United in our common mission: An interview with Pope Francis at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy by STEFANIA FALASCA
The following is a translation of an interview given by Pope Francis, which was published in the Italian daily newspaper, Avvenire on 17 November, as the Jubilee Year was about to come to a close.
Holy Father, what did this Year of Mercy mean to you?
When someone discovers he is loved, he finds a way to escape a terrible sense of isolation and separation that includes even hatred of others and of oneself. I hope many people have discovered that they are deeply loved by Jesus and have allowed themselves to be embraced by him. Mercy is the very name of God. It is also his weakness; his soft spot. His mercy always leads him to forgive and to forget our sins. I like to think that the Almighty has a poor memory. The minute he forgives, he forgets. Because he is happy to forgive. For me this is sufficient, just as it was sufficient for the adulterous woman in the Gospel “who loved much” — “because he loved much”. That is what Christianity is all about.
Yet this was a unique Jubilee with many special moments....
Jesus does not ask for grand gestures; only abandonment and gratitude. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, in her “little way” toward God, uses the image of a child who falls asleep instantly in the arms of his father, and she reminds us that in the end, charity cannot remain closed. Love of God and love of neighbour are two inseparable loves.
Were the original aims of this Holy Year achieved?
I really didn’t have a pre-set plan. I simply acted upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Things just happened. I allowed myself to be led by the Spirit. We only needed to be docile to the Holy Spirit, to let him do the work. The Church is the Gospel, the work of Jesus Christ. It is not simply a set of ideas and a means of affirming them. And in the Church things happen when the time is right: when the opportunity presents itself.
Such as an Extraordinary Jubilee Year....
It was a process that matured through time by the work of the Holy Spirit. Before me there was John XXIII who in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia described the “medicine of mercy” and indicated the path to follow at the beginning of the Council. Then there was Paul VI whose paradigm was the story of the Good Samaritan. Then there was the teaching of Saint John Paul II with his second Encyclical Dives in Misericordia and the institution of the Feast of Divine Mercy. Benedict XVI said that “the name of God is Mercy”. All of these were pillars. In this way, the Spirit pushes forth projects in the Church until they are finally brought to completion.
This Jubilee was also the Jubilee of the Council, “hic et nunc”, standing at the crossroads of its reception and a special time of pardon.
The lived experience of mercy embracing the entire human family is precisely the grace proclaimed through the apostolic ministry. The Church exists simply as an instrument for communicating God’s merciful plan to the whole human race. At the Council, the Church felt the responsibility of being a living sign of the Father’s love in the world. With Lumen Gentium, she went back to the source of her very nature: the Gospel. This shifted the focus of Christianity from a certain legalism, which can become ideological, to the person of God who made himself mercy through the incarnation of the Son. Some — we can think of certain reactions to Amoris Laetitia, for example — still failing to see that it is not always a matter of black and white, even though it should be clear that discernment has to take place in the very flux of life. This is what the Council told us; although it is true that historians tell us that 100 years are necessary before a Council is absorbed by the body of the Church. So we are halfway there....
During this time there have also been significant ecumenical meetings and visits: with Patriarch Bartholomew and Hieronymus on Lesvos, with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba, and in Lund for the joint commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation. Was it the Year of Mercy that gave rise to these initiatives with other Christian churches?
I would not say that these ecumenical meetings were directly the fruit of the Year of Mercy. No. Indeed, they are part of a journey that goes way back. They are not something new. They were long in coming. From the time of the publication of the conciliar decree Unitatis Redintegratio over 50 years ago, which signaled a rediscovery of Christian brotherhood based on one baptism and a shared faith in Christ, the journey along the path to unity progressed in small steps and has yielded fruit. This is the path I continue to follow.
Those paths pursued by your predecessors....
Yes, in their footsteps. One important step along this path was the dialogue between Pope Luciani and the Russian Metropolitan Nikodim. The latter died suddenly in Luciani’s arms, embraced by his brother bishop of Rome. Nikodim said many beautiful things about the Church. I also remember all the heads of the Eastern Churches present at John Paul II’s funeral: this is brotherhood. Various meetings and visits simply contributed to this brotherhood and helped it to grow.
