On Tuesday the Vatican released the transcript of a July 27 question-and-answer session Pope Francis held with the bishops of Poland during his recent trip to Krakow to preside over World Youth Day, and it’s rich in detail, running to almost 5,000 words.

(At the end Francis jokingly apologized for talking so much, suggesting he had been “betrayed by my Italian blood.”)

There are several fascinating nuggets, including:

  • Francis’ reflection on what he sees as a contemporary form of Gnosticism that seeks to separate the individual from the community, especially the Church.
  • His fiery rejection of “ideological colonization,” especially the promotion among children of the theory that people are free to choose their own gender.
  • His insistence that the roots of the contemporary refugee crisis are in wars driven by financial interests.
  • The pontiff’s ringing defense of the parish as the basis of ecclesiastical life, that must not be “thrown out the window.”
  • Francis’ call to treasure the elderly, the “grandpas and grandmas” of society, as the “memory of a people.”

At the big-picture level, however, perhaps what’s most fascinating is the alternative way of reading the “progressive” social and ecclesial agenda that’s been associated with Francis since the beginning of his papacy.

Clearly, Francis has shifted the focus away from the “wars of culture” in the West and open confrontation with secularism, towards a more pastoral and social action-oriented approach. In the eyes of some observers – including, it has to be said, some senior Churchmen – that’s risked confusion about Catholic doctrine and the traditional spiritual pillars of the faith, opening the door to ever-greater capitulation to secularism.

What becomes clear listening to Francis speak to the Polish bishops, however, is that seen through his eyes, the aim isn’t giving in to secularization – it’s staging the battle on a different field, away from abstract debates towards hands-on pastoral proximity – what Francis likes to call vicinanza, “closeness” – especially to people in greatest difficulty.

Though he doesn’t quite put it like this, the idea seems to be that the right way to resist secularism and to win souls isn’t to prevail in intellectual arguments, but to “out-love” the opponents of the faith and thereby draw people to the Church.

There are several places in the text where, if one hadn’t paid careful attention to the header, it would be tempting to think this was actually a transcript of Pope Benedict XVI. That’s especially true of Francis’ diagnosis of Gnosticism and Pelagianism as the most worrying contemporary heresies, and his insistence that neither God can be found without Christ nor Christ without the Church.

Indeed, Francis cites Benedict XVI in speaking to the Polish bishops, assuring them he’s fine and has a “clear mind.” He said Benedict once told him, “this is the epoch of sin against God the Creator.”

“God created us as man and woman; God made the world this way, this way, this way … and, we’re doing the opposite,” Francis said.

“God gave an ‘uncultivated’ state, so that we could create culture,” he said. “Now, with this culture, we’re doing things that take us back to the ‘uncultivated’ state.”

In response to all this, Francis lays out a strategy of “closeness,” an open-door policy for the Church, and concrete acts of mercy and social concern.

“What comes to mind – but I believe this in the practice of the Gospel, where the teaching of the Lord is precisely closeness,” he said. “Today, we servants of the Lord – bishops, priests, religious men and women, convinced laity – have to be close to the people of God.”

Without closesness, he said, “it’s all just words without flesh.”

Francis told the story of an 83-year-old Italian nun he met on a recent trip to Africa who lives in Congo but still, despite her advanced age, takes a canoe, by herself, to serve as a nurse in the war-torn Central African Republic.

Missionaries like this sister, Francis said, have given their lives to “touch the flesh of Christ.”

He gave another example of priests from Argentina who attacked the problem of young couples not being able to afford both a civil and a religious wedding by agreeing to be standing by in church immediately after their civil ceremony, so they wouldn’t have to stage two different celebrations.

From there, he urged priests to be close to the people of their parishes, for instance spending time in confessionals, and bishops to be close to their priests. He even offered the practical tip to bishops that if one of their priests leaves a phone message, he should get a call-back that night or the next day.

Francis also called on parishes to be genuinely open, criticizing, for example, practices that make it difficult or overly expensive for young couples to marry in church.

He offered some of his trademark social commentary, denouncing an overly “liquid” economy not rooted in concern for the human consequences of transactions. He once again referred to a “piecemeal third world war,” which he believes is being driven by financial interests such as the arms trade.

He also complained of high youth unemployment rates, and, in a familiar refrain, called for policies of greater welcome and compassion for migrants and refugees.

In all these areas, he called on the Church to get out and “do things so that human dignity grows.”

Perhaps the key line of the text came towards the end:

“We have to confront today’s religious illiteracy with three languages – the language of the mind, the heart and the hands,” he said, “all three together harmonically.”

What all this suggests is the overly simplistic nature of contrasts between Benedict XVI as a defender of “tradition,” and Francis as an apostle of “reform.”

If it wasn’t clear already, it seems from Francis’ remarks that, at the big-picture level, he’s fairly traditional himself in terms of his basic convictions, including his attitudes about the Church. It’s certainly not that Francis doesn’t grasp the threat posed by aggressive secularism.

The difference is perhaps better understood as one of emphasis – Benedict is more about the language of the mind, Francis that of the hands. Both, of course, speak the language of the heart, each in his own way.