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Updated: Feb 19

Another day, another interview with Pope Francis. This one, in the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, focused on ecumenism, and the pope took the opportunity to defend his bridge-building efforts with other Christian churches.


He also delivered a rebuke to those who have recently critiqued his document, Amoris Laetizia, for its opening on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Critics, he said, don’t really understand the church’s role in the world.


“The church exists only as an instrument for communicating to people the merciful design of God,” he said. That was clearly enunciated by the Second Vatican Council in its document on the nature of the church, he said.


“This moves the axis of Christian understanding away from a certain legalism, which can be ideological, to the person of God who made himself merciful in the incarnation of the Son,” he said.


“Some – consider certain replies to Amoris Laetitia – continue to not understand, (to see) either white or black, even though it is in the flow of life that one must discern,” the pope said. He added that this teaching of Vatican II will probably take a century to be “well absorbed” by the body of the church.


“We’re at the halfway point,” he said.


The pope’s reproach of those who want a “white or black” judgment of pastoral situations plainly referred to a small group of cardinals who this week published a letter to the pontiff, challenging him to clarify supposed “doubts” about Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s post-synodal document published in April. The cardinals have questioned whether some sections of the document could be read as contradicting traditional church teaching on marriage.


In the interview, Francis said seeking Christian unity was a perennial task of any pope, and he described it as primarily a work of encounter and prayer, not negotiation. He said his recent meetings did not represent an “acceleration” of this process. It’s simply a matter of following the path of the Second Vatican Council, and the impetus comes from “the path, not me,” he said.


At one point the interviewer noted that some conservative critics have accused the pope of “selling out doctrine” in order to promote ecumenical relations, and in effect “Protestantizing” the Catholic Church.

“I’m not losing any sleep over that,” the pope replied. He added that the value of criticism depended on “the spirit behind it.” Authentic criticism can help the church, but sometimes it’s obvious that the criticisms “are not honest, and are made with a bad spirit in order to foment divisions, he said.”


The pope said he was convinced that certain “rigorous” positions among critics are born from “a shortcoming, a desire to hide one’s own sad disappointment behind a type of armor.”


On the issue of proselytism, there was this exchange:


Pope Francis: “The church never grows through proselytism but by attraction, as Benedict XVI wrote. Therefore proselytism between Christians is in itself a grave sin.”


Interviewer: “Why?”


Pope Francis: “Because it contradicts the very dynamic of how one becomes and remains a Christian. The church is not a soccer team in search of fans.”

Updated: Feb 19

This week Pope Francis is creating 17 new cardinals, including 13 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in the next conclave.


Next month, the pope celebrates his 80th birthday.


The 80-year mark has sometimes been floated as a default age for papal retirement, but there is certainly no sign that the Argentine pope has any intention of resigning his office. Francis has said he doesn’t like the idea of an age limit for the papacy, which he believes enjoys a “special grace.” At the same time, he has said Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 (at the age of 85) should not be considered an exception in the modern church.


It’s become increasingly clear that in choosing new cardinals, Francis is looking for prelates who share his vision of the church as a “field hospital,” less concerned with doctrinal rules and more involved with people in their daily lives. The pope needs their support today and, in a certain sense, his legacy will one day rest in their hands.


The three U.S. churchmen receiving their red hats this week endorse the pope’s fresh approach, which features flexibility on pastoral issues – including but not limited to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The three are Cardinal-designates Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis (just appointed to head the Newark archdiocese), and Kevin J. Farrell, who will head the new Vatican office for Laity, Family and Life.


If Pope Francis has a strategy in his cardinal selections, it might be called “break the mold.” He has chosen bishops from several diocese and countries that have never had a cardinal before, part of his push to include the voices of the church’s “periphery.”


The idea of protecting his legacy may not be the first thing on his mind, but these cardinals are, after all, the ones who will one day elect his successor. The next conclave, whenever it occurs, will test the level of hierarchical support for the changes adopted by this pope. As the past week has demonstrated, not all cardinals are on the pope’s wavelength: four eminences saw fit to publicly challenge Francis’ opening on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried.


This week’s consistory will alter the population a bit among the 120 voting-age cardinals (121 until Nov. 28.) Let’s look at a few numbers:


— With the new appointments, Pope Francis will have named about 37 percent of the potential cardinal-electors. That’s significant after only three and a half years in office. However, it may well take the pope another three years – from now until October 2019 – to reach the 50 percent mark of cardinal-electors. That’s because relatively fewer cardinals will turn 80 during that period.


For now, the rest of the would-be voters in a conclave are made up of cardinals appointed by Pope Benedict XVI (46 percent) and Pope John Paul II (17 percent).


— If the pope remains in office another five years, he will have the opportunity to name at least an additional 32 cardinals. As a result, by his 85th birthday he may well have appointed 58 percent of the cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave. But that’s a long way from today.


By way of contrast, when Pope John Paul II died at the age of 84 (after a pontificate of more than 26 years), he had appointed all but two of the 115 cardinals who voted in the conclave to elect his successor.


— The geographical balance of cardinal-electors is slowly shifting under Pope Francis. After Saturday’s consistory, Europeans will represent 44.6 percent of voting-age cardinals, down from 52 percent three and a half years ago. The percentage of electors from North America has dropped slightly, to 10.7 percent, and gone up a bit for Latin Americans, to 17.4 percent. The biggest gains have come among cardinals from Africa (now 12.4 percent of total electors), Asia (11.6 percent) and Oceania (3.3 percent).


— The influence of the Roman Curia in a future conclave is declining somewhat but remains strong. About 27 percent of potential cardinal-electors today are active or retired Rome-based Vatican officials, and that goes up to 34 percent when one includes archbishops in other places who once worked in the Roman Curia.


The Curia cardinals, in my opinion, are the closest thing to a “bloc” in a future conclave. Traditionally, this group has had great influence in the selection of a new pope – these cardinals operate at the center of the universal church, have frequent contact with other cardinals and local bishops, and are more experienced in ecclesial politics. The conclave of 2013 was an exception to this rule, a moment when the world’s cardinals took issue with Roman Curia missteps and infighting, and elected a true outsider to the papacy.

Updated: Feb 19

Pope Francis travels to Sweden next week, in one of the most important ecumenical journeys of his pontificate. Among the events is a commemoration service with Lutherans marking the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which began when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517.


Today, the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica published an interview with the pope on the themes of the visit. Francis being Francis, the interview also ranged to unrelated topics. Among other things, the pope said that proselytizing was a sin, that war in the name of religion was “satanic,” and that gossip could be seen as a form of terrorism.


The exchange about Martin Luther was revealing, with Francis offering a hint at the atmosphere inside the conclave that elected him in 2013. The pope was asked what the Catholic Church could learn from the Lutheran tradition. He responded:


“Two words come to my mind: «reform» and «Scripture». I will try to explain. The first is the word «reform». At the beginning, Luther’s was a gesture of reform in a difficult time for the Church. Luther wanted to remedy a complex situation. Then this gesture—also because of the political situations, we think also of the cuius regio eius religio (whose realm, his religion) —became a «state» of separation, and not a process of reform of the whole Church, which is fundamental, because the Church is semper reformanda (always reforming). The second word is «Scripture», the Word of God. Luther took a great step by putting the Word of God into the hands of the people. Reform and Scripture are two things that we can deepen by looking at the Lutheran tradition. The General Congregations before the Conclave comes to mind and how the request for a reform was alive in our discussions.”

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