Rizal and Pope Francis

In September 1894 while in exile in Dapitan, Jose Rizal wrote to one of his favorite former teachers, the Jesuit priest Pablo Pastells, to thank the latter for a gift. Rizal knew Pastells had an agenda, which was to bring this wayward subversive back into the Catholic fold.

Thus started an exchange of long letters where Rizal tried to explain his views about God and religion, and the search for truth. In one letter, Rizal wrote, “I believe firmly in the existence of a Creator more than by faith, by reasoning and by necessity,” and talked about finding God in “his wonderful works.”  Pastells’ letters became more agitated, accusing Rizal of having been influenced by Protestants, Masons and “philosophers of the French Revolution.” There is only one “fundamental truth,” Pastells argued, revealed to the Catholic Church. Rizal replied: “I do not believe Revelation impossible, rather I believe in it, but not in revelation or revelations that every religion or all religions pretend to possess.”

In the end, Rizal politely asked to end the correspondence. It was clear he knew there was little to be gained from the correspondence with Pastells the preacher, with an idea of only one source of “truth.”

I wonder how Rizal would have felt if he were around today and got to read an interview with another Jesuit, Pope Francis, published last Tuesday in Italy’s largest daily newspaper, La Repubblica. The interview is really more of a dialogue with La Repubblica’s founder and former editor, Eugenio Scalfari, who is an atheist.

On July 7 and Aug. 7, La Repubblica, which has been very critical of the Catholic Church, published what was tantamount to an open letter from Scalfari to the Pope about various issues related to faith. The Pope replied with an essay, which La Repubblica published on Sept. 13.

It didn’t end there. The Pope made one of his now-famous direct phone calls to Scalfari, setting an appointment for an interview which took place in Francis’ simple home. You can read the articles in their original Italian, or in English, Spanish and French translations on repubblica.it. Type “The Pope: how the church will change” for the interview and “An open dialogue with non-believers” for the Pope’s essay. Don’t forget to press “cerca” or search.

This latest interview has received much less attention than an earlier one that appeared last month in several Jesuit periodicals with a call to Catholics, especially the religious, not to be judgmental when it comes to such issues as homosexuality, contraception and abortion. This latest interview is less “sexy” but is just as important, with the Pope declaring in strong terms that the Church will change.

Solemn nonsense

The interview starts out lightly, the Pope pulling a fast one by telling Scalfari: “Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me.” When Scalfari retorts, “My friends think it is you [who] want to convert me,” the Pope replies, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense… We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.”

The interview unfolds into a conversation on issues like conscience (“Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”), agape (“It is love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing, it is love”), narcissism in the Church (“Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy”), clericalism (“It also happens to me that when I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity”).

When asked to name saints closest to his soul, the Pope first protests that rankings are for sports and that he can name the best footballers in Argentina but not the saints. In the end he relents and names Saints Augustine and Francis of Assisi.

As in the interview last month, the Pope once again talks about mysticism, this time emphasizing that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.” Readers who practice meditation will relate to Francis as he describes how he overcame the great anxiety he felt when he was informed he had been elected pope: “I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded…” Later in the interview, when he is asked if he feels he has been touched by grace, he replies: “No one can know that. Grace is not part of consciousness, it is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge, not reason. Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.”

No Catholic God

Scalfari, perhaps intrigued, asks if even a nonbeliever can be touched. The Pope’s reply is brief and to the point: “Grace regards the soul.” When Scalfari declares that he does not believe in a soul, the Pope answers: “You do not believe in it but you have one.”

The high point in the dialogue comes when the Pope turns the tables around and asks Scalfari: “You, a secular nonbeliever in God, what do you believe in? … Don’t answer me with words like honesty, seeking, the vision of the common good… I am asking what you think is the essence of the world, indeed the universe.”

Scalfari answers: “I believe in Being, that is in the tissue from which forms, bodies arise.” The Pope responds: “And I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor… This is my Being. Do you think we are very far apart?”

This is a Pope that genuinely wants dialogue and has touched people like Scalfari, who also turns the tables around at one point, agreeing with him that the world is in “deep crisis, not only economic but also social and spiritual… That is why we want dialogue with believers and those who best represent them.”

In fact, Scalfari starts out his article quoting the Pope on the most serious problems in the world today, which Francis says are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”  The Pope worries: “Can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family?”

What a relief to hear a Pope who defends the “family” not with judgmental attacks on contraception and homosexuality but with a concern for the elderly, and the young, and a call to the Church to feel responsible “for both souls and bodies.”

There is no real end to the interview, with the Pope inviting Scalfari to talk again about the philosopher Pascal and about women in the Church: “Remember that the Church (la  Chiesa) is feminine.”

Rizal would have been elated.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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