Pope Francis’ meeting with President Barack Obama Thursday was significant for highlighting sensitive issues related to life and religious freedom.
But it may also point to a change in the Pope’s willingness to be more vocal and forward about such contentious subjects in the near future.
The Vatican’s statement on the meeting stressed that, as well as conflict resolution, human trafficking and immigration reform, life, religious freedom, and conscientious objection were explicitly mentioned as subjects of discussion.
Although the issues arose due to strong differences between the administration and the church over the HHS mandate, it was the first time the Pope had given such attention to these issues on such a high profile occasion, one guaranteed to attract widespread publicity.
President Obama appeared to downplay it, telling reporters later that day that very little time was spent on “social schisms” and that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t touched on “in detail.” He said he “briefly” discussed the issues conscience rights and religious freedom with the Pope, but in a separate meeting, with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Unhappily for the administration, the Vatican statement made no mention of concerns over income inequality or poverty, thereby departing from the script the Obama administration had been carefully orchestrating. Leading up to Thursday’s audience, through use of the media it had tried hard to align the president’s policies on combating income inequality with the concerns of Pope Francis for the poor, clearly hoping it would be a focus of the meeting and underlining a key area of convergence. Obama said it was discussed, but it wasn’t mentioned in the Vatican statement.
Naturally poverty is of “common concern, as it is to everyone,” a Vatican source told Newsmax on condition of anonymity, but he added that the Pope and Obama have “different approaches” on how to tackle it. For the Pope, what’s important “are people first and foremost, not poverty per se,” he said.
In fact, the Vatican statement contained few words on perceived commonalities between the U.S. and the Holy See — in contrast to the Holy See’s usual statements on papal meetings with world leaders which tend to be top-heavy on areas of agreement.
Massimo Franco, an expert on Vatican-U.S. relations and author of “Parallel Empires — The Vatican and the United States — Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict,” expected differences would be raised and mentioned publicly, but he thinks it is quite significant that poverty was omitted by the Vatican and yet trumpeted by Obama.
“Wealth inequality is undoubtedly common ground between the Democratic administration and the Pope and U.S. Catholic Bishops,” he said. “But clearly, past tensions still loom.”
Francis has alluded to fundamental issues related to life before, often repeating his condemnation of abortion as a symptom of a “throwaway culture.” But he’s made the comment on relatively low-profile occasions and is on record as saying they don’t need to be addressed “all the time.”
But now he may, as has long been predicted, be raising his voice on such issues as abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
Parish priests used to be advised to refrain from tackling problems until one year since arriving in a parish had passed. Some observers believe Pope Francis, whose pastoral skills have led him to be labelled a “papal parish priest” and who commemorated his first year as Pontiff on March 19th, is possibly following the same advice.
Franco takes a different view, and believes the reason for the Vatican statement’s focus on these contentious issues is that the Holy See “is already looking at a post-Obama U.S.” He believes that, as a Latin American, “Francis is not so anxious to please the White House knowing that many bishops are sceptical about its domestic agenda.”
It does appear, however, that, with his extraordinary popularity worldwide providing the Pope with great influence, those opposed to the church’s teaching on these issues are becoming increasingly worried.
One example could be seen on the day of the audience when dissident group ‘Catholics for Choice’ took out a full-page ad in the New York Times telling Obama to ignore the Pope on questions of sexual morality.
Francis “seems like a very nice man, and he is our spiritual leader, but not our political leader,” the ad read, adding that he has an “interpretation of church teachings” on sexual morality that “does not represent that of the majority of Catholics.”
The tide may therefore be turning at a time when Pope Francis is becoming more vocal in bringing these crucial, non-negotiable teachings of the Catholic Church to public attention.
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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis discussed the right to religious freedom, life, conscientious objection and conflict resolution with President Barack Obama today.
The 52-minute meeting in the library of the apostolic palace was “cordial,” the Vatican said in a statement, and views were exchanged “on some current international themes.”
“In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between church and state, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance of the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform,” the statement said.
It also said it was “hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved,” but it did not specify any particular conflicts.
Finally, it concluded, “the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”
A ‘Great Admirer’
On meeting the Holy Father for the first time, Obama said: “How are you? Wonderful meeting you; thank you so much for receiving me.” The president said it was a “great honor” to meet Pope Francis, adding that he is a “great admirer.”
The president also extended the greetings of his family, observing, “The last time I came to meet your predecessor, I was able to bring my wife and children.” Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI in July 2009.
Obama gave the Holy Father a variety of seeds planted in the White House Gardens, housed in a custom-made seed chest that was made from wood reclaimed from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.
The cornerstone of the Baltimore basilica, the White House pointed out, was laid by John Carroll, a Jesuit and the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.
The seeds, which will produce fruits and vegetables, were chosen in celebration of the recent opening to the public of the Pontifical Gardens at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. The gift, the White House said, “honors the commitment of Your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations.”
In addition, the White House said a private donation of seeds “will be given to a charity in honor of Your Holiness,” and they will “yield several tons of fresh produce.”
Presenting the seeds to the Pope, Obama explained that each box contained a different seed. If the Pope “had the chance to come to the White House,” he could see the garden for himself, Obama added. Francis replied in Spanish: “Why not?”
For his part, Pope Francis presented the president with two bronze medals. One, called the “Medallion With an Angel — Solidarity and Peace,” depicts an angel, mystical in appearance, embracing and bringing together the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth, while overcoming the opposition of a dragon.
“The figure of the angel illustrates contemporary challenges: bringing the world’s northern and southern regions together and harmonizing them, while combating all disruptive forces, such as exploitation, intransigent opposition, new forms of colonialism, indifference, mistrust and prejudice,” the Vatican explained in an accompanying note.
The second medal commemorates the 1657 laying of the first stone of the north colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the one nearest the apostolic palace. “The medal bears witness to the original project of Bernini, which provided for a third colonnade, never built, which would have enclosed the square,” the Vatican said.
Presidential Reading Material
The Pope also presented the president with a bound copy of his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). “You know, I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it’ll give me strength and calm me down.” The Pope simply replied: “I hope.”
In the public moments of the meeting, Pope Francis mostly had a serious demeanor and smiled little, in contrast to some of his previous and recent meetings with heads of state, although reporters present said the meeting was “good-humored.”
Among those in the presidential delegation were Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett.
As he left, Obama joked with the Holy Father’s interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, saying, “His Holiness is probably the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me.”
“Muchas gracias,” Obama said on leaving. “Please pray for me and my family. They are with me on this journey [of life], and my girls and wife have to put up with me.”
After bidding farewell, the president and his advisers met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations With States Archbishop Dominique Mamberti for talks that lasted 30 minutes.
“So nice to see you,” the president said to the senior Vatican officials. “It’s wonderful to be here.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
The following is a Register interview with Marie Collins, recently appointed to pontifical commission on child abuse.
A four day conference for bishops and religious superiors on sexual abuse wrapped up in Rome today. Entitled “Towards Healing and Renewal” it was attended by over 140 participants including a large number of experts on the issue as well as the Vatican’s top prosecutor in sex-abuse cases, Msgr. Charles Scicluna.
In a forthright speech, the promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denounced a “deadly culture of silence or omerta”, stressed that bishops who covered up evidence of abuse were guilty of ecclesiastical crimes, and that canon law doesn’t need to be changed but rather properly applied. Although he noted that only the Pope has the authority to discipline bishops, he suggested that apostolic nuncios should help him take action.
The speech was warmly welcomed, especially by Marie Collins who spoke about being abused by a priest when she was just 13 and while ill in hospital in Ireland. She gave her reflections to the Register on the conference and how hopeful she is that the symposium marked a new beginning for the Church on the crime of sexual abuse of minors.
What has been your assessment of the conference?
I came with an open mind, not really knowing whether it was going to be just an exercise in public relations, but I have been impressed by what I’ve seen and heard. I have been particularly impressed by Msgr. [Charles] Scicluna. Listening to him speak to the bishops yesterday, there could be no one in that room left in any doubt as to how they should be dealing with this whole crisis, how they should be dealing with survivors, and how they should be dealing with perpetrators. That was music to my ears as a survivor – to hear it spelled out like that from someone in his position in the Vatican who can actually implement what he’s saying.
The criticism in the past has been that sanctions haven’t been enforced. How confident are you, after hearing his speech and this conference, that they now will be?
Because of the past, it’s very hard to be 100 percent hopeful, and trust 100 percent it will be followed up. What he said is so important. One of my questions early on in the symposium was that if you’re bringing in these guidelines round the world which each bishops’ conference has been asked to do, there’s no point in having them unless there are some sanctions for a bishop if he ignores them. We’ve seen that in my own country, of bishops ignoring child protection guidelines. So when I heard him say there are canonical penalties which can be used to sanction bishops but they haven’t been used, I think what he was saying is that they are going to be used.
Possibly, as Msgr. Scicluna said, through the nuncio?
Yes. If that actually happens then we’re in a whole different situation than we’ve been in up to now. The problem is they have been so long getting to this point. I think they’re now realizing that this is not going away, this is going to stay with them, and countries which haven’t had the problem so far probably will. I was heartened watching various bishops’ reactions, especially those from countries where they haven’t had the problem. Some of them started the week thinking this really wasn’t something they needed to worry about, but as the week went on, I found them becoming – you could even see it through their questions – realizing this is something we’ve got to give a lot of thought to. We’ve got to know more about, we’ve got to have a greater understanding of it.
Also that it’s perhaps going on but they don’t know about it?
That’s right, I’ve seen, just on a small level at home, bishops are so independent of each other. We have the impression they talk to each other all the time, but I think they all live in their own isolated worlds. Msgr. [Stephen] Rossetti spoke about the fact that abuse was known in the Church in the year 307. What I’ve seen missing this week is all the old denials, all this blame on everything else but us – that it’s secular society, it’s homosexuality, it’s only a very small number – all those minimizations. There’s been none of that. There’s been this admission that this has been a problem. We have dealt with it so badly but now we really have to deal with this properly. I think the driving force is really coming from Msgr. Scicluna. He definitely, in colloquial parlance, gets it. He knows what’s needed and it’s good to see a man in that position saying what he has said. But I do believe that he couldn’t have said what he said without having the backing of the Pope and others in the Vatican.
He also worked with then-Cardinal Raztinger when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Yes, so I feel he is coming from very solid ground. It’ll be interesting to see what happens from here on. As I say, I’m a survivor and I know there have been survival groups that have even been very negative about this symposium and even negative about me taking part as it looks as if you’re colluding or betraying the cause. But my feeling was: if you can give more understanding about how abuse harms a child, and if that can help any one of those men in there to handle cases in the future, then it’s worth doing. I do think we take it for granted they know all about it. They don’t.
Would you say therefore that that has been the great strength of this conference – that it’s dealt with how to help the survivors and issues of prevention?
That’s right, the absolute protection of the child, which has been the paramount message all the way through over and above the welfare of any accused priest, has for me been a new experience.
Though of course there are injustices on that side regarding false accusations against priests.
There are injustices on that side too, but the focus is on the safety on the child and also the proper implementation of guidelines, and proper cooperation with civil authorities – not just reporting, but actually following up and giving the civil authorities whatever information they want. This is a step further than what I’ve heard before, and probably further than bishops would have expected coming here as well.
Referring to your speech, among other things you explained how much not being believed affects the victim, and the importance of bringing the abuser to justice. Could you tell us more about the significance of these to an abuse survivor?
[Being believed] is very important because part of most victims’ experience is it was your fault, there’s guilt involved. If you’re not believed that obviously makes it worse because then the person you’ve told thinks it’s your fault – either that or they just don’t believe you and it just makes things so much worse. When the actual perpetrator in my case stood up in court and pleaded guilty as he did, somehow it helped so much to take away that feeling of guilt. Just hearing him admit that it was he who did the wrong, it was the beginning of healing. Not all survivors are lucky enough to get their abuser into a court. Certainly that helped a great deal, it’s the start of healing but after that there has to be therapy, there has to be help because what the abuser has done is change your whole psychological view of yourself.
Does seeing justice done help bring forgiveness?
Yes, once my abuser, anyway, pleaded guilty and actually asked for forgiveness (at that point I had been very angry at him, and at the Church because my whole life was blighted up to that point), I was actually able to say: “Yes I forgive you.” It took him out of my head, I didn’t have to live with him any more. And with therapy, you’re able to get to the point where you stop saying to yourself: “Why did this happen to me, what if this hadn’t happened, what way would my life have been?”. But you know that [asking those questions] can do you so much harm, and if you get to the point where you can say, “Well I can’t change it, I’m going to get on and enjoy the rest of my life,” it’s wonderful. I feel for victims who are so angry and depressed they can’t enjoy anything of life now. I would wish they would all get the help and the healing that they need.
They often also turn away from the Church, but you didn’t. Can you tell us why?
I didn’t turn away from the Church through my abuse, but the way I was treated by Cardinal Connell, my diocese, when they protected my abuser, when they didn’t follow the guidance (they told me they didn’t have to), when they didn’t cooperate with the police, that’s when my practice of my religion became very difficult. But I never lost my belief in God and I think if you can, hang on to that. I never had any wish to join any other church; I just found it very difficult to practice my Catholic religion. It’s a little easier now.
After all that’s happened in the Church regarding this issue in recent years, do you feel its credibility is being slowly restored in this respect?
Yes, I think what we’ve had from the Church over the years have been a lot of words, a lot of apologies, expressions of sorrow, sorrow for what had happened, what the abuser did to you. But what we saw at the penitential vigil here on Tuesday night was the Church asking for forgiveness for what has happened and the way that they have hurt people. I think there’s a very big difference between saying “I’m sorry that happened to you” and asking for forgiveness for it. We’re all sorry it happened – you can look at it that way – but it’s an admission that you’re guilty of something, and that you’re asking for forgiveness. Having the head of the Congregation for Bishops presiding at the vigil was significant because it’s the bishops of the world that have got it wrong and hurt so many people – not all obviously, but the ones who have dealt badly with it. I don’t think we’d have seen that even two or three years ago. I think – actually I’m hoping – that the days of the denials, minimizations and blame are past and we’re beginning to get to the stage of them saying: “Yes, this should never have happened and we’re going to see it should never happen again. And we’re going to see that if any Church leader behaves in the way they have in the past, he will have to answer for it.” So my final thought is: I hope they mean what they say and I hope it happens, but let’s wait and see.
Perhaps this needs a follow up conference?
Yes, this is the first and I’d like to see what happens and where we go from here. It’s not possible to take for granted that everything is now all right, and you can’t forget there are still people who need justice for the past. Just because they’ve moved to this point doesn’t mean that everything can now be forgotten.
“What’s the mood like? It’s one of real fear,” said a Vatican official speaking about plans drawn up by the Holy See to cut staff.
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One year into his pontificate, Pope Francis’ widespread popularity may have put him on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone, but his gifts are also bringing much greater and more significant benefits, in terms of international relations, according to diplomats.
“I think the right word to use must be ‘impact,’” said Nigel Baker, Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, when asked about Francis’ most significant achievement. “The Holy See has always been an international player; [and] Pope Francis has already, in his first year, shown this in action.”
Diplomats in Rome have been noticeably busier than in previous years, reporting back to their governments Pope Francis’ concerns on a wide range of international issues these past 12 months. And world leaders are paying attention, keenly aware of the Holy Father’s popularity among their electorates.
“You cannot have impact if no one is listening,” said Baker, “but the queues of international leaders wishing to meet the Pope show that world leaders are taking note.”
In terms of global politics, arguably the Pope’s most effective intervention was when Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria last September. Observers say the prayer vigil, held simultaneously in dioceses around the world, played a major role in leading to an almost immediate end to the threat of U.S.-led military action following a chemical-weapons attack on a Damascus suburb.
Many feared a strike would have escalated a conflict that had already cost more than 100,000 lives. Francis’ letter to the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, was enough to make Russian President Vladimir Putin stop the proceedings and have it read aloud to the assembled world leaders. The Holy See also reinforced the Pope’s concerns by gathering Rome diplomats and presenting them with a draft peace plan.
The rapid easing of tensions that followed was seen, especially by leading Church figures in the Middle East, as nothing short of a miracle. “It had an impact on thinking in chancelleries around the world and was particularly well-received in the Muslim world,” said Baker.
The Syria intervention was “very, very important and moving,” a Vatican diplomat told the Register on condition of anonymity. The Pope’s role, he said by way of a reminder, “is not to be a diplomat or political leader, but what he says and does has significant influence, also on a political level.”
Highlighting Those In Need
Pope Francis’ attention to the plight of refugees, including his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a target for many illegal immigrants, has raised global consciousness about the scourge of human trafficking. Meanwhile, his firm warnings about the evils of a capitalism devoid of ethics and his support for improvements to global food security were addressed at this year’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
The Vatican diplomat said that world leaders, when they speak with him, see that he “follows the situation closely and that some points are important to him: persons in need, refugees, the poor, the economy.” Because of this, he asserted, “little by little, these criteria are entering the international political arena; these gestures and his closeness to the people are having an important impact on politics and diplomacy.”
It is a sentiment backed up by senior diplomats in Rome. “He’s showing world governments that things can be done about the oppressed and the persecuted and that there are ways towards peace and cooperation in the world,” said one. “He has reaffirmed the role of the diplomatic missions to the Holy See, seeing them as part of the world mission of the Church.”
As for Holy See diplomacy as a whole, Vatican diplomats deny any major changes and are quick to point out that Benedict XVI’s pontificate was highly successful. “He did many, many important things, which we’ll appreciate more as time goes on,” said an official in the Secretariat of State. “The pontificate of Benedict XVI was very fruitful.”
For some other observers, such as Massimo Franco, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was a Vatican, Vatican diplomacy had been languishing since the end of the Cold War and gradually losing its focus. But under Francis, he has noted “a change, a new dynamic approach,” that was most visible during the Syria crisis.
“The Pope was quick to sense a diplomatic and political void, contributing decisively to stop a military attack,” Franco told the Register.
He feels it will “take time to rebuild the Vatican presence on the world stage,” but, like others, he believes Pope Francis is helping to achieve it, with the assistance of Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a seasoned Holy See diplomat, who “seems the right person to do the job.”
Holy See relations with the United States are also said by some to be flourishing under Francis, despite major differences between the Church and the Obama administration. Vatican diplomats say there are elements in place for good collaboration, and they value the contribution of Ambassador Ken Hackett and his wide experience of the Church as a former head of Catholic Relief Services.
However, Franco, who has also written a book on Holy See-U.S. relations called Parallel Empires, takes a slightly less positive view. “My impression is that U.S.-Vatican relations are on a kind of ‘stand-by,’” he said, noting some unease among some in the U.S. hierarchy about Francis’ approach to non-negotiable values.
Looking ahead, diplomats in Rome see further progress, especially when Francis visits the Holy Land and South Korea later this year. To these areas of conflict and tension, many will be hoping the impact of the “Francis effect” will lead to long-desired diplomatic breakthroughs. The September “miracle” over Syria may be just the start.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
ROME — Why has Pope Francis given so many interviews after having initially said he preferred not to give them? In this March 7 interview with the Register, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro helps to shed light on what events in August 2013 led to the Holy Father giving his first major interview to La Civilta Cattolica, which Father Spadaro edits, and the Pope’s decision to give subsequent interviews.
Father Spadaro also explains how his new book, My Door Is Always Open, should help readers to understand better the Pope’s words and his Jesuitical approach. The volume is the complete set of interviews between Pope Francis and Father Spadaro and is being billed as the “most convincing and persuasive guide” to Pope Francis’ vision. This interview took place at the launch of the English translation of the book at the British Embassy to the Holy See in Rome.
How much is there in this book that we haven’t read in the interview he gave you last year?
There is much more, because it’s not just the words I transcribed for La Civilta Catolica and [syndicated to] other Jesuit magazines; there are more words that I have published with his permission, of course. He reviewed the text again.
Sometimes, it’s very hard for a magazine to publish very long interviews, and we spoke in a “Jesuit language,” so I couldn’t transcribe everything he said because I would have had to explain too many things. For such an interview, published in a magazine, I could only select some things. In this book, I publish the entire dialogue, so it’s an expanded version. I also add all of what we said and what happened, as well as an extended commentary, because I realized there were some points where a commentary was necessary for understanding better what he meant.
What new things in the book strike you as the most interesting?
Well, Pope Francis’ way of making decisions, because it’s very Jesuitical. He speaks in a very Jesuitical language, so we have to explain it. He doesn’t make decisions balancing reasons. He makes decisions by discernment, so praying and trying to feel the Spirit, trying to be inspired, balancing the emotions of the spirit, not reason or logic. It’s a completely different way of proceeding, a different way of thinking. So I explain what this means in the book.
Does this perhaps explain why, initially, he said he never gave interviews, but now he has given six?
That was a surprise for me.
Does it have to do with this discernment process?
Exactly. When I asked him for an interview, he initially said “No.” I explain this very well in this book. Then he stared at me, took his time and said: “Well, I can do that. You can write down some questions, and I can give you answers by sending you a letter.” So we decided to get together; we got together in Rio during World Youth Day, and I gave him the questions in the morning. I still remember that morning, after Mass. Then after Rio, he called me on the phone again, saying: “I read your questions, and I realize it would be much better if we talked. So come over here, and let’s talk.” So it was a discernment, it was a process, and I felt the process. That was amazing.
What do you say to critics who say these interviews that he is giving are really just causing confusion and easily get misinterpreted, like the latest one he gave to Corriere della Sera and the issue of civil unions? Should he take more time and write his answers down instead?
Well, he was very open, and at some point, I even felt scared because I realized how open he was. So I tried to be very loyal to what he said, and I asked him to read everything carefully, change whatever he liked, and so on. At that point, he said: “No, we have to do that together.” And in writing the book, I try also to explain his way of thinking, because it’s not the same way of thinking that we’re used to seeing. So it’s very important, in order to understand well what he said, to read also what he says and what I write in this book; and also the commentary I write, where I try to explain the context.
What is your own personal opinion about these interviews?
It depends. I’m a journalist, so I can’t judge other journalists. I think we have to be very careful in understanding his words. I just read the last interview he gave to Corriere della Sera, and I can say it was very well done: I recognized his voice.
Do you have plans to do more interviews with him?
I don’t think so, but what happened — and I put this in the book — is that he called me after some months, asking me to be present for his conversation with the general superiors of male religious [in November]. It was very interesting, because he said: “Actually, I don’t want to give talks; I want to listen, to just talk with them, hear questions and give answers. So can you come over and take notes?” I said, yes, of course. I was there for three hours, and it was amazing. So I gave him my transcript, and we revised everything; we talked over the phone. We revised the text, and, for him, it was okay. He just asked for a footnote in a book, and so, in a sense, it was another interview. In this book, we published the complete version in English of this interview, this conversation.
Could this happen again?
I’ve no idea; I cannot say.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
ZENIT publishes below the first English translation of Pope Francis’ interview with Ferruccio de Bortoli that appeared today in Corriere della Sera. The text has been published by kind permission of the newspaper’s director.
“In an Interview with Corriere della Sera, Bergoglio Talks About His Revolutionary First Year at the Head of the Church”
“The Truth is that I Do Not Feel Nostalgia for Argentina”
By Ferruccio de Bortoli
One year has gone by since that simple “good evening” that moved the world. The lapse of 12 very intense months is not able to contain the great mass of Francis’ novelties and profound signs of pastoral innovation. We are in a small room in Saint Martha’s. The only window looks out onto a courtyard that opens a miniscule angle of blue sky. The Pope appears suddenly through a door, with a relaxed and smiling face. He is amused by the various recording devices that the senile anxiety of the journalist placed on the table. “Do they all work? Yes? Thank goodness.” The assessment of this year? No, he doesn’t like assessments. “I only do an assessment every 15 days, with my confessor.”
Holy Father, every now and then you call on the telephone those who ask you for help. And sometimes, do they not believe it’s you?
Holy Father: Yes, it’s happened to me. When someone calls it’s because he wants to talk, has a question to ask, advice to request. When I was a priest in Buenos Aires it was easier. And I have kept that custom. It’s a service, it is expressed like that. But it’s true that now it’s not so easy to do, given the quantity of people who write to me.
Do you remember any one of those contacts with particular affection?
Holy Father: An 80-year-old widow who had lost her son wrote to me. And now I give her a call once a month. She is delighted. I do the [role of a] priest. I like it.
In regard to your relations with your predecessor, Benedict XVI, have you ever asked him for advice?
Holy Father: Yes, the Pope Emeritus isn’t a museum statue. It’s an institution we’re not used to. Sixty or seventy years ago, the figure of the Bishop Emeritus didn’t exist. That came after Vatican Council II and now it’s an institution. The same has to happen with the Pope Emeritus. Benedict is the first and perhaps there will be others. We don’t know that. He is discreet, humble, he doesn’t want to bother. We spoke about it and together we came to the conclusion that it would be better if he saw people, that he come out and participate in the life of the Church. Once he came here on the occasion of the blessing of the statue of Saint Michael the Archangel, then for a lunch in Saint Martha’s and, after Christmas, I returned the invitation to participate in the Consistory and he accepted. His wisdom is a gift of God. Some would have liked him to retire to a Benedictine Abbey far from the Vatican. And then I thought of grandparents, who with their wisdom and advice give strength to the family and do not deserve to end in a retirement home.
We think that your way of governing the Church is like this: you listen to everyone and then you decide alone – somewhat like the Father General of the Jesuits. Is the Pope a man who is alone?
Holy Father: Yes and no, but I understand what you wish to say to me. The Pope is not alone in his work because he is supported by the advice of many. And he would be a man alone if he decided not to listen to anyone or to pretend that he listened. However, there is a moment when one must decide, when one must sign, in which he remains alone with his sense of responsibility.
You have innovated, criticized some attitudes of the clergy. You have revolutionized the Curia, with some resistance and opposition. Has the Church already changed as you wished a year ago?
Holy Father: Last March I had no plan to change the Church. I was not expecting, let’s put it this way, this transfer of diocese. I began to govern, trying to put into practice everything that had emerged in the debate among the Cardinals of the different Congregations. And in my actions I hope to count on the Lord’s inspiration. I’ll give you an example: there has been talk of the spiritual situation of people who work in the Curia, and then they started to make spiritual retreats. More importance should be given to annual Spiritual Exercises. All have a right to spend five days in silence and meditation, whereas before in the Curia they listened to three homilies a day and then some continued working.
Are tenderness and mercy the essence of your pastoral message?
