Pope Francis: Building Bridges by Brother Paul Coleman to Catholic News World
“Mercy is the bridge that connects God and man” (Misericórdiæ vultus, 2)
You will sometimes hear the Pope being referred to as ‘the Pontiff’ (or even ‘the Supreme Pontiff’). This is a rendering in English of the Latin ‘Pontifex’, a title of the more important priests of pagan Rome. This title ended up also being applied to the more important Christian bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome. ‘Pontifex’ is usually thought to mean ‘bridge-maker’ (although even the ancient Romans couldn’t agree on its original meaning!) and I find it helpful to think of the Pope – the Pontiff – as being a bridge-maker.
In 2016, while Trump was still a presidential candidate, Pope Francis responded to a reporter’s question about Trump’s proposed border wall by suggesting that “a person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” People were so focused on the implied rebuke to Donald Trump that they missed a key positive element of the Pope’s approach to his ministry: building bridges. That’s not the only time that Pope Francis has used the concept.
Also in 2016, at World Youth Day in Krakow, Pope Francis with the young people prayed: “Launch us on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire…” And he invited the young people, “You are there, with your hands, make bridges, all of you! Take each other by the hand. I want to see lots of human bridges. … This is the plan for life: make bridges, human bridges." In 2019 the Pope said, “Religions, in a special way, cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures.” Likewise, speaking to Children's Catholic Action of Italy, he said, “Today [the Lord] asks you to be little 'bridges' where you live. You already realize there is always a need to build bridges, right?” Most recently, in 2020, the Pontiff addressed the Catholic Media Conference: “We need media capable of building bridges, defending life and breaking down the walls, visible and invisible, that prevent sincere dialogue and truthful communication between individuals and communities.” (message to 2020’s Catholic Media Conference, organised by the Catholic Press Association)
Let’s explore this metaphor: a bridge implies that there’s a separation, a gap that must be bridged. So in the context of the Pope’s ministry, bridges are for people who are separated in some way from Jesus or from the Catholic Church. This can mean those who are formally separated, such as Protestant Christians, people of other faiths, or atheists. But it can also mean those who are technically inside the Church, but feel separated or excluded from its mainstream. If we want people to come into the Church (and I hope we do) and if we want Catholics to be united in a healthy community (and I hope we do), then we need to provide a way across these separations. In other words, we need bridges.
Now it takes time to cross a bridge: depending on the size of the gap it may be a few steps or many, but it takes time. Likewise, we can’t expect people estranged from the Body of Christ to come in with just one step. So stepping onto the bridge doesn’t involve immediately becoming Catholic. Rather, it allows for a series of steps by which the person approaches and finally enters the Church.
Those who have come across the book ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ will be familiar with the ‘thresholds of conversion’. This is the idea, based on observation, that people pass through five stages or ‘thresholds’ when converting – it’s certainly not a one-step process! We won’t go into the thresholds in detail now: suffice to say that they are usually labelled as trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and intentional discipleship. If we apply this to the building-bridges metaphor, that means that constructing the first part of the bridge involves establishing a relationship of trust.
This concept of ‘building bridges’ is crucial to understanding Pope Francis in particular. Most importantly, it’s crucial to understanding those times when many Catholics have strongly objected to him. I have realised that most of the times he has been lambasted by elements within the Church it is when he’s trying to build bridges either with people outside the Church or with people who are in the Church but feel excluded or marginalised. When Catholics got upset about Amoris Laetitia it was because the Pope was building a bridge for divorced-and-remarried people (although that was only one of the subjects in Amoris Laetitia). When it was the joint statement with the Grand Imam, it was about building bridges with Muslims. When it was the Amazon Synod, it was about building bridges for Catholics in the remote regions of the Amazon, one of the more neglected corners of the global Church. Statements about civil arrangements for homosexual people and about their right to be in a family? Obviously building bridges between the Catholic Church and LGBT people who have felt rejected and excluded from it. Likewise, meeting and chatting with atheists has brought the Pope in for criticism.
Much of this criticism of Pope Francis has basically been because he doesn’t expect people to take all the steps at once. He does not, for example, see the need to immediately follow up a statement “God loves you”, with the statement “God doesn’t like what you’re doing” or “You need to repent and accept the Gospel.” In fact, if the first part of the bridge requires a relationship of trust, then immediately bringing in a challenging message could be ruinous. Many people need to see the message of God’s love demonstrated through the way Catholics treat them before they’re going to be ready to listen to anything else we say. Pope Francis gets this. He also recognises that building the bridge requires learning from the other people, learning what gifts they bring with them and (importantly) what hurts we might need to apologise for. But those who keep half an eye on Pope Francis will realise he’s also willing to say challenging things when he thinks it’s appropriate.
