Those who think Pope Francis' remarks about abortion, gay marriage and contraception last week signaled a radical departure from the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church are missing the point, Manchester's bishop said Saturday.
Bishop Peter Libasci, spiritual head of the Diocese of Manchester, said people need to read the entirety of the Pope's interview published in "America," a weekly Jesuit magazine, to truly understand the pontiff's message about mercy, forgiveness and salvation.
"What the Holy Father is doing in this interview, he's handing on traditional doctrine but in a way that may be more understood," Libasci said. "Unfortunately, some of it is misunderstood."
Short excerpts reported in the media last week paraphrased the Pope as saying the Catholic Church is "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception and needs to find "a new balance."
And some reports left out this comment: "The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
What Pope Francis said, in the wide-ranging and in-depth interview, was far more complex than what was widely reported, Libasci said.
"When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in context," he said. "And that context is a comprehensive dignity of human life."
And while such issues are important and church doctrine is unchanging, Libasci said, the Pope also wants to talk about poverty and other social ills.
Indeed, Pope Francis likened the Catholic church to a field hospital after battle: "I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity," he said.
"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
Bishop Libasci attended a New Hampshire Catholic Charities event on Friday, where some Catholics were reacting with alarm to news reports of what the Pope was supposed to have said. Libasci told them what he hopes pastors across New Hampshire will tell churchgoers today: "Read the entire article."
"Because it is a very, very important teaching about the mercy of God to be found in the church as a community."
The Rev. John "Don" Keegan, S.J., pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Milford, said on Friday he had only seen snippets of the interview, but planned to do more research and will be discussing the Pope's message during his weekend homily.
"Yes, I think I will be, because a lot of people will be wondering what's happening," he said.
Keegan, too, said he hopes the faithful will read the Pope's entire interview.
"Each one reads everything through our own prism, and I think the faithful will probably do the same, and some will be happy and some will misread what the Holy Father said," he said.
"He's saying look at the whole picture," he said. "The church, church people and church bishops need to be less focused on the three issues (abortion, gay marriage and contraception) he brought up ... and more focused on a universal acceptance of people."
The Pope was urging people to focus more on the mission of Jesus Christ and the church, Keegan said: "We will be united with the Lord and that He is the one who teaches us and guides us in every area of our lives."
Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, said on Friday, "I think it's wishful thinking from the abortion lobby that someday there's going to be a Pope who backtracks on abortion."
"I think it is very, very clear that the church is staying committed to an issue that is always central. It's just that he wants to underscore to the world at large that the Number 1 message of the church is grace," she said. "That's his job as the pastor of a worldwide flock."
Ashley Pratte, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research & Cornerstone Action, also commented on the buzz generated by the interview.
"While I appreciate the attention that the media is paying to Pope Francis' remarks, few are taking the time to understand what he actually said," Pratte said in a statement. "I agree with the Holy Father that the church needs to be a more vocal voice of love and compassion in a broken world, while remaining true to the values that it holds so dear."
The Pope did not say the church would turn away from its views on life or marriage, and nor will we," she said.
In the "America" interview, Pope Francis also talked about the proper role of bishops: "The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience so that no one is left behind."
"I think what we're supposed to is what so many of us have tried to do, and that is to be indeed with our people," Bishop Libasci said.
The Manchester bishop has taken that message to heart; he blessed ATVs - and even rode one - during Berlin's Jericho ATV Festival in July and was planning to attend Glendi in Manchester on Saturday.
"We have to be among the flock," Libasci said.To read the interview, click here.
email@example.com. Staff Reporter Michael Cousineau contributed to this story.