Q&A: To a World in Pain, Francis Offers ‘Consoling Hand’

Q&A: To a World in Pain, Francis Offers ‘Consoling Hand’

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Editor's Note: Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Brazil coincides with World Youth Day and with continued protests there over corruption and growing social inequality. Dubbed the “slum pope” for his days spent in Argentina’s impoverished areas, Francis has made it a focus of his papacy to take on many of the ills plaguing societies the world over, from hunger and poverty to mass migration and joblessness. NAM editor and essayist Richard Rodriguez says the Pope’s focus on “human suffering” is a welcome shift and a source of solace to a world “desperately in pain.”

Pope Francis’ trip to Brazil is timed to coincide with World Youth Day. What's his special message to young people there?

In Brazil, the largest Catholic country on earth, there is epic, everyday violence, drug addiction and murderous gangs. This is the Brazil the young know well. And the expectation of a fattened Brazilian government is that the masses can be distracted from their pain by soccer matches! Francis will want to give his young listeners a sense that they are important as more than spectators at a soccer match or consumers of the detritus from a polluted world.

Before his trip to Brazil the Pope went to Lampedusa to greet migrants kept in detention by the Italian government. He spoke with a Muslim migrant there, and said he "wanted to help." What role do you think the Pope wants to play for the growing population of global migrants?

His journey to Lampedusa, coming at the start of Ramadan, was astonishing. There stood the Pope, saluting the beginning of the Muslim season of fasting. And there he stood, shaking the hands of Muslim migrants, welcoming them to Europe!

Despite the huge failure of the Church in recent years, even as the sexual misbehavior of priests toward children and the unwillingness of bishops to control that misbehavior became known, the Church remained in my view, as a Roman Catholic, mighty in its defense of the migrant. I remember a pope of my childhood, Pius XII, declaring that migration was a "human right." No American president at that time or since has ever uttered such a thought.

Roger Mahoney, the ex-cardinal of Los Angeles, left office in shame because of his dismal failure to police sexual misbehavior among priests under his supervision. But Mahoney was a tireless defender of migrants, particularly illegal migrants. When politicians in Washington threatened to make it illegal to offer any aid to a person illegally here, Mahoney threatened a mass protest by nuns and priests. And the politicians backed down and returned to their caves.

You mention the sex abuse scandals. How will Francis address some of these more daunting issues facing the Church, including the role of women, pedophile priests, and abortion?

I think Francis is conservative on many of the sexual issues that preoccupy us in the liberal West. I doubt that he will advance women to the clergy, though necessity might require that he permit, by the end of his papacy, married priests. Homosexual marriage, the right to an abortion -- these will not be issues that will find favor with him.

But that said, I need to remind my political friends (whose sexual concerns I share) that there is much to admire in Francis, principally his compassion for the poor, the vast hunger, unemployment and suffering in the world. His impulse to ride the subway in Buenos Aires, to live in a plain, working-man's room -- these are not insignificant indications of the man's desire. I would argue that there are no more daunting issues in the world at the moment than starvation and joblessness. This Pope is wise for focusing on this human suffering.

The Pope was not a friend of Liberation Theology, yet noted exponents like Leonardo Boff of Brazil are embracing his message. Where does Francis draw his theological inspiration?

I think clearly that Francis is beholden to Francis. I mean Pope Francis is beholden to St. Francis, the medieval saint who slept on the steps outside of churches; the saint who lived free in nature, praising nature, loving nature; the saint who began his astonishing life of holiness by coming up to a leper and touching the face of the outcast leper. That saint, St. Francis, is the inspiration for this Pope Francis.

Unlike his more taciturn predecessor, Francis appears to be somewhat of a wild card in the deck. What impact is he having on the Church?

Clearly, coming after Pope Benedict -- a scholarly pope, who, while a wonderful writer and theologian, seemed timid in public -- Francis has the benefit of his difference. He seeks to touch the hands that mass about him; he lifts babies to his lips; he caresses injured children on their gurneys and in their wheelchairs. Politicians use babies in their campaigns, too. But now, coming after an austere pope, Francis seems gloriously "in touch" with the crowd. The hand becomes symbol of his soul's desire. And watch the crowd as it bends toward him, weeps to touch him. You will sense something of what Francis knows of our world: The world is desperately in pain and seeks to be comforted by the consoling hand.

Richard Rodriguez, the author of “Brown” and “Hunger of Memory,” is an editor at New America Media. “Darling,” his spiritual biography, will be published in the fall by Viking.