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  • John Thavis

In letter to newspaper, Pope Francis broadens dialogue with non-believers

Pope Francis’ skills as a communicator were on display today in two very different forms, one that made headlines and one that moved people to tears.

The headline in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, “Dialogue open with non-believers,” ran above a lengthy papal letter — under the simple byline “Francesco” – addressed to the newspaper’s director, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who had posed several questions for the new pope earlier in the year.

In effect, Francis laid out a road map for dialogue with all those who do not find themselves in the Christian faith, a dialogue the pope said should be “open and without preconceptions.” After explaining how his own faith was rooted in a personal encounter with Christ, the pope argued that Christ was a figure of openness not exclusion, whose followers should be motivated by a spirit of service and not arrogance. For the believer, he said, dialogue is not secondary but an “indispensable” expression of faith.

Francis then responded directly to some of Scalfari’s questions, including whether God forgives those who do not believe and who do not seek faith. His answer focused on the primacy of the individual conscience.

“Given that – and this is the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the person who does not believe in God is in obeying one’s own conscience. There is sin, even for someone who has no faith, when one goes against the conscience. To listen and to obey it signifies, in fact, making a decision in front of what is perceived as good or as evil. And on this decision the goodness or the wickedness of our actions comes into play,” the pope said.

Francis then turned to the question of absolute versus relative truth, and said the terminology required some fine-tuning. “To begin with, I would not speak, not even for believers, of an ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense that absolute is that which is unbound, freed from every relationship.” For Christians, he said, the essential truth is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – which is itself a relationship, a path that requires humility and openness.

“That doesn’t mean the truth is variable and subjective, on the contrary. But it means that truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life,” he said. In discussing things like truth, the pope said it was necessary to back away from terminology that closes off dialogue and places everything in opposition.

The pope closed his letter with a pledge to continue dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers, in a way that promotes a clearer understanding of the church’s mission.

“The church, believe me, despite all the slowness, the unfaithfulness, the errors and sins that it may have committed and may still commit in those who constitute it, has no other meaning and goal than that of living and witnessing Jesus.” The church, he said, quoting the Gospel of Luke, aims “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

This was a remarkable papal bridge-building effort that, as Francis said in the letter, is inspired by “the Second Vatican Council, desired by John XXIII” and by the actions of succeeding popes. It’s already created a buzz in Italy, and is further evidence that this pope feels as comfortable expressing himself in the columns of a newspaper as in formal papal documents.

The pope’s non-headline encounter took place at the tail end of his weekly general audience, and in a sense was routine: he took about 25 minutes to bless and converse with sick people and their caretakers. I’ve watched other popes do this, too, but Francis seems to have a special feeling for the sick and an ability to make them feel special. Maybe it’s his unhurried pace, his willingness to lean in and listen to them for minutes at a time, his ability to carry out conversations with people who may be partially paralyzed, disabled or, in one case, strapped into a portable respirator. He accepted their gifts with a big smile and comments, and this was clearly a big moment for many of them.

He held one elderly woman’s hand for what seemed like an eternity, listening to her story with patience. Whatever she told him brought a smile to his face.

This, too, is communication Francis-style and it has a deep impact on those who witness it. It seemed like the perfect complement to the pope’s newspaper essay.

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