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The Mission of Pope Francis, S.J.

One of my favorite films is The Mission (1986), directed by Roland Joffé, screenplay by Robert Bolt. Bolt also wrote the screenplay for another favorite, A Man for All Seasons (1966).

The Mission is set during the last days of the 18th-century Jesuit missions built for indigenous peoples along the Paraguay River in South America. The story focuses in on one of those missions, which has become home to the Guaraní, an indigenous tribe. When Portugal takes control of the area from Spain, the Portuguese government wants the Jesuits to leave and manages to finagle Vatican officials into ordering the Jesuits to abandon their mission and the Guaraní.

The Jesuits at the mission are torn over what to do. None of them is willing to abandon the Guaraní natives who need them—seeing the demands that they do so to be unjust—but they find themselves at odds over how to respond. Do the Jesuits fight alongside the Guaraní in defense of the mission? Some do, notably Rodrigo Mendoza, a penitent former mercenary and slave hunter turned Jesuit. War is what Mendoza knows, and he believes it the only way forward. But his superior, Father Gabriel, thinks otherwise. He tells Mendoza bluntly:

Help them as a priest! If you die with blood on your hands, Rodrigo, you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is love!

Spoiler alert!

Father Gabriel backs up his lofty ideals with action of his own. During the final attack on the mission by Portuguese and Spanish forces, while the battle rages around him, Father Gabriel picks up a monstrance and leads onto the battlefield those Guaraní who choose not to join the fight. There they walk, as if shielded by the Blessed Sacrament, among the chaos surrounding them and amid the flying bullets and blood. They will die alongside the defenders of the mission, but they will not have betrayed the ideal of the mission.

I was reminded of this movie as I read the interview with Pope Francis, conducted over the summer by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and published last week by Jesuit journals around the world. In the United States, the interview was released by the Jesuit magazine America. The interview caused a tremendous stir in the mainstream media, topping the news feed at the Google search engine that day, and remaining on the front page of the news feed into the following day. Naturally, the focus was on secular battlefronts of the culture wars. Here were some sample headlines:

  • Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion
  • Pope Seeks Less Focus on Abortion, Gays, Contraception
  • Pope Francis: Catholic Church Must Focus beyond “Small-Minded Rules”

When you read the interview itself though, Pope Francis seems to have a very different focus. Over and over, he speaks of mercy, to the point of trying to explain himself by coining a new word:

I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].

His point seems to be that the Church is not called to be a fighting unit on the field of battle in the culture wars. It is not that the battle is unimportant but that the Church has a different task:

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. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up.

This is the context of his remark about “small-minded rules.” Pope Francis does not want the Church to be focused on the rules so much as he wants it to be focused on healing wounded souls, on bringing these souls to Christ. Like Father Gabriel rallying the vulnerable Guaraní around the Blessed Sacrament, Pope Francis’s concern is that the Church’s mission is to point the world toward heaven, and to offer it Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If Christians lose sight of Jesus while fighting in the culture wars, it is as if we are in the middle of a battle without knowing the objective for being there.

When I first read the interview, I had to chuckle. I found quite a bit of providential irony in the Holy Father’s warning against “small-minded rules” the very week that I had devoted a blog post to defending the Church’s rules. With a grin, I briefly wondered if I would need to print a retraction. In my defense though, I was not defending rules for the sake of rules. I was defending rules not as an end, but as a means to the Omega:

Ultimately, rules give shape to a given thing. Every created being, even creation itself, is subject to the rules (whether they be scientific or moral) that shape its being. But, just as Jesus once said of the Sabbath, rules are for man, not man for rules. And since man is called to be in relationship with God and neighbor, one important way man learns the shape and application of rules is through personal relationship with teachers.
Bottom line: Learn the rules from your teachers in the Faith, not merely for the sake of learning rules, but for the sake of strengthening your life in Christ. Then, as surely as the law of gravity had to be mastered before man could learn to fly, the rules of your faith will not be restrictive but will be the principles upon which you will be able to spiritually soar.
One of the great dangers of the culture wars for many devout Catholics is that war becomes all we know. We rally, petition, picket, boycott, debate. For the most part, we do it all very well, and it can never be said that such action in the public square is unnecessary. But if that is the only response we have, then we begin to see human persons as antagonists to be overcome or opponents to be crushed. We risk no longer seeing them as wounded souls to be treated and cared for. And we risk never knowing the dramatic change of heart that can occur when we respond to evil with love instead of with retaliation.
Perhaps one thing that Pope Francis wants to remind us about is that war is not the raison d’être for Christians. It may occasionally be a necessary evil, justly waged, but we were not created for war. And, ultimately, war will not heal the wounds of the culture of death. Our culture will be healed by the Divine Physician. It is our mission as Catholics to bring in the wounded from the field of battle. And, perhaps, that mission might call for us to follow the Divine Physician out onto the field of battle, perhaps not so much as soldiers but as combat medics—come what may.
The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. . . . 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 Jesus Christ (Pope Francis).


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