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In late June, just as I was arriving in Kraków, Poland, for the annual seminar in Catholic social teaching organized by George Weigel, there was a minor kerfuffle about a personal letter that Pope Francis had sent to Fr. James Martin, S.J. It brought to mind another private papal letter from twenty-seven years ago. Private correspondence, selectively shared, is one way that popes choose their interpreters.

Just weeks before the letter from Pope Francis, Fr. Martin had lamented that same-sex couples could not have their unions blessed by a priest. Fr. Martin chose to make his private letter public, arguing that the Holy Father supported his ministry of “building a bridge,” as his 2017 book put it, to gay and transgender individuals.

Pope Francis wrote in Spanish, and Fr. Martin provided this translation:

I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with the closeness that Jesus had, and which reflects the closeness of God. God’s “style” has three elements: closeness, compassion and tenderness. This is how he comes closer to each one of us. Thinking about your pastoral work, I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God. You are a priest for all, just as God is a Father for all. I pray for you to continue this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness. And I pray for your faithful, your “flock” and all those whom the Lord places in your care, so that you protect them, and make them grow in the Love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

That could be written by almost any bishop to almost any priest, but Fr. Martin chose—not unreasonably, given his profile on the issue—to interpret it this way:

[M]ay the Holy Father’s warm message encourage and inspire all those in the church who minister to LGBTQ Catholics and, moreover, remind LGBTQ people everywhere in the world of God’s “closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

It’s the kind of thing that clever Jesuits are good at—both saying and not saying something at the same time. Pope Francis offered something relatively neutral to someone who would put it to his own purposes.

The same dynamic was at work in September 2019 when Pope Francis granted Fr. Martin a private audience at the Vatican, immediately after which Fr. Martin launched a social media campaign advertising the encounter. That earned a rebuke from Weigel against “PR games that, irrespective of intention, have the effect of deploying the pope as a high-value piece on the chessboard of ecclesiastical controversy.”

There will be more of the same from Fr. Martin in future. But what does Pope Francis get out of it? 

It would be hard to imagine a Jesuit more different in style from the Holy Father, who as archbishop of Buenos Aires was known for his private visits to the slums. Fr. Martin enjoys being on camera in the company of the glamorous and rich, whether at the Met’s fashion gala in New York or on late night television with Stephen Colbert. Martin Scorsese even made a documentary about him.

The pope has an unrivaled reach; his voice literally goes out to the end of the earth, as the psalmist says. Yet there is always a matter of interpretation. How to apply in practice the general vision propounded? The pope cannot address every matter, and everyone wants to claim that the pope is on his side. Favored interpreters give extra guidance.

Pope Francis has clearly chosen Fr. Martin for that role, at least in the English-speaking world and in relation to issues of sexuality, which is Fr. Martin’s pastoral focus. Others thus have to take notice, interpreting papal teaching and priorities through the prism of Fr. Martin’s teaching and priorities. The two are not identical, and the Holy Father himself remains far more important, but it is not wrong to understand that Pope Francis sees in Fr. Martin something appealing about what he thinks the Church and the pastoral ministry should be. 

Other popes have made other choices. That brings to mind that summer seminar in 1994. 

It was the first time that Weigel and his late colleagues—Michael Novak, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and Fr. Maciej Zięba—held the seminar in Kraków, after two years in Liechtenstein. St. John Paul II himself had encouraged the move to his own city and he wrote a letter to Fr. Zięba, a Dominican priest, expressing his good wishes for the seminar.

That was long before social media, and Fr. Zięba was a rather more discreet sort, but he did share the letter with the students, of which I was one. After some good-natured teasing about holding a seminar in July rather than kayaking in the mountains, John Paul encouraged Fr. Zięba in his ongoing efforts to make the Holy Father’s teaching on the free society, as expressed in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, more widely appreciated in Poland. 

The Polish Church, on balance, was not greatly taken with Centesimus Annus. The Poles were a little suspicious of their countryman’s fulsome embrace of freedom in the political and economic sphere, channeled toward the common good by a robust culture informed by gospel principles. The Polish pope knew of that skepticism, and so he encouraged Fr. Zięba in his work. The letter was a matter of personal reinforcement for a priest whose pastoral work was modeled on John Paul’s own work with youth in the 1950s. 

Yet it was more than personal encouragement. People who get papal letters are inclined to share them as a sign of praise for their work. I very much doubt that had social media been around in 1994, Fr. Zięba would have employed it as Fr. Martin does. But it was known that Fr. Zięba had the pope’s blessing, and that mattered in how people assessed his work.

Different popes, different interpreters. I lament the recent death of Fr. Zięba; I find some of Fr. Martin’s teaching lamentable. But I don’t choose who interprets the pope; the pope is free to do that for himself.

Pope Francis has chosen Fr. Martin for that role. That’s significant, and bears noting when evaluating the ministry of Fr. Martin—and of Pope Francis.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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Photo by Alfredo Borba via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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