A Shepherd's Message - Oct. 15, 2013

October 15, 2013

Pope Francis has recently given two interviews with journalists, the more important being the one with Antonio Spadoro, S.J., the editor-in-chief of a Jesuit journal published in Rome since 1850. It is a striking and far-reaching conversation in which one long section concerns music and the Pope's love of opera. I have received a number of questions from various people in the Archdiocese about my "take" on the interview.

I would like to characterize the conversation using a musical form. Instead of naming the dialogue between Pope and Jesuit editor as a symphony, I prefer to call it a rhapsody.

The latter is a form of music that rather than applying strict musical structures employs a theme, or themes, that are treated with much more improvisation, with emotional feeling and with joy.


The Pope opens the interview with a self-definition of being a sinner, and not metaphorically, who has been looked upon with mercy and chosen by the Lord.

The Holy Father immediately refers to a work of art, the famous "Call of St. Matthew" by the Italian painter, Caravaggio, which hangs in the Church of St. Louis the King in Rome. This self-definition and reference to sacred art sets up a wonderful theme or "riff" repeated throughout the conversation: the Lord is merciful and patient, and always turns His gaze upon us.

This great mercy is realized fully in the cross of Jesus Christ, our only boast. The great beauty of the Church is to be this "place" of mercy, humility and compassion in the world. From that place we sinners can, and must, arise for spreading the Lord's compassion, joy and peace everywhere.

The Lord Jesus and His Church are bound together intimately. When the Church becomes too self-referential and not pivoted toward the mission of mercy of Christ, she begins to lose her bearings.

The proclamation of mercy and salvation in Christ is primary in the Church. All teaching, whether doctrinal or moral, grows from this fundamental proclamation and reality.

The Holy Father's message here has great simplicity and attractiveness, but also great depth.

This needs to be remembered as he darts here and there throughout the interview doing variations on such an important theme.

For instance, the Pope says that the pressing moral issues related to human sexuality and to marriage need to be contextualized in the great theme of mercy and that, though such issues need to be proclaimed, they also need to be balanced by teaching other moral content of the Faith. By doing this, we will produce a greater harmony of truth and mercy.

A further variation of this theme is Pope Francis' improvisation of the definition of the Church as the People of God, its hierarchy and the faithful.

He calls the Church a "field hospital" after battle. It is there for the healing of wounds, for nearness and proximity.

Further work needs to be done for the wounded, but that initial work is supreme, for it is the work of Jesus Christ in mercy.

Thus the image of the Church is that of an embrace of the sinner, and of the wounded and needy.

The Church cannot be small and locked up in small-minded rules. She offers a big welcome and even looks for new roads to bring the wandering home. Her major concern is the human person and the love God has for each person. The Church must first accompany each person and only then gently catechize or direct each one. In these expressions and analysis, the Pope is very enthusiastic and emotionally compelling, even rhapsodic!


A second theme of the Pope's interview is the concept and reality of "discernment." Here is where he manifests his Jesuit formation and the way he will treat the ongoing reform of Church structures in areas of governance.

He wants genuine consultation and advice, and he seeks to bring a change of the Roman Curia from being too "Vatican-centric" to being an arm of the Pope to help the local churches and the Episcopal conferences. He particularly wants to reflect upon, and develop, the Synod of Bishops and the reality of synodality in the Church.

He wants to bring harmony to the two realities of Petrine Primacy and collegiality. In this aspect of discernment the Holy Father has been at times even provocative. It will be interesting to be a part of future dialogue with Rome on these matters.

The Pope makes a number of remarks on issues of governance that are variations on how to discern the genuine realities of some of the tension in the Church.

The reality of discernment also is thematized in the Pope's interview through his comments about the presence of God in the world today, right now, and how human beings understand themselves today.

Literature, music and art are very helpful in this type of discernment for the individual members of the Church and for the Church at large. The understanding of the truth and the expression of truth in Catholic faith matures and grows.

There are moments of brilliance in this maturity and moments of decline. Discernment means a deeper pondering on our faith, our willingness to learn from others and our ability to move with hope to the frontiers of our understanding. The life in faith is a journey, not a laboratory!


Numbers of commentators have remarked on a new "tonality" in the actions, speeches and homilies of Pope Francis. His manner of presentation of the Faith is lively, humble and wins much affection from all walks of people, both within and outside the Church.

The mission of mercy is thus crucial for today. The Faith is substance, and the tonality of its presentation is not unimportant in making the Faith attractive. The final section of the interview concerns prayer. The Holy Father shows how prayer goes deep into the wellsprings of Christian life, of his life. His words are beautiful for all, but especially for shepherds.

May the substance of the Faith be made more and more attractive by the call of mercy and the gaze of the Lord upon us all as "composed" in Pope Francis' beautiful rhapsody of faith. †