Not long ago LifeSite News came up with a compendium: The ABCs of Our Concerns with Pope Francis. It’s a greatest hits recap of their “reporting” on the Pope’s controversial remarks, often containing denunciations of his supposed heresies. (Rather remarkably, for an outfit that is supposed to be about reporting pro-life news, they have ventured more and more into theology). The whole thing gives me a persistent image of a dastardly villain tying Pope Francis to the railroad tracks every week in some kind of ongoing melodramatic serial. So far, 26 episodes, one for every letter of the alphabet, a whole TV season’s worth.
I’ve decided it’s time for a rescue.
What I mean is that ordinary Catholics need an antidote to those on both sides who are trying to manipulate our view of Pope Francis. In a small way, I’ve been trying to do this since the beginning of his pontificate. I recently realized to my amazement that I wrote my first post defending the Pope from his critics only five days after his election. Five days. Before he had done anything whatever of substance. This shows that there is something more behind this hatred than just the Pope’s words or deeds. I plan to get back to this later.
I’m going to start by supplying some rules to to follow in reading the Pope’s words:
1. Read the whole thing. Seriously, just do it. Don’t just read the LifeSite News article or the headline in the secular press. Read the whole of what the Pope said. Yes, even if it’s longer than a paragraph. If you don’t do this, you have no right to comment.
2. Read with an open mind. If you are already convinced the Pope is a heretic, you will read everything with a mind to finding what’s wrong with his words, rather than being open to what he’s really saying. This often leads to ludicrous results. And yes, it’s just as ludicrous when “liberals” read their own presuppositions into the Pope’s words.
3. Context, context, context. Exactly who is the Pope speaking to? What was the occasion? If it’s an interview, what was the exact question asked? What cultural differences might come into play?
4. Keep translation difficulties in mind. Unfortunately the Vatican translation service is not infallible. In many cases, if you don’t know the original Italian or Spanish, you won’t be able to find the mistranslation by yourself, but at least be aware of the possibility.
More about Rule no. 1. The thing that amazes me most about the Pope’s most virulent critics is that they never read his complete reply to questions, much less a complete interview. Much of the time I suspect, they don’t read more than the headlines or the few snippets that the secular press will extract and print from a papal statement, and of course, distort into a caricature of what was really said. The Pope’s critics strangely cling to this misinterpretation, and call all efforts to correct this impression “explaining away” or “elaborate attempts at special pleading.” No folks, it’s called “adult reading comprehension.” Everybody has to do this all the time. This is no exception.
In many cases, these are the same people who when it comes to one of their cultural heroes, like Trump, will endlessly parse his statements and movements to try and prove he didn’t say or do what everyone thinks, who plead with us to look at the context, who decry everything the secular mainstream press writes as “fake news.” But with Pope Francis, they buy everything the secular press puts out, hook, line and sinker.
I will admit that it’s often not easy to get some of the Pope’s complete statements, especially in his plane interviews. You can go to the Vatican website, but his interviews might be there only in Italian and the English translation might not be put up for weeks, even months. So let’s try something simpler to start with: his sermons and Angelus addresses, which are always up on the Vatican website the day they are given. The one I’m going to discuss here shows the virtues of Rule no. 1 well, but the other three I mentioned also apply. I think we should start with something not as fraught with tension as homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, etc. So here we go.
Multiplication or Sharing?
Here is exactly what LifeSite News wrote in the above-mentioned compendium about the “scandal” of Pope Francis talking about the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
During the Angelus of June 2, 2013, he spoke about Christ’s miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as taking place by “sharing.” “This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer,” he said. He was even more explicit about it in July 2015 in a homily preached in Christ the Redeemer Square in Bolivia. Pope Francis said, “This is how the miracle takes place. It is not magic or sorcery. … Jesus managed to generate a current among his followers: they all went on sharing what was their own, turning it into a gift for the others; and that is how they all got to eat their fill. Incredibly, food was left over: they collected it in seven baskets.”
Though they never exactly spell it out, LifeSite News evidently thinks Francis is guilty of the typical “liberal” Christian interpretation of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: it was not really a miracle, but Jesus teaching the crowd to share; inspired by him, they bring out the food they had all brought with them and were secretly hiding under their cloaks the whole time, and offer it to their neighbors.
From the excerpts quoted, this interpretation looks plausible. But now to apply Rule no. 1: Go read the whole of the first talk, here at this link. You might as well get used to doing it. And you will quickly find out that LifeSite News did not read this talk all the way through, or if they did, they didn’t read it with any attention.
Now, Rule No. 3: the context. At the beginning the Pope notes that it is the feast of Corpus Christi. So the whole talk is in the context of the Eucharist. After summarizing the situation in the Gospel, Pope Francis contrasts the attitude of Jesus to that of the disciples, who weren’t really concerned with the crowd and just wanted them to go away. Then he comes to the point:
Jesus senses our problems, he senses our weaknesses, he senses our needs. Looking at those five loaves, Jesus thinks: this is Providence! From this small amount, God can make it suffice for everyone. Jesus trusts in the heavenly Father without reserve; he knows that for him everything is possible. Thus he tells his disciples to have the people sit down in groups of 50 — this is not merely coincidental, for it means that they are no longer a crowd but become communities nourished by God’s bread. Jesus then takes those loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, recites the blessing — the reference to the Eucharist is clear — and breaks them and gives them to the disciples who distribute them… and the loaves and fish do not run out, they do not run out! This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer. Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.