Pope Benedict was a bridge-builder as well and was likewise criticised for it; only in his case his bridge-building was interpreted as taking the Church in a more traditionalist direction. This was the case when he lifted the excommunications of the bishops of the SSPX, when he authorised the ‘Extraordinary Form’ of the Mass, or when he established the possibility of Ordinariates for Anglican converts. These actions were interpreted through the narrative of him as a ‘conservative’, whereas it seemed to me that he was being ‘liberal’ – in the sense that he was trying to make the Catholic Church a ‘broader’ Church that could include these people. He was building bridges, and it’s often unnoticed that Pope Francis has continued building those same bridges – for example with the SSPX (https://insidethevatican.com/news/pope-francis-meets-sspx-superior-general/ and https://www.gloria.tv/post/UQSBkni1bnxe32f4NhJHwXocM).
Both Popes have been criticised for this bridge-building by people within the Church, and I can understand why. I think we can be afraid of bridges because we realise that people can cross bridges in both directions. In other words, a bridge that people can cross to come into the Church also might provide a way for people to cross out of the Church. For example, a bridge for divorced Catholics to return to the sacraments might make other Catholics readier to divorce. Or building a friendly relationship between your Catholic parish and local Protestant churches might result in some Catholics joining those churches (who, let’s face it, are often better at evangelisation than we are).
Also, the person building the bridge has to go to meet other people where they are, and this makes it look as if he’s leaving his side of the chasm. But it’s more a case that he’s reaching across it. To switch to another and more Biblical metaphor, think of the shepherd who goes seeking the lost sheep. He has to leave the ninety-nine sheep while he goes off after the one. So when Pope Francis goes seeking the lost sheep, many of the ninety-nine – i.e. ‘normal’ Catholics – feel like he’s abandoning them, and even like he’s leaving the Church. In reality, of course, the Good Shepherd continues to care for the flock wherever He goes, and the same goes for those other good shepherds that follow His example. But to the casual eye it looks like they’re leaving the flock.
This fear can be exacerbated by the natural hopes of the other party. For example, Nancy Kelley, chief executive of UK gay rights charity Stonewall, having acknowledged that Pope Francis’s words help to “build bridges between the Catholic Church and LGBT people who have felt rejected and excluded from it,” then went on to add her hope that his words would “also move the Church to a place where our love is recognised as being as valid as any other.” This would feed into the fears of those who think that Pope Francis is in fact trying to change Church doctrine; but it’s part of befriending others that one can seem to become ‘one of them’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:20-22). That’s why Jesus Himself was criticised as being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
Then there’s also the risk that the other party will rebuff the bridge-building attempt: “At times, it may happen that you want to make a bridge and you offer your hand, but the other party does not take it; these are the humiliations that we must suffer in life in order to do good. But always make bridges” (Greetings to young Italians in Krakow, Poland, July 28, 2016).
And there can be the danger that the other party will act in bad faith. The most obvious example of this is the agreement with the Chinese government, which was intended to enable millions of Chinese believers to be openly in communion with the Catholic Church, but which seems to have tied the Vatican’s hands when it comes to addressing freedom of religion in China (https://cruxnow.com/cns/2020/12/last-hong-kong-governor-pope-badly-advised-on-china-bishops-pact/).
Finally, however, I think another reason that some people fear bridges is that they’re afraid the bridges will actually work. They’re afraid that Amazonian tribespeople, atheists, Muslims, gays, or even traditionalists will actually come into the Church. And that is dangerous, in a way, because even though they will be transformed in Christ as they enter, they won’t be transformed into copies of ‘normal’ Catholics. They will bring with them their ‘otherness’, which will change the Church and therefore also change us who are already part of it. This will actually make the Church more Catholic; but we all find change a bit scary.
So building bridges is risky. But we have to build them. The alternative is an isolated Church – a besieged fortress rather than the city with open gates that it’s supposed to be. Bridges are necessary for the salvation of souls and they’re necessary for peace on earth. If you don’t understand that, you won’t understand Pope Francis. He’s not going to stop building bridges and he’s willing to take the risks involved. Do his bridges always bring people to Jesus and into the Church? No. Does he always get the right balance between being gentle and being challenging? Probably not. But he, of all people, has to build bridges. You might say it’s in his job description.
Sent to Catholic News World by Brother Paul Coleman:
Biography: Brother Paul Coleman was born in Coventry in 1975. After studying chemistry at Oxford, he joined the Capuchin Franciscans, making his first vows in 2001 and being ordained a priest in 2006. Since then, Brother Paul has lived in Oxford, Toronto, Preston, London, Jerusalem, and now Pantasaph (a small village in North Wales).