Soccer as a theological question: On the Pope’s return from Myanmar and Bangladesh

What struck me about this particular interview, given this past Saturday, was the lack of any mention of the need of sacraments, of transcendent concerns, salvation, or redemption.

Pope Francis pauses as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Rome Dec. 2. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“I always have the habit that five minutes before the ordination, I speak with them (about to be ordained) in private. And to me they calm, serene, aware. They were aware of their mission. Normal, normal. A question that I asked then: do you play soccer? Yes, all of them. It’s important. A theological question.” — Pope Francis, Interview on Return Flight, December 2, 2017.

“First distinction: Evangelization is not proselytism. The Church grows not for proselytism but for attraction that is for testimony, this was said by Pope Benedict XVI. What is evangelization like? Living the Gospel and bearing witness to how one lives the Gospel, witnessing to the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25…but we are not very enthusiastic to make conversions immediately. If they come, they wait; you speak your tradition…seeking that a conversion be the answer to something that the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart before the witness of the Christians.” — Pope Francis, Return Flight.

I.

On the hour-long return interview during his flight from Bangladesh to Rome in early December, Pope Francis answered some twelve questions from various reporters. Unlike his famous return flight from Rio, there were no memorable remarks like “Who am I to judge?” But some revealing responses bear reflection.

Perhaps the most memorable comment about the character of Pope Bergoglio took place after the inter-faith prayer session. The participants then lined up to greet the Pope individually. He did not “like that. One, the other…but they (the organizers) immediately wanted to send them away from the scene and I got mad and chewed them out a bit. I’m a sinner. I told them so many times ‘Respect, respect.’ Stay there, and they stayed.” I have noticed that in recent condemnations of various public sins, the word, “respect”, functions as the key “moral” word. It has the advantage of not naming any reason why this “respect” is offered.

The very first question came from a Spanish reporter. Some had questioned the Pope’s judgment in not mentioning the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim people, eight hundred thousand of whom had recently been expelled en masse from Buddhist Myanmar. The Pope’s response was interesting. He eventually met some of these people in Bangladesh to where they fled. But to bring the issue up in Myanmar would do no good. He thought it better to speak of these things in private.

In a way, this is Pius XII and the Jews or Benedict XVI and the Muslims all over again. How does one speak of these issues without making them worse? “Often denouncements, also in the media, but I don’t want to offend with some aggressive tactics close the dialogue, close the doors and the message doesn’t arrive.”

An Indian journalist wanted to know why the Pope did not visit India. The Holy Father responded that he had thought about it, but India is such a vast country and the time was short. It was best to wait till he could visit all parts of India.

The Pope’s notion of evangelizing and not proselytizing was touched on in one of the initial citations above. It comes up in earlier papal discourses. Pope Francis recalls a conversation he had at World Youth Day in Krakow. A young student wanted to know what he should say to “convert” his atheist classmate. The Pope answered: “The last thing you have to do is say something.” Just give a good example and the Holy Spirit will do the basic work. “It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reason; it is the Spirit that makes the vocation.”

On reading this passage, of course, most will recognize that need of the Holy Spirit to grace us to the level to which we are called. Yet, we also remember Paul’s “faith comes by hearing” and Peter’s telling us to have a “reason” for our faith when questioned. Many a convert in recent decades, if not throughout the ages, came to the faith first through the mind. It would be difficult to read Augustine, for instance, any other way. He found the Word in the Platonists, but not the Word made flesh, as he tells us.

Benedict’s whole lecture at Regensburg is precisely on the centrality of intelligence in faith. Few doubt the value of good example, the “see how they love one another” principle. How would one read the First Letter of John or Paul’s Epistle to the Romans without attending to the fact that revelation directs itself to the mind? Aquinas’s Summa theologiae has some ten thousand queries about the intelligence of this or that element of the faith. While it is true that Luther is said to have burnt his copy of this work, it is also true that most of its readers have been grateful for teaching us just how reason expands and explains what revelation teaches us. We do not all need the Summae to come to the faith, but many of us do and once having it, have kep it.

Actually, I do not think that the Holy Father is as anti-intellectual as he sometimes pretends to be. Anyone who has read Amoris Laetitia or Laudato si’ will recognize that they are filled with arguments about this or that sundry aspect of social policy that intends to be persuasive.

II.

A man from the National Catholic Reporter wanted to know about Francis’ views on nuclear weapons. The Pope has an “opinion”. It is that they are not licit. He cites as reasons environmental concerns and their destructive capabilities. The response does not go into any realism about deterrence, about whether there is a difference between those who seek to use them morally and those who might not.

