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Pope Francis calls on church to change focus

Pope Francis waved as he arrived for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square Thursday.

Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press

Pope Francis waved as he arrived for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square Thursday.

Pope Francis, in an extraordinary interview that electrified the Catholic world, said that the Roman Catholic Church has become unduly obsessed with condemning abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

The church, he said, should emphasize compassion and mercy instead of “small-minded rules.”

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“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” the pope said in the 12,000-word interview, published by major Jesuit publications around the world, including the New York-based America magazine.

US bishops have put abortion, contraception, and gay marriage at the top of their public agenda, and some — notably Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence — have openly criticized Francis for failing to speak out on abortion.

In the interview, the pope said that although he embraces church doctrine, which defines gay relationships and abortion as sinful, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He also elaborated on a comment he made about gay priests this summer: “Who am I to judge?”

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he said. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ ”

The Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of theology at Boston College, said the interview with the first pope from the Jesuit order leaves no doubt Francis is trying to shift the church’s emphasis.

“It clearly shows that while the pope has heard criticisms of his style, remarks, actions, and lack of actions, he is not accepting these, and he believes he has to reconfigure the tenor of the church,” he said.

The US bishops did not comment on Francis’ remarks. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop and chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Prolife Activities, declined to comment.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity-USA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics based in the Boston area, said Francis’ comments “signaled an entirely new direction for the Catholic Church.”

“To me, it is a clear directive to the bishops of the church to end their antigay campaigns. . . . He is essentially saying, ‘Go back to being pastors, stop being rule-enforcers,’ ” she said.

The pontiff’s interview was conducted in Italian by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal, on behalf of major Jesuit publications, each of which submitted suggestions for questions. The pope approved an Italian transcript, translated into English by a five-person team commissioned by America, according to the magazine’s editor in chief, the Rev. Matt Malone.

In the interview, Francis spoke frankly about his past leadership mistakes and, in one section, mentioned his favorite movie, Federico Fellini’s “La Strada,” and his appreciation of Mozart and Caravaggio.

“I think what we are witnessing here is the birth of a new genre in papal communications,” Malone said. “He has decided to talk to people as their brother, rather than necessarily as their father. He decided to talk to them in a way that is smart, that is intimate, and that is really free.”

Francis has made headlines almost weekly since his surprise election in March. His direct, simple style, his focus on the poor, his enthusiasm for speaking with common people, and his rejection of many of the opulent trappings of the papacy contrast sharply with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

In the interview, Francis vividly described the church as a “field hospital” whose first responsibility must be “to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.” He spoke of finding sanctity in the everyday, at one point describing holiness as “the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread.” He offered an expansive vision of the church as “the totality of God’s people.”

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he said.

The Rev. Thomas Worcester, a historian at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester who has written and taught about the papacy, said the interview was illuminating. “It’s about what his priorities are as pope, and I would say compassion trumps just about everything else,” he said.

The themes of the interview reflect the spirituality of Francis’ religious order. The pontiff spoke poignantly about the importance of community and about seeking and finding God in all things, and all people, a fundamental of Jesuit spirituality. “Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else — God is in this person’s life,” he said. “You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.”

Francis bluntly descred his early blunders in church leadership, as the 36-year-old leader of Argentine Jesuits.

“My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative,” he said. But, he added, “I have never been a right-winger.”

Since then, he said, he has developed a consultative style of leadership, adding that the eight-prelate advisory panel on church governance, of which O’Malley is a member, is meant to be “a real, not ceremonial consultation.”

He said he was wary of hasty decision-making and of those who claim to know everything about God’s will.

“If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good,” he said. “If one has all the answers to all the questions — that is the proof that God is not with him.”

Francis also discussed the role of women in the church; although he has stated he does not believe women should be ordained, Francis said that women’s roles must be explored more deeply.

“He makes it very clear that the status women have now in the actual operation of the church is not in conformity with the Gospel,” said James Keating, a professor of theology at Providence College.

The interview comprises three conversations between Spadaro and Francis at the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guest house where Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio, lives.

At the interview’s outset, Spadaro notes the simple objects in the room: an icon of St. Francis; a statue of Our Lady of Lujan, patron saint of Argentina; a crucifix; and a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. He begins with a bold question.

“I ask Pope Francis point-blank: ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ He stares at me in silence,” Spadaro wrote. “I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description. . . . I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.
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