When I received the email about last week’s America Media program on “Pope Francis: The Foundations of His Papacy,” I found it easy to say yes. After all, the Sept. 19 event featured a conversation between two speakers I admire, Archbishop Christophe Pierre and Father Matt Malone, S.J. I am far from alone in my admiration for both.
For those who may not know, Archbishop Pierre is the apostolic nuncio, that is the pope’s representative, to the United States, and Father Malone is the president and editor in chief of America Media. Their conversation, which was also sponsored in part by the American Bible Society’s Catholic Initiatives unit, promised to be one to remember, and it certainly lived up to that expectation.
Father Malone, to his credit, didn’t waste any time in bringing up the topic that has dominated almost every discussion of Church matters in recent months. In keeping with the evening’s headliner, he asked Archbishop Pierre straight away if Pope Francis appreciated the gravity of the clergy abuse crisis.
With the proviso that he would not be breaking news, because “this is not my work,” Archbishop Pierre also did not soft-pedal the answer.
“The Holy Father is very much aware of the feeling of the people of this country, and of the world,” he said, adding that the pope “wanted the Church, the people of the Church, all of us, to become more aware of the problems that we share.” When the archbishop suggested that bishops have to help their people “not to lose faith and hope,” Father Malone asked how that might be accomplished.
“Instead of condemning the other…we are invited to say, what about me? What about us? What are we doing to restore the trust?”
Father Malone was insightful and learned, as always. His thought-provoking questions brought out the best in Archbishop Pierre and kept the audience at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan focused and engaged. He asked good follow-ups to keep the conversation on track and more than once to sharpen points that otherwise would have trailed off or not been as well understood without them.
It would have been hard to imagine such an evening not taking up a discussion of the personal encounter with Jesus that is a great hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy.
“Reality for us is the person of Jesus incarnated in our life,” Archbishop Pierre said. “The Gospel is the instrument for the encounter with Jesus.”
Those who seek to be disciples of Jesus must listen to His words and apply them to his or her own life, the archbishop said. Pope Francis says the Church is not an NGO, nor a purely human organization, and not just a lobby, “even if it is important at times for the Church to be a lobby,” Archbishop Pierre said.
“If we forget the Source, then we forget the source of life,” he added.
One of the questions was how the pope’s experiences with the Jesuit order, to which he was ordained, have shaped his worldview. Archbishop Pierre’s response focused largely on the role of discernment, which he defined as “the capacity to analyze a situation in light of Christ and the Spirit.” He said the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century Spanish priest who founded the Jesuits, have been a major influence for Pope Francis.
Saying that Pope Francis serves “like a spiritual director of humanity,” Archbishop Pierre said that is one reason “that so many people come to see him.” He added that the pope is a “man of prayer” whose deep prayer life informs his life and papacy. “He is a busy, busy man, but he has never forgotten prayer,” he said.
“Maybe Providence is working to have chosen somebody with this capacity, this experience…to guide the Church in this difficult time.”