I recently wrote a column in which I reflected upon Pope Francis' frequent use of public transportation, especially the subway, when he was Archbishop of Argentina. It appears that the subway gave him time to reflect as well as to travel to the peripheries of both territory and human nature of which he is so fond of speaking. It is interesting to note that, before his papal election, Pope Francis rarely traveled outside the Archdiocese of Argentina and made very few trips even to Rome. In fact, he was not fond of traveling and rarely used an airplane. It is also a fact that he was not very fond of speaking to the press and avoided it as much as possible.
The papacy has brought Pope Francis to peripheries which he never expected in his own life. One is obviously being the successor of St. Peter which has brought a whole new challenge in terms of his outreach to not just one diocese but to all the dioceses of the world. This has dramatically affected Pope Francis’ method of travel. While he does not seem to have yet been on any subway, he has much more frequently been traveling by plane, which he previously avoided. As he used to be seen carrying his small briefcase on the subway, he is now seen carrying a similar one as he walks up the airplane stairs. His new ministry has also brought him into much more speaking with the press which he also tried to avoid. Pope Francis has demonstrated that the grace of God always meets the situation at hand and works in wonderful ways in those who are willing to cooperate with it.
Pope Francis' more frequent use of air travel seems to have given him a greater freedom in expressing himself which is so necessary to his ministry. The periphery of air travel away from the earth seems to enable him to be even more in touch with a heavenly focus. It is on his flights that he frequently holds press conferences and many times says things that are quoted around the world which wake up people's consciousness and often challenge the peripheries in ways the Pope may not even expect.
In his first papal flight in July 2013 to Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis spoke of his dislike for doing media interviews. He told the press on the plane, "Really, I don't give interviews. But I don't know why. I can't, that's just how it is. I find it a bit tiresome, but I'm grateful for your company." It appeared that he was not concerned of ending a tradition which his pope predecessors had of taking questions from reporters on papal flights. However, on the return trip from Brazil to Rome, Pope Francis ventured on a new path for him of dealing with the press by taking questions from the journalists and answering every one which was posed to him in an eighty minute session. It was on this occasion that he uttered the famous but misunderstood phrase, "Who am I to judge?" The Pope went from being a pastor who never liked media interviews to becoming the most interviewed Pope in history. He admitted to the journalists on his flight back from Peru just last month that he disliked giving press interviews but joked, "And look at the job God has given me now."
On his recent flight from Chile, Pope Francis portrayed another aspect of his being at home above the earth when he married a couple aboard the plane. He joined in marriage two flight attendants. The attendants had planned on a church wedding some eight years previous but did not follow through with it because an earthquake destroyed the church building in which they were to be married. They got married civilly, but never before a priest. The Pope used the opportunity to speak with the couple, and after carefully ascertaining their readiness, proper disposition, freedom and sacramental readiness for marriage, performed the sacramental rite for them in the air. He was acting in a pastoral manner in what he judged to be in the best interests of the couple as well as an effective catechesis to the world on the importance of the Sacrament of Marriage.
His well-intentioned and perfectly valid action brought some misunderstanding, questions and confusion as, at the same time it brought more affirmation in regard to Pope Francis' pastoral solicitude and spontaneity. This caused him to clarify that his intention was to point out to the whole world the sanctity and importance of marriage in an age which is losing that value. He explained that his intention was not to give the impression that marriage should take place outside of a church or that couples can be married on cruises or amusement parks. He explained that priests must be personally involved with couples in giving them careful marriage instruction. However, the case of the couple before him merited his attention because he judged them to be so well disposed and, since they were already civilly married, he also judged that to marry them on the plane was a public proclamation of the sanctity of marriage from the skies for all the world to appreciate. The Pope rightly made the decision that, as the supreme Pastor of the Church, he can dispense and do things that might not be feasible to other pastors.
Pope Francis has made marriage and family life one of the priorities of his Papacy from the very beginning. We have witnessed him actively involved with marrying couples in Rome and in giving catechesis on the importance of marriage as participating in the very life of God Himself. His first synod was called to reflect upon marriage and family life and resulted in his outstanding Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia – The Joy of Love. This presentation of the Holy Father in regard to the authentic teaching of the Church on marriage and family life is a wonderful document which helps us all to understand the meaning of love as the very nature of God, as well as the purpose of marriage and family life as an intimate participation in that love.
As with the Pope's marriage of the couple on the plane, it is unfortunate that misunderstanding of Amoris Laetitia has caused unfounded critique. Amoris Laetitia is a clear and affirming presentation of the Church’s constant teaching on the nature of marriage as an indissoluble relationship between a man and a woman through which the gift of life is brought into the world. A reading of the document shows how much it is consistent with the teaching of St. John Paul II especially in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. There is nothing novel in Amoris Laetitia which is not in keeping with the constant teaching of the Church in regard to marriage and family life. If anything, it is a strong affirmation of this teaching in a manner that encourages its reception. While Pope Francis rightly acknowledges the failure of human nature in a manner that calls for the accompanying of those who find themselves in difficult situations, as he did with the couple on the plane, he does not, in any manner, intend to verge from the Church’s teaching in regard to the sanctity of marriage. If anything, he is encouraging Catholics to accept and be faithful to this teaching even in difficult times. This is precisely what the Pope was teaching to all of the world from the plane.
We have been very blessed with the outreach of faith and love which Pope Francis continues to pour out upon the Church in every situation he is in. From the subway to the plane, he responds to God's call in ways that make clear that the Gospel of Christ is always present among us and changes our lives in radical ways we may never even expect. Pope Francis obviously is filled with joy because he lives his call to the fullest and calls out to each of us, "Come fly with me!"
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 9, 2018