Over the years I’ve known many priests and even bishops like Pope Francis. Priests who came out to the mission territories or were sent to informal settlements or refugee camps to do pastoral work and who found themselves transformed. The much-publicised and polarised issues of the West left them unmoved as they lived and worked amongst those battling war, destitution, homelessness, starvation. Poverty transformed them and in the suffering and struggles of the poor they met Christ and began to preach about hope and mercy. This isn’t my phrasing, these are expressions I have heard over and over again from priests and women religious working in hard and seemingly hopeless places. Where the First World only hears the language of a dangerous liberation theology, those who live at the margins know and speak of another kind of reality.
So the moving and deeply sincere convictions voiced by Francis in his interview with the Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro are as familiar to me as the prayers in my breviary. Wonderful to hear and very much to be expected from a Latin American priest who knew the barrios like the pam of his hand.
“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.
“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”