Column: The quotable Pope: 7 ‘astonishing’ statements

Published on October 14, 2014.

Reading various interviews that Pope Francis has granted since at least 2009 (when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires), I have realized that behind the pastor with the common touch is a priest of deep culture and massive learning. Three sets of interviews, in particular, reveal a man with a sure sense of self and a certain, expressive, style.

Beyond his celebrated quotes—“pray for me,” “the church of mercy,” “the culture of encounter” and perhaps most famously “who am I to judge?”—he has given us in these three interviews a trove of precisely calibrated statements, that either force us to reconsider something familiar or see something altogether, and wholly, new.

The longest set is the series of interviews he gave over a period of two years when he was still cardinal-archbishop (and a suddenly pivotal figure in the Latin American church after he was widely reported as “coming in second” to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave), to journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. The next two sets may be usefully understood as bookends to his remarkable Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” which came out in November last year; the series of three interviews with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, on behalf of major Jesuit journals took place in August 2013, and the single interview with veteran Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli happened in December. Echoes of Evangelii Gaudium resound: promises in Spadaro’s case, memories in Tornielli’s.

Each interview is worth reading in its entirety, but here are seven passages that jumped out at me.

The first four are from Rubin and Ambrogetti.

Religious experience, described: “It was the surprise, the astonishment of a chance encounter. I realized that they were waiting for me. That is the religious experience: the astonishment of meeting someone who has been waiting for you all along” (Rubin).

An example of radical equality: “It happened at the point when all the passengers, from economy and from first class, mingle around the baggage carousel, waiting for their suitcases. For a moment, we are all equal and all waiting for something: the carousel equalizes us.”

A different kind of politics: “Catholic social teaching is full of denunciations, yet it is not partisan. When we come out and say things, some accuse us of playing politics. I say to them, yes, we are playing politics in the Gospel sense of the word, but not the partisan sense.”

Patria adorada: “I prefer to talk about patria rather than country or nation. Country is, after all, a geographical fact, and nation is a legal, constitutional fact. However, patria is what lends a person identity. Someone who loves the place where he or she lives is not called a countryman or a nationalist but a patriot.”

The next two are from Spadaro.

A new image of the Catholic Church: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. 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. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds….”

An unexpected image to describe the papal quarters in the Vatican: “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.”

The last comes from Tornielli (the same journalist who first broke the story that Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires received 40 votes in the papal election of 2005).

A deft defense, in answer to criticism from “ultraconservative Americans” that Evangelii Gaudium was Marxist in parts. “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

* * *

A week ago, the Inquirer Group launched a 100-day countdown to Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the Philippines. One of the elements of The Inquirer Report, available on Inquirer.net, is an experiment in opinion journalism: daily reflections on Evangelii Gaudium, which seek to root that key document in Philippine soil.

The first one, for example, carried the heading “The Pope and the MRT.” It reads:

Another (late) start to the working week, another MRT breakdown in Metro Manila. It is difficult, given these almost daily outrages, to regard the city as a privileged place for prayer and spirituality.

But Pope Francis reminds us of an old truth.

“It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares.”

In the same way that Pope John XXIII, now [declared] a saint, saw the city of Rome as “a real human beehive from which emerges an uninterrupted buzz of confused voices in search of harmony, a hubbub in which they easily become mixed and lost,” Pope Francis understands the urban dynamic.

“In cities, as opposed to the countryside, the religious dimension of life is expressed by different lifestyles, daily rhythms linked to places and people. In their daily lives people must often struggle for survival and this struggle contains within it a profound understanding of life which often includes a deep religious sense.”

Another way to understand the daily struggle to survive the MRT ordeal, then: It prevents, or interrupts, the “contemplative gaze.”

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