Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

On listening to the pope

September 29, 2013

One of the signs of Pope Francis’ pastoral impact on the church and on the world is the readiness of people to listen to what he is saying, whether by gestures or by words. Even within the church, individuals and groups that have habitually said we should ignore papal teaching, even in its solemn form of an encyclical, are now saying we should listen to Pope Francis. This is no small improvement and no meager pastoral victory!

Despite the newfound willingness of former despisers of the papal office to listen to Pope Francis, there remains a deeper challenge to what he himself would desire. Before his election, Cardinal Bergoglio warned his brother cardinals about the danger of a “self-referential” church, a self-absorbed church that speaks more about itself than about Christ. Today, ironically, it seems that many are speaking more about the pope than about either the church or Christ!

So what has Pope Francis said that has occasioned this about face in the world’s judgment? Ironically, again, the pope has said we should pay attention to Christ, who wants to forgive us and whose love is always available to us. The pope began his recently published interview (see story on Page 2) with the declaration that he is a sinner. This is the first truth emphasized in the Ignatian Exercises and in the Gospel itself. What a sinner needs is forgiveness; what the self-righteous demand is approval. Self-righteousness is the biblical sin against the Holy Spirit.

The pope is neither an American liberal nor an American conservative. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ who has experienced the forgiveness and mercy of God and who wants to tell the world about it. His words fall out of the categories of American public discourse, because the one word that cannot be spoken publicly in our society is forgiveness. “Justice” in the form of punishment is the subject of half of our TV shows and three quarters of our news broadcasts. The pope, by contrast, invites us to confess our sins and taste the mercy of God. Then, in a life dedicated to sinning no more, the doctrinal and moral teaching of the church finds its place.

What also finds its place in the life of a person converted to the ways of the Lord is prayer. Some of the most moving passages of Pope Francis’ lengthy reflection detail the habits of prayer that keep him united to Jesus: the psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours, the sacrifice of the Mass, the recitation of the rosary, meditation, usually before Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.

The pope speaks of the attitude of the priest in the confessional, who is to accept each penitent and tell them of God’s mercy. He has many times encouraged priests to spend more time in the confessional, for he is sure that penitents will come to the sacrament if we make it more available. His convictions here are rooted in a confession he made when he was 16 years old, on the feast of St. Matthew, Sept. 21, 1953. St. Matthew was the public sinner, the tax collector, whom Jesus surprised with a call to follow him.

The young Jorge Bergoglio experienced God’s call when he confessed his sins: “For me, this was an experience of encounter. I found that Someone was waiting for me … He had been waiting for me for some time … To find Someone waiting for you is truly a great grace. You go to him as a sinner, but he is waiting to forgive you … When we seek him, we discover that he is waiting to welcome us, to offer us his love. And this fills your heart with such wonder that you can hardly believe it, and this is how your faith grows — through encounter with a Person.”

The pope speaks often of a “culture of encounter.” The basic encounter that shapes each human life and all of human history is with God himself. Themselves living in that encounter, those responsible for governing the church in Christ’s name are to discern what is to be done by looking at all things great and small in the light of God’s kingdom, with a special concern for the poor. A person of discernment is patient, constant in his purpose and therefore always hopeful. In speaking of how he governs, the pope presents a model useful for every pastor’s examination of conscience. What he has spoken and written is a challenge and a consolation.

On Sept. 21 of this year, the feast of St. Matthew, converted sinner and apostle, I celebrated the 23rd anniversary of my ordination as a bishop of the Catholic Church. I was called by Pope John Paul II to serve the Diocese of Yakima in Central Washington State, and I thank God for the grace given me to respond to that unexpected call. I thank also all those who congratulated me this week and promised to keep me in their prayers. You are all in mine.


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