Pope Francis has been a reformer from Day One of his papacy, and he has been reforming in ways many people may not have expected. The world has witnessed his compassionate, yet quietly revolutionary, spirit from the moment he chose to be named after Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor. Now Pope Francis has given the first extensive interview of his new papacy, jointly published by La Civiltà Cattolica and America Magazine, and it is an in-depth look at his vision for the future of the Catholic Church. Here are four key takeaways from what he said.
1. The church must have a pastor’s heart. For Pope Francis, the church must be a field hospital. ”I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity,” he said. The church foremost is about healing people, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and even healing from wounds that the church itself has inflicted. He knows people do not want a church full of bureaucrats and officials — faith is not about just attending mass, following rules and asking forgiveness when the rules are broken. People need a church that loves in practical ways. Catholicism’s future, he explains, depends upon the courage to change and adopt this attitude.
2. True faith means putting people over issues. The Catholic Church has become known in recent years for its stance on issues like abortion, contraception and marriage. But Pope Francis argues that issues need to be based on people, not the other way around. Instead of starting with the issue of abortion and Catholic teaching about it, for example, priests must think about the person they are ministering to and what it means for her future — if a woman has had an abortion, a priest needs to help her move forward in her life, which means an emphasis on grace and not sin. The same is true for gay marriage. This reframes the emphasis in church life. “God is greater than sin,” the Pope said. “The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.”
3. The church must stop narrowing Jesus’ message to the old issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception. Francis pushes the church away from its focus on culture-war issues. His words are simple but bold: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” said Francis. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent … The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Christ.”
Religious men and women are to be prophets, he says, meaning they must speak God’s love, and not condemnation, into daily life. At times that means they mess up the current order of things. It is a view he shared when he asked young people to stir up trouble in their dioceses and exchange the church’s traditional clericalism for a new attitude of compassion, especially for the poor. Sometimes the actions are just simple to start, and Pope Francis is doing his best to model this new lifestyle — he gave up the papal apartments for more simple living, and he refused a new car for one that works to be sure the money goes to the poor.
4. Women are essential to church life. On the Pope’s return trip from Rio de Janeiro, he hinted that the church lacked a strong theology of women and their participation in Christian life. He expanded on that thought in the interview released Thursday. On the one hand, the implications are very practical — the old boys’-club attitude of the Catholic priesthood has to go. “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of women within the church,” he said. “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”
His meaning is also deeply spiritual. The feminine is part of God’s plan for the church, and the Catholic Church needs to better grow into that theological truth. Pope Francis’ own understanding of Christianity prizes women: “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.”