Since we were introduced to Pope Francis on March 13, he has gained a huge number of admirers from those of all faiths and none. Even in last week’s Guardian Jack Persico, an atheist wrote this:
Pope Francis has been impressive from the start. The white smoke had barely cleared before he began to signal his priorities. He mingled with the crowd in St Peter’s instead of lording over them from above, and he rejected the opulent house. He washed the feet of women and prisoners on Holy Thursday. He opened an inquiry into the abuse scandal that he says won’t flinch, and he even had a kind word for atheists, calling us allies to “defend the dignity of man”, fellow seekers of truth, goodness and beauty. Amen.
There is something intriguing about Pope Francis. He has an air of down-to-earth humility, openness and a commitment to a simple life that appears distinctly at odds with his new position of authority and power. Once his name had been announced, the press scrambled to find out about Pope Francis’ past life as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina. We were told that he was a Jesuit, about his concern for the poor, and his commitment to dialogue as a way to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and faiths.
This was just a taster and there are still many questions about his views on a whole range of issues. What does he believe and in which direction will he take the Catholic Church?
A new book released in the last few days seeks to provide many of these answers. On Heaven and Earth contains a series of recent conversations between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka. This was originally published in Spanish in 2010 and has now been translated into English. For years Cardinal Bergoglio (then Archbishop of Buenos Aires) and Rabbi Skorka were tenacious promoters of inter-religious dialogues on faith and reason. They both sought to build bridges between Catholicism, Judaism and the world at large. On Heaven and Earth brings together a series of these dialogues where both men talk about various theological and world issues including God, fundamentalism, atheism, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and globalization. From these personal dialogues we begin to gain a first-hand view of the man who is now Pope to 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.
One of the best aspects of On Heaven and Earth is its level of accessibility This is not some great long theological treatise, but rather a wide selection of friendly short chats between two men who obviously get on very well together. The style is very relaxed, but the discussion is still full of learning and wisdom. It reveals the Catholic or Jewish faiths in a great deal of detail displaying the commonality between these two great religions in so many areas. You also get to learn plenty about religion and politics in Argentina. Both men are not afraid to tackle difficult and complex issues, but their approach is to find agreement and build each other up.
If you are looking for any shift in Catholic teaching in this book you will be disappointed. Bergoglio does not deviate from Catholic orthodoxy, but at the same time there is an underlying humility and acknowledgement of the state of the world and the reality of life for those both inside and outside of the church. His feet are firmly on the ground.
The book covers 29 different topics, but there were a few that really speak into the situations we all find ourselves in as part of a nation and a global community. On money and tax avoidance and poverty, Bergoglio writes:
“Christianity condemns both Communism and wild Capitalism with the same vigor… Someone who operates a business in a country and then takes that money to keep it outside of the country is sinning because he is not honoring with that money the country to which he owes his wealth or the people that worked to generate it.
“In Christianity, the attitude we must have toward the poor is, in essence, that of true commitment. And [Jesus] added something else: this commitment must be person to person, in the flesh. It is not enough to mediate this commitment through institutions, which obviously help because they have a multiplying effect, but that is not enough. They do not excuse us from our obligation of establishing personal contact with the needy.
“The poor are the treasure of the Church and we must care for them. If we lose this vision of things, we will have a lukewarm weak and mediocre Church. Our true power must be service. We cannot adore God if our spirit does not include the needy.”
Bergoglio has plenty to say on politics and the relationship between the church and secular institutions of government:
“We are all Political animals with a capital P. We are all called to a constructive political activity among our people. The preaching of human and religious values has a political consequence. Whether we like it or not, it is there.
“The loss of credibility in the political arena must be reversed because politics is a very elevated form of social charity. Social love is expressed in political activity for the common good.
“Something has happened to our politics, it is out of ideas, out of proposals… Today image is more important than what is proposed… We have displaced the essential with the aesthetic; we have deified polling and marketing.”
There is no doubting that both Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka are wise men with a great love for God. Their conversations provide challenges for all of us, whether we believe on God or not. For any Christian believer there is plenty of food for thought. For leaders in both the religious and secular environment, there are repeated calls to reject mediocrity and to live with integrity and honesty.
This is a book that allows you to begin to get to know Pope Francis almost as a friend. It also doesn’t pull its punches. His vision for the Church and society is full of God’s justice and mercy. He wants to see Christians radically committed to their faith, not afraid to get their feet dirty and live according to the example that Jesus sets us. It is an affirming God-filled book that gives plenty of hope for the future of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis.
On Heaven and Earth in published by Bloomsbury. It can be bought from Amazon and other good booksellers.