Popes answer questions. It is the office of any bishop, but especially the Bishop of Rome, to teach the Faith. And the office of teaching, which is a share in the prophetic office of Christ (munus docendi) involves answering the most difficult questions concerning revelation, theology, and the sound application of Church teaching in a world fraught with complexity and confusion.
Pope Francis not only answers questions. He provokes questions, often in startling and challenging ways. Such was the case, for example, earlier this year when media outlets worldwide reported that the Holy Father had expressed support for “civil unions” for same-sex couples.
Oceans of ink were spilled reporting this news, criticizing Pope Francis, defending Pope Francis, applauding Pope Francis, correcting the news reports, with particular criticism aimed at the translation of the Pope’s words from the original Spanish, countering the assertion of a bad translation, criticizing critics of Pope Francis, and criticizing those who criticize critics of the Pope. Have I missed anything?
Whatever else there is to say about the Holy Father’s exercise of his teaching office, it raises an old and important question about the role of the shepherds of the Church, from the pope on down to the most humble priests and their collaborators in various ministries. The question concerns the very essence of the ministry of a shepherd: What does it mean to be “pastoral”?
Whatever Pope Francis said and meant on any given occasion, he undoubtedly strives at all times to be pastoral, to serve a wounded world by offering the love, wisdom, and practical help of Christ and his Church. When and to what degree the Holy Father or any bishop or priest achieves his aim of offering pastoral care is another question. Desire and achievement are not the same thing.
A strange and difficult time such as we are currently living through has a way of drawing our minds to the fundamentals of the Christian life. The word “pastoral,” though fundamental in the Church’s lexicon, is one of the most often misused words among Catholics. And misuse of this word disfigures the pastoral ministry of the Church, by which God’s flock ought to be led to the “verdant pastures” (Psalm 23) of eternal life.
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