Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Pope Francis and the Church of Mercy

by Stephen Drees


The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Icon Productions, 2004.

Pope Francis' much reported recent interview to an Italian Jesuit publication has created a firestorm of reactions - jubilation for some - suspicion and concern for others - and everything in between. While only Pope Francis knows for sure what his head and heart is saying, this humble oblate has noticed a common theme in the words and symbolism in the early months of his pontificate.

While many left- and right-leaning Catholics and non-Catholics seem determined to spin the words of this pontiff to validate their own political or theological positions, perhaps we need to be reminded that the Church is neither liberal nor conservative. That's because its founder - none other than Jesus Christ himself - also defied being so easily pigeonholed. Why would His Church be any different?

The famous story of the adulterer in the Gospel of John illustrates this…

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

If agenda-driven pundits and spinsters were reporting on this incident today - depending on their theology and politics, a presumed liberal might write the following headline: "Jesus Forgives Adulterer." On the other hand, a headline written by someone with a more conservative bent might lead the story with: "Jesus Confronts the Adulterer!"

Both headlines would be half-true but highly misleading, because Jesus both forgave and admonished the adulterer. With the fullness of Church teaching, there is often a duality to a Christ-like response to the brokenness and frailty of the human condition. Hate the sin but love the sinner!

Pope Francis' recent interview strikes a very similar tone to the Jesus in John's Gospel. He makes the point that, when applied in their entirety, the Church's teachings are much more loving, demanding and powerful than focusing predominantly on the lightning-rod social issues such as homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception and abortion.

But in no way does he suggest the Church is suddenly promoting a tacit or explicit reversal on these issues. His "who am I to judge?" comment about gays was a reflection of his message of mercy and desire to engage.

While it does represent a shift in tone, it does not change the duality of Church teaching: that the gay lifestyle is contradictory to God's plan, but regardless, all people should be treated with dignity and respect. Lest we forget that Christ came to save sinners of all shapes, sizes and stripes, including you and me! As a passage from the Letter of James says, "judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment."

Based on his personality, skill set and spiritual charism, each pope is a prism that casts a slightly different light upon the Church. For a time, each sets his mark on the ancient Barque of Peter by emphasizing certain things within the broader context of Catholic teaching and tradition.

John Paul II was the evangelist - taking the Church to the far reaches of the world using his adept communication skills and charisma to bring souls to Christ. Benedict XVI was the writer, professor and theologian, who could concisely and beautifully explain the tenets of the faith in a way that brought the Gospel stories to life about the person of Christ.

While his pontificate is still unfolding the mark of Pope Francis seems to be an "imitation of Christ" with concern for the poor, the sinful and outcast - with great mercy and pastoral sensitivity. And he is challenging the rest of the Church to follow his lead. For he knows that as long as we keep our sight fixed intently on Jesus Christ and try to be more like Him, the Church will continue to be the source of love and mercy to the world that our Savior intended it to be.

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.