You, however, in less than four years, have met with all the primates and leaders of the Christian churches. These meetings span your pontificate. Why the acceleration in pace?
This is simply the work of the Council moving forward and gaining momentum. But this is all part of the journey, it isn’t me. This is the journey of the Church. It is true that I have met with primates and leaders of the Eastern churches, but my predecessors had their own meetings with various leaders. I don’t believe that I have sped up the process. The more we move forward the faster it seems to go. It is a motus in fine velocior, to use an expression from Aristotelian physics.
How do you live out your own ecumenical commitment in meetings with brothers from other Christian Churches?
I live it out in a deep sense of brotherhood. You can feel it. Jesus is right there with us. They are all brothers to me. We bless one another — one brother blessing another. When I went from Lesvos to Greece with Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Hieronymus of Athens to meet with refugees, we truly felt as one. We were one. One! When I went to Fanar in Istanbul to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew for the Feast of Saint Andrew it was a wonderful celebration. In Georgia I met with Patriarch Ilia, who had not gone to Crete for the Orthodox council. The spiritual affinity I felt with him was very deep. I felt like I was in the presence of a saint, like a man of God had taken me by the hand and told me many beautiful things as much with his gestures as with his words. These Patriarchs are true monks. You can see that behind the conversation they are men of prayer. Kirill is a man of prayer, as well as the Coptic Patriarch Tawadros whom I met while entering the chapel. He was taking off his shoes and preparing to pray. A year ago, Patriarch Daniel of Romania gave me a Spanish translation of Saint Sylvester on Mount Athos, whose biography I first read when I was still in Buenos Aires: “pray for men and shed your own blood”. The saints unite us in the Church by bringing her mystery to life. We are fellow sojourners with our Orthodox brothers. We love one another. We have the same concerns. They even come here to study with us. Bartholomew himself studied in Rome.
You have already made much progress with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a Successor of the Apostle Andrew, as evidenced by the joint declarations you have made with him. I imagine that the love that transformed the life of the Apostles sustained you in this: Peter and Andrew were brothers....
On Lesvos, while we were both greeting the faithful, I leaned down to a young child. But the child was not interested in me. He was looking right past me. I turned around to find out why: Bartholomew had filled his pockets with candy which he was giving out to the kids. This is Bartholomew: a man who was able to carry forth the Great Orthodox Council despite all the difficulties, to speak theology at a high level, and to spend time with the children. Whenever he came to Rome he would stay at Santa Marta in the room where I am living now. The only time he ever scolded me was when he had to change rooms!
You continue to meet often with heads of other churches. But shouldn’t the Bishop of Rome spend all his time caring for the Catholic Church?
Jesus himself prayed to the Father that they would all be one so that the world might believe. This is his prayer to the Father. From all time, the Bishop of Rome is called to guard, seek, and serve this unity. We also know that the wounds of our divisions, which tear apart the body of Christ, cannot be healed by us alone. Therefore we cannot simply implement projects or systems to achieve unity. To achieve unity among all Christians we must look at Jesus alone and ask that the Holy Spirit work among us. That he may be the one to make unity. In the meeting with Lutherans in Lund I repeated the words of Jesus, who said to his Apostles: “Without me, you can do nothing”.
Why was it so important to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in Sweden? Was it a big step forward ?
The meeting with the Lutheran Church in Lund was a further step in the ecumenical journey that began 50 years ago with the Lutheran-Catholic theological dialogue, culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed in 1999, or how Jesus renders us just by saving us by his grace: the very point that gave rise to Luther’s initial reflections. So it is a return to the essentials of the faith to rediscover the nature of that which unites us. Before me, Benedict XVI went to Erfurt where he spoke very clearly about this point. He emphasized that the question “how can I have a merciful God?” penetrated Luther’s very heart and was the driving force behind all his theological research and interior reflection. It was a purification of memory. Luther wished to carry out a reform that could serve as a medicine. Then things began to crystallize, there were political interests involved, and it finished in cuius regio eius religio, so that one had to follow the religious confession of the one who held power.
