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Faith & Values

As I started my sabbatical at America magazine in midtown Manhattan three weeks ago, I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of a major event: I was helping to translate an exclusive, six-hour interview of Pope Francis from Italian into English. (I studied theology in Rome for three years before my ordination).

The pope gave the interview (americamagazine.org/pope-interview) in August in a highly personal, relaxed atmosphere in his simple quarters in the Vatican.

What I found moving, as I sought to make the rough Italian translation into readable English, was the remarkable interior calm of Francis. His intimate awareness of art, music and literature, and how much it affects his spirituality, also surprised me.

Pope Francis begins by recalling Caravaggio’s powerful depiction of the “Calling of St. Matthew” in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew,” the pope reveals, “that’s me. I feel like Matthew.” Matthew “holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ ” Then the pope reflects, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”

He comments then about his own unworthiness in being elected pope, but also his complete trust because he has been chosen by the all-loving Lord.

In the same vein, he talks about the mistakes he made as a young Jesuit provincial in the difficult years of military oppression in Argentina: I was only 36. I didn’t consult enough. I didn’t listen well. I was very authoritarian in those years, but I’m not a right-winger.

These experiences helped to shape how he governs today. In a few days (Oct. 1-3) he will meet with the eight “outsider” cardinals he has appointed to help him reform the central bureaucracy of the Vatican. Now, he underscores the vital nature of wide consultation.

Throughout the interview, he repeatedly returns to his major theme: The Church needs to be with the poor. It needs to move out of its own self-concerns and bind up the wounds of those who are hurting.

“The thing the church needs most today,” the pope explains, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful. … I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

Later he returns to his love of the arts. “I love very much Dostoevsky,” and he elaborates how one of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems written for his grandmother’s birthday described how the pope felt as a young man about his own beloved grandmother Rosa.

He pours out his affection for other artists, “Among the great painters, I admire … Chagall, with his ‘White Crucifixion.’ Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnates est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God!”

His favorite film is “La Strada” by Fellini because of its implicit reference to St. Francis.

The arts are important, he explains, because they open up the human spirit. They reveal us to ourselves, so that we better grasp the mystery of God.

The conversation ebbs and flows, but it reaches its crescendo when he claims, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. … 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. … Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

The pope’s inspiration has offered a great moment for the renewal of spirit — a real sabbatical.

The Rev. Patrick J. Howell SJ, pastoral theologian at Seattle University, is on sabbatical at America magazine, a national Jesuit publication headquartered in New York City, as an interim associate editor until December.