VATICAN CITY—In a lengthy new interview, Pope Francis opened up about his thoughts on the Jubilee of Mercy as well as progress made in the field of ecumenism, both of which he said have roots in the Second Vatican Council.
Asked what the Year of Mercy has meant to him, the pope said that he hopes “many people have discovered themselves to be very loved by Jesus and have allowed themselves to be embraced by him.”
“His mercy always leads him to forgive, to forget our sins,” he said. “I like to think that the Omnipotent has a bad memory. Once he forgives you, he forgets. Because he is happy to forgive. For me this is enough. All of Christianity is here.”
The pope’s interview with Italian paper Avvenire, the official publication of the Italian Bishops Conference, was published Nov. 18 and took place just days before the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is set come to a close. Pope Francis will close the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica this Sunday, Nov. 20, on the feast of Christ the King.
In the interview, Pope Francis said that he “didn’t make a plan” for the Jubilee, but simply let himself be “led by the Holy Spirit.”
The fact that the Jubilee took place now “was a process that matured in time,” he said. Pointing to various documents the Church has published throughout the last century, Pope Francis explained that the Church’s emphasis on mercy is not something new, but has unfolded gradually.
In the lead up to the Second Vatican Council St. John XXIII published his 1962 document “Gaudet mater Ecclesia,” which Pope Francis said indicated the “path to follow” to the opening of the Council. After, there were the teachings of Pope St. Paul VI, which in turn were followed by Pope St. John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical “Dives in Misericordia” and the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday.
When it came to Pope Benedict XVI, he is the one who said “the name of God is mercy,” Pope Francis observed, affirming that his predecessors and their own teachings on mercy “are all pillars.”
“In this way the Holy Spirit carried forward processes in the Church until their completion,” he said.
The fact that the Jubilee happened when it did is part of this natural progression, the pontiff said. In fact, just last year Pope Benedict himself spoke of mercy as a “sign of the times.”
In an interview given to Father Jacques Servais, SJ, in October 2015, the retired pontiff said there continues to exist “the perception that we are in need of grace and forgiveness.”
“For me,” he said, “it is a sign of the times — the fact that the idea of the mercy of God should become more and more central and dominant.”
Asked if the Jubilee was, in a sense, the “Jubilee of the Council ‘hic et nunc’ (here and now),” Pope Francis said “the Church exists as an instrument to communicate to men the design of the mercy of God.”
“To make the experience of forgiveness, which embraces the entire human family lived is the grace that the apostolic ministry announces,” he said.
During Vatican II “the Church felt the responsibility of being in the world as a living sign of the Father’s love.” This, Pope Francis said, is what moves “the axis of Christian conscience” from legalism, which can be “ideological,” to the Person of God who “became mercy” in the incarnation.
Responding to criticisms he’s received regarding certain passages of his post-synodal exhortation “Amoria Laetitia,” Pope Francis said that some “still do not understand” the point, and want to make everything “black or white,” when in life “you have to discern.”
The council told us this, he said, pointing to the fact that it hasn’t been that long since Vatican II was held: “Historians say that a Council, in order to be absorbed well into the body of the Church, needs a century. We are in the middle.”
Conversation then shifted to the topic of ecumenism, specifically the many ecumenical visits which took place between Pope Francis and various Christian and religious leaders during the Jubilee.
When asked whether these meetings could be seen as a special result of the Jubilee, the pope stressed that they are not “the fruit of the Year of Mercy,” but rather began a long time ago.
“It’s not something new,” he said, explaining that he is merely following the path begun by the conciliar decree, “Unitatis redintegratio,” promulgated more than 50 years ago and which initiated the journey toward unity among Christians.
Since then, he said, the path toward full Christian unity has gone forward with both “small and large steps.” Pope Francis emphasized that this path is not moving as a result of his own work, but is “the path of the council which moves forward, intensifies.”
Despite having participated in a number of significant ecumenical visits during his pontificate, and especially during the Year of Mercy, the pontiff denied that any sense of “acceleration” in the process was due to him.
The first of these visits during the Jubilee took place in February when Pope Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, the first-ever meeting between a Pope and a Patriarch of Moscow.
Just a few months later, the pope traveled to Lesbos in April where he met with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew have met on several other occasions this year, including during an international interreligious gathering held in Assisi for the World Day of Prayer for Peace.
During his visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan at the end of September, the pope met with Ilia II, Catholicos and Patriarch of All Georgia, as part of a special ecumenical event.
In addition to these meetings, the pope added another first to his ecumenical list when in October he traveled to Lund, Sweden, to participate in a joint-commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, meeting with Lutheran leaders and signing a joint declaration with the Lutheran World Federation.
“I have met the primates and those responsible, it’s true,” he said in the interview, “but my predecessors have also had their encounters. In the measure in which we go forward, the path seems to go faster…”
Asked to respond to criticisms that the Bishop of Rome should focus more on the Catholic Church than on making so many ecumenical efforts, the pope pointed to the Gospel, noting that even Jesus himself prayed to the Father that “they may all be one … that the world may believe.”
“The Bishop of Rome has always been called to cherish, seek and serve this unity,” he said. “We also know that the wounds of our divisions, which lacerate the body of Christ, we can’t heal them ourselves. So we can’t impose projects or systems to return to unity.”
Responding to the arguments of some that he wants to “sell out” the Church’s doctrine or “protestantize” the Church with his ecumenical initiatives, Francis simply said “I don’t lose sleep” over it.
“I continue on the path of those who have preceded me, I follow the Council,” he said. “As for opinions, one needs to distinguish the spirit with which they are said. When there is no bad spirit, they even help the journey.”
“Other times you see right away that the criticisms are done here and there to justify a position already taken,” he said, noting that in these cases “they are not honest, they are done with a bad spirit to stir up division.”
“You see right away that certain rigors stem from a lack, from wanting to hide inside the armor of their own sad dissatisfaction.”
In working toward unity, though, the pope said that at this point in history there are three roads to be taken: journeying together with the works of charity, praying together, and recognizing the common confession “as expressed in the common martyrdom received in the name of Christ.”
Speaking of what he has coined “the ecumenism of blood,” Pope Francis said that “here you see that the enemy himself recognizes our unity, the unity of the baptized. The enemy, in this, makes no mistakes.”
In following this journey, he reflected, we do not put aside theological and sacramental questions, which are necessary, but instead focus on serving the poor because they represent Christ. Serving the poor together, he said, is a means of being united in touching his “wounds.”
Pope Francis stressed that it is not our own “projects or systems” that bring about unity, but rather the Holy Spirit who “brings things to fulfillment, with the times that he establishes.”
“For this we cannot be impatient, discouraged or anxious,” he said. “The journey requires patience in preserving and improving what already exists, which is much more than what divides. And to bear witness to his love for all men, so the world may believe.”
By Hannah Brockhaus / Catholic News Agency
Photo, L’Osservatore Romano: Pope Francis visits the Il Chicco community in Ciampino, Italy, on May 13 as part of his “Mercy Friday” initiative.