But there are those who think that you are compromising Catholic doctrine by these ecumenical meetings. Someone has commented that you are giving in to a “Protestantization” of the Church....
I don’t lose any sleep over this. I am following the path of my predecessors. I am following the Council. As for comments like that, we need to look at the context and spirit in which they are said. If they aren’t said with a mean spirit, they help us in the journey. At other times it is clear that criticisms are made here and there to justify a position already assumed. They are dishonest. They are done with a mean spirit or to foment division. It is clear that certain kinds of rigidity are born from something that is lacking, from a desire to hide under the armour of one’s sad sense of dissatisfaction. This rigid behaviour is evident in the film Babette’s Feast .
With the Lutherans too, there has been a strong appeal to work together for those in need. Do we therefore need to set aside theological and sacramental questions and aim only at a common social and cultural commitment?
We don’t have to set aside anything. Serving the poor means serving Christ, because the poor are the flesh of Christ. And if we serve the poor together, it means that we Christians find ourselves united in touching the wounds of Christ. I am thinking of the work that Caritas and the Lutheran charitable organizations can do together after the meeting in Lund. It is not an institution; it is a journey. Sometimes we place “matters of doctrine” and “matters of pastoral charity” in opposition. But according to the Gospel they are not so. To do so only creates confusion.
The joint commemoration in Lund signified a moment of mutual acceptance and a profound level of mutual understanding. But from this point, how do we resolve ecclesiological questions that are still open such as those regarding ministry and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, that separate us from the Lutheran Church. How is it possible to overcome these questions in order to work toward a unity that is visible to the world?
The Joint Declaration on Justification is the basis for progress on the theological front. Theological research must continue to move forward. The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity is contributing to this work. The theological journey is important, but it must always be done in prayer and be accompanied by works of charity. These are visible works.
You also said to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow that “unity is achieved by walking forward”, that “unity will not come about as a miracle in the end; walking together is already unity”. You repeat this often. But what does this mean?
Unity does not come about just because we agree on everything, but because we walk, following Jesus. And by walking, through the work of the One we follow, we discover that we are united. It is by walking behind Jesus that we are united. To convert means to let the Lord live and work in us. In this way, we happen to discover ourselves united in our common mission of proclaiming the Gospel. By walking and working together, we recognize that we are already united in the name of the Lord, and consequently that we are not the creators of unity. We recognize that it is the Spirit who urges us and leads us forward. If you are docile to the Spirit, it is he who tells you the step you need to take, and he will do the rest. You cannot go behind Christ if he himself does not lead you, if he doesn’t urge you forward with his strength. For this reason, it is the Spirit who is the creator of unity among Christians. This is why I say that unity is achieved by walking, because unity is a grace that one must ask for, and it’s also why I say that every form of proselytism among Christians is sinful. The Church never grows through proselytism but “through attraction”, as Benedict XVI has written. Proselytism among Christians itself is therefore a serious sin for Christians.
Because it contradicts the very dynamic by which we become and remain Christians. The Church is not a soccer team in search of fans.
What means, therefore, are to be used in the quest for unity?
Fully engaging in the process rather than just taking up space is also key in the ecumenical journey. At this moment in history, unity must be pursued in three ways: by performing works of charity together, by praying together, and by acknowledging the common confession as expressed in the common martyrion (witness) received in the name of Christ: in the ecumenism of blood. It is there that the Evil One himself recognizes our unity, the unity of the baptized. The Evil One makes no mistake in this. And these are all expressions of visible unity. Praying together is something visible. Performing works of charity together is something visible. Sharing martyrdom in the name of Christ is something visible.
But among Catholics there does not seem to be a profound sensitivity for seeking unity among Christians and a perception of the pain of division.
