines on the release – Lord knows any similar utterance from his predecessor would've sparked eruptive coverage for days on end.

In sum, however, anyone looking to the book as fuel for ideological diatribes or point-scoring – whether ad intra or anywhere else – will come away disappointed. Then again, if and where that's the case, then perhaps the examination of conscience contained within its pages is ever more needed.

Yet far from any foodfight, just like the Jubilee he's charted, Francis' message and invitation here is directed to the wide world – especially those who've felt "wounded" in life, those distanced from or uncared for by the church, or even from God Himself...

“The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way. The important thing is always to get back up, not to stay on the ground licking your wounds. The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over. He loves me for what I am, he wants to raise me up, and he extends his hand to me. This is one of the tasks of the Church: to help people perceive that there are no situations that they cannot get out of. For as long as we are alive it is always possible to start over, all we have to do is let Jesus embrace us and forgive us.”
SVILUPPO: Marking the eve of the book's release, Vatican Radio released further, extensive extracts from the English text on Monday morning.