6 Things to Know When Reading the Words of Pope Francis

It is obvious from the last few months that the following are true:

  1. Pope Francis likes to say controversial things.
  2. The media likes to create more controversy.
  3. People get confused by Pope Francis and the media.
  4. Pope Francis will presumably be pope for a while.
  5. Therefore, we need to get used to this pope and figure out how to read and react to his words.

Up until this point in his papacy, I have read pretty much everything Pope Francis has said or written that has been translated into English. I am currently finishing up a book, Through the Year with Pope Francis: Daily Reflections (Now available for pre-order!) and have done this reading as a result of my work. I wouldn’t say that I am a Pope Francis expert yet, but I would say I do have some insight after all of this reading.

I am not going to try to respond to every controversy that arises. Rather, I would like to give you a guide for reading Pope Francis.

Here are my top 6 tips on how to read Pope Francis:

1. Get used to the fact that the media will misconstrue Pope Francis’ words.

Many Catholics are incredibly upset at the media’s handling of Pope Francis. The media reads him out of context. They don’t correctly understand what he is saying. They misconstrue his words. They seem to use his words for their own agenda. Much of this is true. On one hand, we should be upset. On other hand, this should be expected.

Jesus faced this from the media of his age as well:
In Matthew 11:18-19, Jesus says, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds”

Expect the spin from our media. The best way to combat it is my next point….

2. Read Pope Francis for yourself.

We are a sound bite culture that is quick to react and overreact. Before you read the secular media’s take and before you read the thoughts of people in the Church, read the man for yourself.

I’ve personally been greatly moved and influenced through reading the words of the pope. I don’t think my life will ever be the same. Please take the time to try to understand what he is saying and why.

3. Take a look at the recommended Pope Francis reading below.

Because I have read so much of his words, very little of what Pope Francis has said has been all that shocking to me. They have been much within his character and the vision he has expressed for the Church.

If you haven’t read the two controversial interviews for yourself, you can read them here.

  1. The most recent interview with La Repubblica. Here’s some notes on the English translation.
  2. Here’s another interview with America.

Also, read other things that Pope Francis has said. Some folks recently misconstrued Pope Francis’ recent thoughts on proselytism and evangelization. This could have been fairly easily avoided if you have read the many things he has already said on evangelization.

Where to start? Here’s my top 6 list for Pope Francis recommended reading:

  1. Easter Vigil Homily
  2. Vigil of Pentecost with the Ecclesial Movements Address
  3. Rite of Confirmation Homily
  4. World Youth Day Vigil Address
  5. World Youth Day Closing Mass Homily
  6. Divine Mercy Sunday Homily

4. Seek to understand what the pope is and isn’t saying.

I heard someone recently say that Pope Francis should be perfectly clear in what he says and that we shouldn’t have to seek to understand his words.

Have you ever read Jesus? Many times it is easy to misunderstand him or be very confused by him. Just a few weeks ago we read the Parable of the Dishonest Steward for the Sunday Gospel. Did Jesus just tell us to be dishonest?

I could give many examples, but ultimately, the Gospel message is at times, alarming, comforting, unbelievable, simple, radical, mysterious and even somehow all of these things all at once! Pope Francis does not speak God’s words, but I do believe that as a communicator of the Gospel his words often take on similar characteristics. It is worth taking the time to read, pray, and understand what he is trying to say.

5. Take in not only what Pope Francis is saying, but also what he is doing.

You, Pope Francis, many people in the Western world, and I know this—the Catholic Church’s influence and relevance in the world is greatly waning. Pope Francis is responding to this crisis by trying to set an example.

Here a few quotes on what Pope Francis wants the Church to be:

“Go into all the world! Go! Preach! Bear witness to the Gospel!” (cf. Mk 16:15). But what happens if we step outside ourselves? The same as can happen to anyone who comes out of the house and onto the street: an accident. But I tell you, I far prefer a Church that has had a few accidents to a Church that has fallen sick from being closed.—Address, Vigil of Pentecost with the Ecclesial Movements, May 18, 2013

Be servants of communion and of the culture of encounter! I would like you to be almost obsessed about this. Be so without being presumptuous, imposing “our truths,” but rather be guided by the humble yet joyful certainty of those who have been found, touched and transformed by the Truth who is Christ, ever to be proclaimed. — Homily, World Youth Day, July 27, 2013

Pope Francis knows that something is horribly broken with the way the world is hearing the message of the Gospel. In order to win people over to the Catholic faith we must change our normal way of carrying the faith to others. We must go outside of ourselves. We must encounter them. We must listen. He believes that this is worth the accidents and the mess.

6. Don’t be the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Many Catholics have been dismayed by Pope Francis because they perceive him to undo the work they have worked hard for in the last few decades. All of the hard fights they have fought over the Church’s teachings seem all go for naught when Pope Francis says something about abortion, contraception, etc.

First, follow steps 1-3 above. These will help quite a bit.

Second, don’t be the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son. Pope Francis is trying to welcome people back. He is trying to encounter the world that rarely thinks about Jesus or the Church. He is trying to completely change the Church’s PR that sorely needs a new message. And us? We are…often worried about ourselves. We are worried about that person in the parish who strays outside the boundaries of the Church teachings who might misconstrue the pope’s words and rub it in our face. We are worried about the family member who feels justified thinking that you are a rule Nazi and are trying to be more Catholic than the pope.

In the end, we need to focus on those who need Jesus and not ourselves. We need to follow Pope Francis message to get out of ourselves and to encounter and dialogue.

Is it messy? Yes, but it’s worth it.

Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter is the Executive Director of Programming at Amazing Parish. He previously served with FOCUS for 11 years as a missionary and Sr. Director of Curriculum. Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Benedictine College and a master’s degree in Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. He is the author of numerous FOCUS resources and Bible studies and several books, including Dating Detox with his wife Lisa and Called: Becoming a Disciple in a Post-Christian World. Kevin currently resides in Denver, CO with his wife, Lisa, and their children.

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