Pope Francis notes that this is a “sharing.” What sharing? Well, there is certainly no reference to anyone but Jesus and the disciples having any bread. Rather the context is: Jesus is concerned with the crowd and their needs. He wants to provide bread, but trusts in his Father to provide (note: he does not trust the crowd to provide). Francis points out the likeness of this scene to that of the institution of the Eucharist. He concludes by noting that this miracle is the sign of Jesus being “the Bread of God” for humanity.
So who is sharing? Jesus shares something of himself, out of his compassion, and inspired by his own “faith and prayer.” He shred the bread he had but also shared himself. It is a sign that he himself is the Bread of Life. Yes, you might have to work a little to get the meaning, but it is there and don’t think it’s possible to mistake it with a close attentive reading. True, Francis says that there is a lesson for the disciples and us to share what we have, but it the context of what has gone before, it is perfectly understandable: it refers of course to the loaves and fishes that Jesus and the disciples had and shared with others; in a wider sense we are to share of ourselves as Jesus shared himself.
“Aha!” you say. “But what about the second sermon, where Francis said the people “shared what they had?”
Well, back to Rule 3: the first problem is that LifeSite News destroyed the context of the sentence by leaving off the first part: Let’s read the whole thing as it appears in the Vatican translation:
The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine now how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away. Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among his followers, as they shared what they had, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill.
The whole of the first sentence makes it clear that Jesus himself distributed the bread, and that everyone passed the same bread back, handing what they were given on to others. This alone makes “gave what they had” stand out as awkward. If we take it to mean “their own bread (which they brought with them),” it contradicts the previous sentence.
What to do? Well, now it’s time for Rule no. 4. In this case, Francis was speaking in Bolivia, and Spanish was the original language for his talk. Since I know Spanish, I was able to find the words that were creating the difficulty and look them up. Here is the passage, with the words in question in bold:
Las manos que Jesús levanta para bendecir al Dios del cielo son las mismas que distribuyen el pan a la multitud que tiene hambre. Y podemos imaginarnos, podemos imaginar ahora cómo iban pasando de mano en mano los panes y los peces hasta llegar a los más alejados. Jesús logra generar una corriente entre los suyos, todos iban compartiendo lo propio, convirtiéndolo en don para los demás y así fue como comieron hasta saciarse
The word “propio” in Spanish does mean “his own.” or “what he had” but the specific idiom used, a verb followed by “lo propio,” means to do something “the same,” or in this case “the same way.” Here’s what a Spanish-language translation forum has to say.
Here is the correct version in English:
The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine now how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away. Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among his followers, as they shared it in the same way, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill.
Something else that LifeSite News did: (Now for Rule no. 2): in concentrating solely on the words they thought proved the Pope’s “error,” which they think lies in the words, “was not magic or sorcery”: they left out the Pope’s explanation of the meaning of those words, which follows in the next three paragraphs. They appear to think he meant that the multiplication was not magic or sorcery because it was a completely natural, non-miraculous event. Actually, if you read carefully, he is saying the opposite. As Catholics, we already know (or should know) that a miracle is something completely different than magic or sorcery. We are amazed, of course, at the changing of physical reality in the bread being multiplied. But that’s not all there is to a miracle. A miracle is also a sign (In his Gospel, John describes all of Jesus’ miracles as signs), just as a sacrament is a sign. A miracle points to a greater reality.
Pope Francis is fond of pointing out how the miracles of Our Lord show us God’s transforming power in our lives, though not in the superficial way the “liberal” Gospel sermons do. LifeSite News, in its haste to vilify the Pope, leaves out the part where he explains the Jesus’ three actions of taking, blessing and giving the bread. I cannot quote it all in this space, but read it. Among other things, he says: “Blessing has this double aspect: thanksgiving and transformative power. It is a recognition that life is always a gift which, when placed in the hands of God, starts to multiply. Our Father never abandons us; he makes everything multiply.” Francis concentrates on the meaning of the miracle: the bread is miraculous because it multiplies physically, but even more because God’s power multiplies through our hands, as in Francis’ moving account. We share what we are given by God and it multiplies in the lives of others. This whole point rests on it being bread given by God, not our own bread.
Pope Francis neither denies nor discounts the physical aspect of the miracle. It is the basis for all his remarks. But he does concentrate on the sign, the spiritual aspect, as well as on the concrete life proposals. In doing so, he is giving us perfectly good Catholic theology. Now go read the whole thing and enjoy. It really is beautiful.
Next time we’ll try something a little harder. I plan before next time to make a series of links to my own posts on Pope Francis’ controversies, to be added to as I progress.