Pope Francis Moves Church Beyond Gays and Abortion -- To People

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. During
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. During open-air general audiences the pontiff is driven through the crowd in his car before delivering his message to attendees from the square in front of St. Peter's Basilica. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis continues to radically refocus the Catholic Church and, even as a non-Catholic, I am beginning to view him as a personal pastor.

Headlines were splashed on media outlets that reported that the Pope had said in an interview that the Catholic Church was too focused on gays, abortion and contraception.

This is not news to those of us who have been saying that for years. But to hear the head of the Catholic Church say it is like an ecclesial bomb going off that topples much of the edifice that has sustained the more conservative wing of the Catholic Church over the past several decades.

However, Pope Francis' statement begs the question: If the Catholic Church isn't going to focus on those social issues, what will it focus on?

That is the real value of the interview that was conducted by the Italian Jesuit journalist Father Spadaro over the course of three days in Casa Marta, where the Catholic leader has chosen to live instead of the papal palace.

Father Spadaro describes the room like this:

The setting is simple, austere. The workspace occupied by the desk is small. I am impressed not only by the simplicity of the furniture, but also by the objects in the room. There are only a few. These include an icon of St. Francis, a statue of Our Lady of Luján, patron saint of Argentina, a crucifix and a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. The spirituality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not made of "harmonized energies," as he would call them, but of human faces: Christ, St. Francis, St. Joseph and Mary.

The description of 'human faces' is the key to understanding the interview, and to the ministry of Pope Francis. The human faces of Jesus, St. Francis, Joseph and Mary matter to the Pope because those faces represent the face of humanity living in this world, many of us broken and hurting spiritually and physically, and who are in need of authentic Good News.

The Pope talks about many things in the 12,000-word interview, but what struck me was the humanizing of the religious endeavor.

Too much of what is done and said in the name of Jesus elevates the blunt and often harmful instrument of tradition or dogma over the actual lives of people who are seeking to know God's love and to feel accepted and respected within the church.

Here is one example from the article involving the reality of gay people who desire to be included in the church:

"A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. 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?' We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy."

This anecdote shows the focus of the Pope, which is on the actual life of the gay person, and how the Pope is more concerned with pastoral care of the person than the correctness of church dogma. "We must always consider the person," as the Pope says.

Many on the Catholic right will be quick to point out the interview does not reveal a major break with Catholic teachings. However, in this interview and in his famous 'who am I to judge?' moment on the papal plane, you can tell the Pope doesn't really object to gay people living out our God-given sexuality.

It is probably because he knows our faces. The pope has met gay and lesbian people who have loving relationships and he respects them and the love they share.

Reading between the lines, the Pope is signaling that old dogma is not as important as the faces of people whose love offers a living refutation of teachings that must be abandoned.

As the Jesuit James Martin, SJ reflected: "Pope Francis's message to gays and lesbians is simple: mercy, mercy and mercy."

The Pope Francis interview is just the latest testimony of this extraordinary spiritual leader radically refocusing the church to see with the eyes of Jesus, who in his time looked into the faces of people who were marginalized as sinners yet called them his beloved.