October 2013

A light in the Vatican window

Pope Francis alone can’t succeed; he wants the whole Church, all of us, to change in the ways he exhibits, says Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

The word “intimacy” has delicious qualities about it! We talk of “an intimate little cafe”, “an intimate conversation”, “an intimate relationship”. In these and many other usages of the word “intimate”, we are implying that there exists a certain quality of closeness, a feeling of warmth and welcome, a sense of sharing and disclosure well above the norm, an atmosphere of trust and love.

The term is derived from the Latin “intimus” which means a close friend, or from “intimare” which means to make known. I have always understood the term to have connections with the Latin term “timere” which means to fear, and hence with the addition of the prefix ”in”, the word means “not to fear” (just as invincible means not to be vincible or overcome). Intimacy is about feeling safe and secure, trusting and being trusted, giving and receiving love.

What has all this to do with a light in the Vatican window, and with Pope Francis and his three recent interviews? Just about everything! Let me explain.

Pope Francis has given three significant interviews in the last few months: to journalists after World Youth Day; to the editor of the Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica; and to the former editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

It has been rare for a pope to be interviewed, so we have been privileged to have triple access to Pope Francis in certain intimate ways. Many commentators have provided studied accounts of the content of the Pope’s comments, his style, and the implications of his words for the future of the Church. Whilst this analysis is necessary and important, I think the real significance of the interviews does not lie in the intellectual domain.

The title of this piece – a light in the Vatican window – is taken from a line in a song by John Denver called “It’s About Time”. In it, he says the light is “for all the world to see”. For me, Francis is that light. But it is not the light of cold hard reason and judgements. It is the light of hospitality, of warm welcome, of intimate encounters.

Beyond all the words and thoughts that Pope Francis has generated, he has, as St Paul said: “put on love”. Recall the first words the Pope used when he appeared in public after his election: “Buona sera”, “Good evening”. These words apparently shocked the Vatican hierarchy because they were not the traditional papal benediction. Instead, Francis chose the everyday way of beginning a conversation, of drawing close to someone, of putting us at ease.

He sounded like the Jesus we all know: “Do not be afraid”. In his two words, Francis indicated his priority which he has underscored in every interview – love. In addition to his words, Francis gives and receives hugs, signs of affection. But even these words and hugs are not sufficient. Francis alone can’t succeed; he wants the whole Church, all of us, to change in the ways he exhibits.

In his interview after World Youth Day, the media focussed on his comments about not judging homosexual people. The broader issue was perhaps somewhat overlooked. Francis was demonstrating his desire to have an inclusive Church. He takes up this theme in the second interview when he says: “The Church we should be thinking of is the home of all, not just a small chapel that can hold only a select group of people”. Further, in the third interview he says: “We need to include the excluded and to preach peace”.

Another significant aspect of this inclusive Church is that “it needs to heal wounds and warm the hearts of the faithful. It needs nearness and proximity”. To me, this inclusive type of Church is based in the Pope’s incarnational theology. The spiritual life is as much about this world as it is about the next, about the here and now and the lives of our fellow citizens. Jesuit priest Frank Brennan has described this papal approach as “infectiously pastoral”.

Psychologists tell us that mature relationships are based on experiences of trust and love, and that patterns are laid down in childhood. I think the Pope, knowing this, wants trust and love to be the priority in every stage of the Christian’s life, and in every stage of the life within the Church.

To achieve this wonderful dream will require some reform of the Church. Francis says “the first reform must be of attitude”. He elaborates: “the people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats”. He nominates the second reform as that of “structures”. He explains: “this is to be the beginning of a Church with an organisation that is not just top down but also horizontal”. He outlines his plan to proceed “gently, firmly and tenaciously”.

The three interviews traverse many topics, too many to explore here – the role of women, subsidiarity and collegiality, the Curia, the Synods of Bishops, Vatican II, discernment in decision making – to name just a few. However, in keeping with my original thesis that the key to all these is Francis’s views about trust, love, forgiveness and mercy, I offer this concluding reflection.

Love and intimacy are predicated upon vulnerability. Unless one is prepared to share at a level which involves truly revealing who you are, mature relationships will never develop. Pope Francis has shown that he is prepared to acknowledge his past mistakes, that he is open to engaging with new ideas, that he is willing to admit he doesn’t have all the answers, and that he wants to remove the barriers that prevent the Church from being an agent of God’s love. I believe it is this vulnerability that has endeared him so quickly to almost everyone. It is this vulnerability that dominates the three interviews, and that he models for us.

The light in the Vatican window is a light of warmth, hospitality, intimacy and love. Francis asks us all to let go of our immature attitudes, motivations, ideas, and plans, and adopt instead, the Gospel of love.

It is only by giving ourselves and our possessions that true love enters our lives and our Church.

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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