The Key to Understanding Pope Francis’ Pastoral Approach

“Love It, Learn It, Live It.”

That’s the slogan my archbishop, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chose for the Faith Initiative for the Year for Faith. I was initially surprised by the ordering, since it seemed to me that it would be more logical to put “Learn it” first.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone: one of the priests addressed this question during Mass. He did so by asking one of the altar servers a series of questions: name, favorite color, and so on. What we received was a bunch of information. But, he pointed out, most of us didn’t know this server, so we would quickly forget everything we’d learned (and sure enough, I can’t even remember if the server was a boy or a girl).

He then contrasted this with the relationship of spouses: they’re in love with each other, so they joyfully want to know more about each other. You want to know the minutiae about the person you love: that desire to know him/her well is part of the nature of love. And so it is with God. If we love Him, we’ll desire catechesis, we’ll want to know more. If we don’t, these teachings will seem like a bunch of “rules,” or a political party’s public policy positions (say that three times fast).

That’s what came to mind while I was reading Pope Francis’ interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J.. I would suggest that the critical passage to understanding both this interview, and Pope Francis’ papal style more broadly, is right here:

“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But 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 homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognise the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. 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.”

This stands is sharp contrast from the media spin. For example, the Associated Press story claimed:

U.S. bishops were also behind Benedict’s crackdown on American nuns, who were accused of letting doctrine take a backseat to their social justice work caring for the poor — precisely the priority that Francis is endorsing.

But that’s just patently false. Francis isn’t saying that moral issues favored by Republicans need to take a backseat to moral issues favored by Democrats. That’s a complete misreading, and suggests that the media obssession with viewing everything through the lens of politics obstructs their ability to grasp this. What Francis is saying instead is that all moral issues (even ones involving life and death) properly flow from a relationship with Christ. Morality that doesn’t flow from, or towards, Jesus Christ is simply incoherent. 


  1. The modern press would claim St Francis himself opposed Innocent III or that Peter was less pastoral and focused on social issues than his predecessor purely based on style. A singular focus on the person of Jesus Christ, which is necessary to understand the Catholic spirit, is absent from the press’s eyes, so why should we be surprised when they misrepresent His Holiness? It is inconceivable for many that social work would be done for any reason other than the sake of social work. The Church is, as the Pope said, one big NGO to a lot of people.

  2. The press will be stuck in this binary syndrome til Francis dies because they must ignore his central point… accompany the sinner comes prior to indoctrinating him…as Francis shows in the passage that first involved gays: ” In life God accompanies persons, we must accompany them…When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
    Francis probably does not like this aspect of the internet….that it remains non communal really. When someone writes him, he calls on the phone rather than writes. He flees the non communal.

  3. That paragraph about it not being merciful to be a rigorist or to say “this isn’t a sin after all” is just brilliant. Francis showing the orthodox center rising above the right-left Catholic infighting.

    1. Latenter,

      Agreed. I’d been trying to find a way to put the idea into words for a few weeks now, because he uses the word “mercy” a lot. But he said it better than I could have hoped to:

      “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

      “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 neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. ”



  4. The greatest problem of Calvinism is divine determinism coupled with belief in eternal hell for most of mankind.

    This means God predetermined some men to rape women and hold them accountable for that.
    This means Hitler (and the devil for that matter) were nothing but God’s puppets.

    I don’t understand how a morally and intellectually sensible person can worship such a god unless he brainwashed her (oops sorry I meant “renewed her mind”).

    I love Calvinists as my fellow humans, but I think an offensive language is in order to help them realize the toxic and blasphemous aspects of their faith.

    I am a non-denominational Christian and has left Evangelicalism behind and go regurlarly to Catholic masses because this is where I feel the strongest spriritual connection.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *