The Centrality of Christ
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
– Matthew 21:42
“I ask myself: ‘What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ?’ “
– Pope Francis
Six months. That is all it has been. Six months. And Pope Francis has clearly made his mark. Elected after a brief conclave in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, Pope Francis has brought a fresh style and puckish unpredictability to the See of Peter. Whether leaping off an uncovered Pope Mobile to embrace a handicapped child or paying his own hotel bill shortly after his election, whether wading deeply into crowds to listen and offer impromptu prayers or calling several letter-writing supplicants, this Pope has placed a very clear and personal stamp on the Papacy. It seems that everyone is paying attention – as well they should.
What has been interesting, however, is the reaction to the Pope’s most recent interview – a 12,000 word exchange with a Father Antonio Spadaro, who represents La Civilta Cattolica and a co-operative of several other Jesuit journals. The interview was tastefully conducted with deference appropriate to the subject and the occasion. The best interviews are devoid of the personality asking questions and suffused with the personality of those answering the questions. The questions were few and the answers were deep and thoughtful. It seemed this was the greatest exchange to date on the spiritual worldview of the 266th Bishop of Rome.
And yet, there was controversy. Surely, a wide-ranging and candid dialogue on matters of spirituality between a Jesuit editor and a Jesuit Pope could avoid contentiousness among its analysts, couldn’t it? In a word, no. Immediately after its release, the various media outlets went into overdrive to bring their respective constituencies what they heard from the Pope. In the process of reading the interview in its entirety, I vowed to myself not to get one glimpse of the spin that pervaded the internet and news programs about “what the Pope said”. I literally had to implore my wife, who playfully teased me, NOT to tell me what the New York Times had to say. Not that I couldn’t guess. Soon enough, I would find out as would the rest of the world.
It doesn’t take a great deal of intelligence or insight to identify how the Pope’s words would be portrayed. Here are just a few samples in case you missed them:
Pope Says Church is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control – New York Times
Pope Francis: Catholic Church Must Focus Beyond “Small-Minded Rules” – CBS News
Pope Francis Is a Liberal – Slate
The Pope’s Real Message – National Review
Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Gays, Abortion – Wall Street Journal
Additionally, it should come as no surprise that after reading the complete interview, I (like many) was left wondering if many of the journalists actually read the same interview that I did. But this is not the insight I wish to share. The shortcomings of a media consumed by deadlines, profit-generating, sensationalism and knee-jerk analysis is nearly as old as time itself. After all, didn’t the serpentine devil perform the first “spin” on Eve regarding what God really “meant and did or did not say”?
What struck me about the interview with Pope Francis was its “Christ-centeredness”. While the media persistently sought to frame up his remarks as conservative or liberal, ossified or revolutionary, the Pope’s words genuinely deflected these labels by returning again and again to Christ. How interesting to find the words “abortion, homosexuality and contraception” relentlessly pervading the stories written by the grand, truth-telling media and yet there was an utter absence of the word “Christ”. Not so for Pope Francis. His words anchor themselves in the Messiah, the Savior of Mankind. It is a discussion rooted in discernment, in mercy, in humility, in calling and in the inextinguishable love of God for his broken but hopeful children. As the Pope said,
“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…. And you have to start from the ground up.
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
“We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.”
What saddens or frustrates about the larger media is the attempt to conform Pope Francis and his words into the support of a political worldview, an ideology or a policy. Even further exasperating are the attempts to juxtapose Pope Francis against his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI whom Francis says,”has done an act of holiness, greatness, humility. He is a man of God.” In fact, any true and honest evaluator of the work and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis cannot escape the conclusion that through their respective strengths (be they Benedict’s considered intellectual rebuttal to postmodern moral relativism and extraordinary contribution to interpretation of Vatican II and liturgical integrity or Francis’ missionary zeal and approachable evangelism), they both indisputably serve one master alone: Jesus Christ.
What has been most jarring about Pope Francis’ interview is that it is so jarring. There is a fresh, applicable repeated theme of the Centrality of Christ. We are reminded that Christ is not a means to the end of a better political system, the righting of a social wrong or a self-satisfied ideology. Christ is the End in Himself. The Author of Love Himself is the focal point, the end goal, the sole object of our complete devotion. For from Christ comes all good. He is the source of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. He is the origin of Faith, Hope and Charity. From Him comes Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. No great calling or aspiration truly succeeds without Him. But it is up to us to discern, to pray, to hear our calling and to answer it in love, faith and humility with eyes fixed on Christ. Pope Francis has reminded us of this. But is this novel? Of course not. Perhaps we have heard it before.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
– Revelation 22:13
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes?'”
– Matthew 21:42
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”
– John 14:6
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
– Luke 10: 38-42
The cornerstone. The Alpha and the Omega. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The better part. And so it seems, that the majority of the media deliciously, sensationally and reliably missed the enduring point of Pope Francis’ interview. It was nothing less than the Centrality of Christ. Perhaps Pope Francis is onto something. Perhaps we should be too.