Pope Francis continues to surprise. This week, the surprise is his thoughtful message to an atheist journalist—and through him, to all unbelievers.
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On July 7, 2013, prominent Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist, wrote an article in the center-left newspaper La Repubblica challenging Pope Francis to explain some key points in the Scriptures. On August 7, Scalfari continued that line of questioning.
“I do not think he will respond,” said Scalfari. He was writing not as a journalist, he emphasized, but “as an unbeliever who has for many years been concerned and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and of Joseph, Jew of the lineage of David.” In his two lengthy columns, Scalfari delved into Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith), the first encyclical to be released by Pope Francis; and his questions stemmed from that reading.
In his first column, Scalfari struggled with the notion of “faith”—what it is, and how to discern among the different faith claims presented by Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
The second column continues Scalfari’s reflection on Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, and the author poses three questions for Pope Francis:
The Unbeliever and Sin – First, if a person does not have faith and commits what the Church calls a “sin”, will that person be forgiven by the Christian God?
The Unbeliever and Truth – Secondly, whereas the believer accepts revealed truth, the nonbeliever thinks that there is no absolute truth, but only a series of relative, subjective “truths.” Does the Church consider this way of thinking a sin, or only an unfortunate mistake?
The End of Thought, the End of God, the End of Love – Third, Scalfari recalls Pope Francis’ words during his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day, remarking that our species will perish like all things which have a beginning and an end. Scalfari believes that, too—but believes that with the disappearance of our species, the thought capable of reflecting on God will disappear, and with it, love will also disappear.
Well, surprise, Dr. Scalfari!
On Monday Pope Francis did, in fact, respond to the columns with his own 2,500-word essay on faith and conscience, which was published on the front page of La Repubblica.
Pope Francis spoke of truth:
To begin with, I would not speak, not even to those who believe, the “absolute” truth…. Now, the truth, according to Christian belief, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. So, the truth is a relationship! So much so that each of us takes, the truth, and expresses it from itself, from its history and culture, from the situation in which he lives, etc.
He spoke of forgiveness: To the 89-year-old Scalfari’s question of whether someone without faith who commits a sin would find God’s forgiveness, Pope Francis responded:
“God forgives those who follow their conscience.”
The Pope explained how he had found his way to faith in his own life, and he invited Dr. Scalfari to walk with him, to talk openly about life and about the existence of God:
Faith, to me, was born from a personal encounter with Jesus, who has touched my heart and given a new meaning to my existence. But at the same time [this] was made possible by the community of faith in which I lived and through which I found access to the intelligence of Sacred Scripture, the new life that flows like water gushing from Jesus through the sacraments, the fraternity with all the service of the poor, a true image of the Lord.
Without the Church—believe me—I would not have been able to meet Jesus, while being aware that the immense gift which is faith is preserved in the fragile clay pots of our humanity.
Now, it is precisely from here, from this personal experience of lived faith in the Church, that I am comfortable in listening to your questions and to seek, together with you, the streets along which we can perhaps begin to make a little way together.
The Holy Father explained gently that God is not dependent on us for His existence, and that life for man does not end at death. And then, most poignantly, the pope invited Scalfari to continue an open dialogue on faith.
Dear Dr. Scalfari, so I conclude my reflections…. Welcome them as the answer tentative and provisional, but sincere and trusting, I have seen the invitation to make a road together.
The Church, believe me, despite all the delays, infidelities, mistakes and sins which it may have committed and can still commit in those who compose it, has no other meaning and purpose than to live and bear witness to Jeus: He who was sent from Abba “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
With fraternal closeness,
There is much to take from the full letter, which you can read the letter in its entirety here. It is published in Italian, but can be easily translated on-line.