The meeting in Lund, like the steps in ecumenism that led up to it, was a step toward a clearer understanding of the scandal of division that wounds the body of Christ. How can we bear witness to the truth of love if we are fighting among ourselves, if we separate ourselves from one another? When I was a child one never spoke with Protestants. There was a priest in Buenos Aires who sent a group of young people to burn down the tents of the evangelical missionaries whenever they came to town. Times have changed. The scandal has been overcome simply by doing things together with gestures of unity and brotherhood.
When you met with Kirill in Cuba, your first words were: “We have the same baptism. We are both bishops”.
When I was bishop of Buenos Aires, I was very pleased with the many initiatives launched by many priests to facilitate the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the act by which the Lord chooses us, and if we acknowledge that we are united in baptism then we are united in what is most fundamental. This is the common source that unites us all as Christians and empowers every future step toward full communion among us. In order to rediscover our unity we don’t have to “go beyond” baptism. To have the same baptism means to confess together that the Word was made flesh: this saves us. Every ideology and theory is begotten by someone who refuses to stop here — who does not remain in the faith that recognizes Christ as having come in the flesh — and wants to “go b eyond”. From here arise all the positions that remove the flesh of Christ from the Church, that “disincarnate” the Church. If we look together at our common baptism we will also be freed from the temptation toward Pelagianism that tries to convince us that we are saved by our own efforts, with our own activism. And to remain in baptism also saves us from gnosis. This detracts from the nature of Christianity and reduces it to a way of esoteric knowledge that can do without a real encounter with Christ.
In an interview with ‘Avvenire’, Patriarch Bartholomew said that the root of division is the infiltration of “worldly thinking” into the Church. Would you agree that this is the cause of division?
In my opinion, the greatest cancer in the Church results from our tendency to give glory to one another. If someone does not know who Jesus is, or has never met Him, he still has the possibility of meeting Him; but if someone is already in the Church and moves and acts within the Church precisely because within that context he cultivates and nourishes a hunger for power and self-affirmation, he suffers from a serious spiritual illness and believes that the Church is an inward-looking human reality, where everything moves according to the logic of ambition and power. This phenomenon also influenced Luther’s reaction: he rejected the image of the Church as an organization that could go forward with or without the Lord’s grace, by considering it something to take for granted with an a priori guarantee. And this temptation to construct a self interested Church that leads to opposition and hence division returns again and again.
Regarding the Orthodox, you often recite the so-called “formula” of theologian-turned-Pope Ratzinger, according to which, “as far as regards the primacy of the Pope, Rome must require from the Orthodox Churches nothing more than what was established and lived in the first millennium”. But what does the perspective of the Church of the first centuries suggest is essential in the present time?
We must look back at the first millennium because it can always inspire us. It’s not a matter of turning back in a mechanistic way. It’s not a matter simply of “going back”. But there are treasures from then still valid today. I spoke a moment ago of the temptation of the Church to look only inwardly: the sinful habit of gazing at herself too much, as if believing she were the source of her own light. Patriarch Bartholomew said the same thing in speaking of ecclesial “introversion ”. The fathers of the Church of the first centuries clearly believed that the Church lived from moment to moment only by the grace of Christ. For this reason — as I have said before — they affirmed that the Church does not have her own light. They called her mysterium lunae, the mystery of the moon. Because the Church gives light but does not burn with her own light. And when the Church, rather than gazing at Christ, gazes at herself too much, divisions occur. And this is what happened after the first millennium. Looking at Christ frees us from this habit, as well as from the habits of triumphalism and rigidity. And it makes us walk together along the path of docility to the Holy Spirit who leads us to unity.
In some Orthodox Churches there is resistance to the path to unity. Metropolitan John Zizioulas calls them the “Orthodox Taliban”. There are also some pockets of resistance in the Catholic Church. What can be done about this?
The Holy Spirit brings everything to completion according to a timetable established by him alone. So there is no reason for us to be impatient, skeptical, or anxious. The journey calls for patience in guarding and improving what already binds us, which is much more than what divides us. It is a matter of witnessing to his love for all men so that the world may believe.