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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published September 19 2013

Local Catholic officials say pope's message not new

GRAND FORKS – Officials of two Catholic dioceses based in Crookston and Fargo said Thursday that news accounts of Pope Francis’ unusually blunt criticism of the church have missed the point.

The secular news media reported on a lengthy interview the pope had with a Catholic journalist in Rome in which he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

But, taken in context, the pope isn’t saying anything new or at odds with church teaching, according to the Rev. Luke Meyer, chancellor for the Fargo diocese, and Monsignor David Baumgartner, vicar general for the Crookston diocese.

Both men said Thursday that news accounts of the pope often miss the main message and distort elements of what he said.

“What he is emphasizing is that we don’t start with the whole system of morality as a starting point when evangelizing, or sharing the gospel,” Meyer said. “He is emphasizing that we start with the person of Jesus and His freely offered mercy and grace and then we dig into what it means to live with Him. That’s what the media missed.”

The interview was conducted in Italian on behalf of several major Jesuit journals around the world, including the American journal “America.” The latter commissioned experts to translate Pope Francis’ words into English, publishing them online.

Context matters

Another quote the secular news media focused on was this one: “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

“(I)n its context, the Holy Father is talking about the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Baumgartner said in an email. The pope was saying that if a preacher “focuses on moral teachings so exclusively that the mercy and love of the Lord is neglected or even omitted from the message, then the proclamation is incomplete, perhaps so much so that it will fail.”

“This is not to say, nor does the Holy Father say, that he intends to set aside the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding abortion, contraception, or sexual morality,” Baumgartner said.

“The media likes to just take a couple words, out of context, but fail to give the context of even the sentence, or a paragraph or the entire interview,” Meyer said.

For example, the news media harps on “discontinuity” between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Meyer said. But it’s telling that Francis’ first letter was one mostly written by Benedict, which Francis made a point of signing on to, literally, to show the close agreement between the two pontiffs, he said.

“I think in all of this the media gets obsessed with any talk he gives about moral issues but the substance of what he’s saying is all about the beautiful stuff on prayer and encountering the person of Jesus and they miss all of that,” Meyer said.

Kelsey Kaufman, a FOCUS missionary stationed at the St. Paul's Newman Center on the North Dakota State University campus, had not yet read the full interview with Pope Francis on Thursday, but said he makes a good point stating that the focus of the church should not solely be on hot button issues.

“Those issues shouldn't be ignored, but they should be discussed in light of the gospel,” Kaufman said.

While the comments of Pope Francis were still making its way into discussions of Fargo-Moorhead Catholics on Thursday, Kaufman said Pope Francis's inclusive efforts since taking office six months ago have had an effect.

“He is breaking down a lot of walls between different groups of people and he is opening up dialogue,” the third-year missionary said. “I do know that hearts are changing a lot.

“I can definitely see their hearts warming back up to the idea of the church and not being so hostile,” she said “I have seen that among adults, middle aged adults.”

To read the “America” interview, go to americamagazine.org/pope-interview.

Forum reporter Wendy Reuer

contributed to this article.