So what happens if all the good guys declare bombs illicit? Most people would say that the bad guys win by default. Logically, this view implied that to be licit we must bow to the man with the most power. This view is that of Hobbes and Machiavelli. Now that they are invented, we cannot think out of existence the possibility of such weapons. Not all wars are illicit, nor are all nuclear weapons unlimited in scope and effectiveness. If the North Korea of today were alone in the possession of nuclear weapons, would we be secure?

The lady from CNN tried to prod the Pope about his first visiting with the Myanmar strong man, General Haling, before he visited the Head of State. The implication was that the Pope yielded first to power. The Pope replied it was simply a matter of courtesy. The general had a trip to China scheduled and needed to leave early. But the Pope admitted: “Clever, that question.”

The man from America magazine wanted to know more about the Rohingya situation. He cited without comment a UN report that claimed these were the most persecuted people on earth. With so much persecution of Christians in Muslim lands, it seems strange that the Pope did not at least mention, as he does elsewhere, our many, many persecuted brethren over the past decades and who persecutes them.

A gentleman from one of the Italian television networks brought up the topic of the economic development of Bangladesh. He notes their efforts to get out of poverty, but often with means that do not work. He also noted the efforts of Muslim radicals to infiltrate this Rohingya movement. The Pope mentions that all religions have their fundamentalists, including Catholics. He does not mention any names. “I try to speak with the victims.” The local government has no tolerance for terrorists. Members of ISIS are just “fundamentalist extremists.” The real question that ISIS brings up, however, is whether they do not read the Qur’an correctly. In this sense, they may be more realist than the so-called moderates.

The reporter from Le Figaro wanted to know whether the Pope was planning to go to China, especially as all the nations around it are influenced by it. The Pope said he would love to go to China. This is a traveling Pope, for sure! But there are no immediate plans. The patriotic and underground churches present problems.

The question about the seminarians going to be ordained came up in the context of whether these young were fearful of the step in such a country. The Pope did not think they were. He then gives a curious rationale for their apostolate: “They (the seminarians) know that they must be close to the people, that, yes, they feel attached to the people and I liked this.” This sounds like a page right out of a liberation theology textbook.

The Pope affirms that he likes it “when I am able to meet the people of the country, the People of God, when I am able to speak, to meet with them and greets them, the encounters with the people.” There are encounters with politicians, priests, bishops, and the people.

Though it is not the same in the homilies in Santa Marta, what struck me about this particular interview was the lack of any mention of the need of sacraments, of transcendent concerns, salvation, or redemption. There was no need really of intelligence. We only require examples of the social virtues that are said to move souls in the Spirit. Not every base, of course, can be covered in every interview. When the disciples were sent forth to teach all nations, not a few in most of the nations probably did want to know why what was being preached to them, what they were listening to, was true.

As to what kind of theological problem the playing of soccer presents, Pope Francis did not tell us here. I have long thought, with Aristotle, that beholding good games, including soccer, was the nearest that most young men come to learning what contemplation for its own sake means. I learned this, of course, from Aristotle, a Greek philosopher. But much of it, as Josef Pieper pointed out, is also in the Book of Wisdom. Many young atheists are not moved by our good examples. Still, not a few are given pause by our metaphysics, which is something emphasized in Fides et Ratio. “It should be stressed,” wrote St. Pope John Paul II,

that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person—what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them. (Fides et Ratio, 32)

About James V. Schall, S.J. 160 Articles

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.

3 Comments

  1. This Pope means well, but too often he sounds like the head of the United Nations and he also seems to be concerned about the needs of the Muslims over the Christians or the Jews. My question how does he or will he work to update the Church, fill the Churches again and make the Catholic Church a vibrant member of society in those many places where it is dying and no one seems to worry about this.

  2. More meaningless jesuit-speak from a bishop who is thoroughly embarrassed by many traditions and truths of the Catholic faith.
    A mere shadow of his two predecessors. And that is being generous.

  3. “The Pope’s notion of evangelizing and not proselytizing was touched on in one of the initial citations above. It comes up in earlier papal discourses. Pope Francis recalls a conversation he had at World Youth Day in Krakow. A young student wanted to know what he should say to “convert” his atheist classmate. The Pope answered: “The last thing you have to do is say something.” Just give a good example and the Holy Spirit will do the basic work. “It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reason; it is the Spirit that makes the vocation.””

    How many souls did Jorge Bergoglio, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, immediately convert when he was a Jesuit? An archbishop?

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