Shortly after the selection of Pope Francis, I wrote a blog entitled, “Jesuits Make the Best Popes,” I believe that today more than ever. By the way, although I left the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic priesthood, and the Roman Catholic Church; my love for the Church and my desire to “think with” the Roman Catholic Church has only deepened. Even having received a rejection letter from Pope John Paul II when I decided to leave religious and ordained life, I have continued to admire John Paul II and I have a fondness for Pope Benedict as well. The fact is that, on various different occasions, Popes John Paul and Benedict have said things similar to what Francis has said recently. What one cannot deny, however, is the freshness of Francis’ tone and emphases. We say in Jamaica, ’It is not what you say, but how you say it.’ Pope Francis gets the highest grade because of the humane and investigative tone he brings to the conversation on relevant issues. He knows how to talk about sexuality, he knows how to talk about the poor, he knows how to talk about God, and he knows how to talk about himself.
Let us start with how this Pope talks about himself. When asked by a fellow Jesuit in a recent interview to describe himself to others, this is what the Pope said: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
After I picked myself up off the floor, I got on my knees and prayed. What in God’s name did I read? Imagine that, of all the things that the Pope could have said about himself, he described himself as a sinner. That is huge. By defining himself as a sinner, the Pope invites the whole world to take a new look at itself. By defining himself as a sinner, the Pope invites the whole Church to take a look at what it means to be a sinner. The Pope’s self-definition as sinner comes right out of his Jesuit formation. Ignatius Loyola invited every Jesuit to see himself as a “sinner first”; a sinner redeemed by the Most Merciful God in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
When a Pope describes himself foremost as a sinner, there are religious, social, and political implications and ramifications - far more extensive than we can imagine. What if we treated every sinner the way we treat the Pope? Welcome to a whole new world.
How does the Pope speak about others? Again, it is important to remember that the centuries-old Roman Catholic teaching has always been one of Love the Sinner and Hate the Sin. Popes have said that for years. Pope Francis has, again, changed the tone and the focus; when he echoes this teaching, it comes out like this: LOVE THE SINNER AND HAVE EMPATHY. By describing himself first as a sinner, the Pope requires that whomever we consider a sinner be treated with grace and compassion. Maybe hate no longer has a place in the religious economy.
The Pope carries forward the teaching that sex outside of marriage is a sin (and so all homosexual activity is sinful in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church), but the Pope has opted for a position that leads with compassion and invites both dialogue and understanding.
In speaking of how his Jesuit training brings a whole new dimension to being pope, the Pope had this to say: “The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.
After I picked myself up off the floor again, I got on my knees and prayed. Imagine a Church being willing to have an incomplete thought. I know that in the Pope’s interview the things that got the most attention were his views about the Roman Catholic Church having put too much emphasis on abortion and homosexuality (I could not agree with him more).
However, juxtaposing the words “I am a sinner” and “person whose thought is incomplete” has profound implications for a new Church. Since I was a Jesuit for close to fifteen years let me do a Jesuitical Top Ten Dance around what the Pope might be saying behind these words.
1. Our understanding of God will always be incomplete (so many believers of all faiths think they know everything about God and that our understanding of God can never change).
2. Human beings are incomplete (we can do so much more to live in peace and justice). The Pope said, “The thinking of the Church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today.”)
3. The Bible is always incomplete (let us seek new and Spirit-filled ways of interpreting the Bible).
4. Tradition is always incomplete (there are news ways to worship, to do theology, and to interpret long held traditions).
5. Christianity is incomplete (we are all God’s children and God does not love Christians more than any other religious groups. God does not love the sinner more than the atheist).
6. The Roman Catholic Church is incomplete (there is truth, grace, and salvation in all religions). The Priesthood is incomplete (there is a place for married priests and women priests – not sure the Pope would go this far, but it cannot be denied that the implication is there).
7. Our economic system is incomplete (what does it mean to live in a world where millions of people die before their time because of poverty and violence?)
8. Our religious pursuits are incomplete (how might people of faith do more to show that God loves the world?)
9. Our thoughts, words, and actions are all incomplete – what is God calling us to do?
10. The Pope, even though we love him so, is incomplete.
Pope Francis has made a huge impact as a pope already. The world will always remember him, because what is most important to the Pope is this: “I know that the Lord remembers me.” And, by extension, we are all in the mind of God, held in love, in all of our incompleteness.