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New interview shows why the pope is so beloved
When asked “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” the pope replied, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition."
September 19th, 2013
11:00 AM ET

New interview shows why the pope is so beloved

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Here at America magazine, we’ve been anticipating the exclusive interview with Pope Francis for Jesuit journals worldwide for weeks.

We’ve lived with the 12,000-word article we’ve titled “A Big Heart Open to God,” and, in a sense, with the pope over these last several days.

So let me suggest what I feel to be the most important parts of this remarkable interview. To focus, I’ll highlight a few quotes and unpack them.

1. “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative."

Pope Francis is speaking of his time as a Jesuit leader in Argentina in the 1970s, a difficult time for him, for the Argentine people and Argentine Jesuits.  The pope is frank about what he sees as his own failings as Jorge Mario Bergoglio during that controversy-filled period.

He says that he made rash and hasty decisions.  Later in the interview he returns to that theme, saying bluntly that he has realized that for him the first decision he arrives at “is usually the wrong thing.”  Without delving into the choices that he made during his time as a Jesuit provincial (at the extremely young age of 36, which he calls “crazy”), what strikes me about this self-examination is its brutal, almost embarrassing, candor.

MORE ON CNN: Pope says church can't 'interfere' with gays

The former Jesuit provincial does not say, “Mistakes were made.” Or, “Things could have been done better.” Rather, he offers a blunt assessment of himself as an imperfect human being who “created problems.”  Part of the Christian spiritual tradition is an “examination of conscience,” an examination of one’s moral activity.

The church is in very good hands with someone able to examine his conscience not only honestly but in a radically open manner in a worldwide interview.

2. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality.  I replied with another question: ‘Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

During his in-flight media conference from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this summer, Pope Francis made headlines when he uttered his now-famous words, “Who am I to judge?” when asked a question about gay priests in the church.

At the time, several commentators opined that the pope’s words were not only uninteresting (since the pope did not change any church teaching), they were also limited, applying only, they said, to gay priests. But in our interview, Francis speaks about gay persons in general, and he notes that his comments during the in-flight conference referred to gay persons, not simply gay priests.

The new interview continues his more open, pastoral stance toward gays and lesbians. While none of this changes church teaching, the pope’s words have changed the way the church speaks to and about gay persons.  And that is new.  There is a reason why many LGBT Catholics have told me that they feel more welcome in the church these days.

3. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent."

This comment illuminates a part of Catholic doctrine often forgotten today by some Catholics.

Theologians call this the “hierarchy of truths,” a kind of ladder of beliefs in order of importance. The simplest example is that agreeing with what your local pastor says about a Sunday Gospel reading is not on par with believing in the Resurrection.  The latter is essential for belief and communion in the church; the former much less so.  But when you talk about the “hierarchy of truths,” some Catholics grow uneasy, suspecting that you are watering down the church’s teaching. But the pope makes it clear that he understands this tradition.

Francis also says that church teaching is not to be a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”  While belief is essential, the transmission of beliefs is not to be forced upon people. Christianity is primarily a religion of invitation, and not simply an invitation to adhere to certain beliefs, but, more importantly, an invitation to encounter a person: Jesus Christ.

4. “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.”

Pope Francis is comfortable with gray. In the America interview, he speaks out against what he calls a “doctrinal security” and offers a critique of those who “stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists.”

Francis asks Catholics to move away from a church that has “locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”  He invites Catholics into the world of uncertainty, which is where most of us live anyway.

But there is one thing that the pope is sure of.  In the best Jesuit tradition, which asks us to “find God in all things,” the pope speaks of his commitment to finding God in every human being.  For me, this was the most moving part of the interview:  “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.”

5. “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition.  It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

What may strike people is not only what Francis says in this new interview, but how he says it. Its tone is open, gentle, conversational, thoughtful and above all friendly.

At the beginning of the interview, in answer to the question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he answers “I am a sinner.”  The pope doesn’t use the traditional Jesuit way of expressing this idea.  Normally, a Jesuit would say that he is a “loved sinner” or a “sinner redeemed by Christ.”

No, the pope is blunt.  No sugarcoating here.  Of course Francis knows that he is redeemed by God, and he knows he is loved by God.  But he feels in his bones that he is a sinner: imperfect, flawed and struggling.  As are we all.

Maybe that’s what makes him so loved, and so eager to love.

The Rev. James Martin is editor at large at America magazine and author of "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Martin.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Opinion • Pope • Pope Francis • Vatican

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.