Holy Father: And of the Gospel. They are the heart of the Gospel. Otherwise, one doesn’t understand Jesus Christ, or the tenderness of the Father who sends Him to listen to us, to cure us, to save us.
But was this message understood? You said that the “Francis mania” wouldn’t last long. Is there something of your public image that you don’t like?
Holy Father: I like to be among the people, with those who suffer, and to go to the parishes. I don’t like ideological interpretations, a certain mythology of Pope Francis. When it is said, for instance, that I go out from the Vatican at night to feed beggars on Via Ottaviano – I would never even think of it. Sigmund Freud said, if I’m not mistaken, that in all idealization there is an aggression. To paint the Pope as if he is a sort of Superman, a sort of star, I find offensive. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps peacefully and has friends like everyone else. He is a normal person.
Do you have nostalgia for your Argentina?
Holy Father: The truth is that I have no nostalgia. I would go to visit my sister, who is sick, the last of five of us. I’d love to see her, but this does not justify a trip to Argentina: to call by phone, that is enough. I do not think I’ll go before 2016, because I have already been to Latin America, to Rio. Now I have to go to the Holy Land, to Asia, and then to Africa.
You have just renewed your Argentine passport. You are still a head of state.
Holy Father: I renewed it because it had expired.
Were you annoyed that they accused you of being Marxist, especially in the United States, after the publication of “Evangelii Gaudium”?
Holy Father: Not at all. I never shared the Marxist ideology because it’s false, but I knew many good persons who professed Marxism.
The scandals that perturbed the life of the Church fortunately are now in the past. On the delicate topic of the abuse of minors, philosophers Besancon and Scruton among others, asked you to raise your voice against fanaticism and the bad faith of the secularized world that doesn’t respect childhood much.
Holy Father: I wish to say two things. The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very profound wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and opened the way. And, following that way, the Church advanced a lot, perhaps more than anyone. The statistics on the phenomenon of violence against children are shocking, but they also show clearly that the great majority of the abuses come from the family environment and from people who are close. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that moved with transparency and responsibility. No one else did as much. And yet, the Church is the only one being attacked.
You say that “the poor evangelize us.” The attention given to poverty, the strongest mark of your message, is taken by some observers as a profession of pauperism. The Gospel doesn’t condemn wealth. And Zacchaeus was rich and charitable.
Holy Father: The Gospel condemns the worship of wealth. Pauperism is one of the critical interpretations. In the Medieval Age there were many pauperist currents. St. Francis [of Assisi] had the genius of placing the subject of poverty in the evangelical journey. Jesus says that one cannot serve two masters, God and money. And when we are judged at the end of time (Matthew, 25), we will be asked about our closeness to poverty. Poverty removes us from idolatry and opens the doors to Providence. Zacchaeus gives half of his wealth to the poor. And those whose barns are full of their own egoism, the Lord, at the end, will call to account. I think I expressed well my thought on poverty in “Evangelii Gaudium.”
You identify in globalization, especially financial, some of the evils that humanity suffers. However, globalization brought millions of people out of poverty. It brought hope, a rare sentiment that must not be confused with optimism.
Holy Father: It’s true, globalization saved many people from misery, but it condemned many others to die of hunger, because with this economic system it becomes selective. The globalization that the Church thinks of does not look like a sphere in which every point is equidistant from the center and in which, therefore, the particularity of peoples is lost. It is, rather, a polyhedron, with its different facets, in which each nation keeps its own culture, language, religion, identity. The present “spherical” economic globalization, especially the financial, produces one thought, a weak thought. And the human person is no longer at its center but only money.
The subject of the family is central for the activity of the Council of Eight Cardinals. Since John Paul II’s Exhortation “Familiaris Consortio”, many things have changed. Great novelties are expected. And you said that divorced persons must not be condemned – that they must be helped.
Holy Father: It is a long path that the Church must complete, a process that the Lord wants. Three months after my election, I was submitted the topics for the Synod, and we decided to discuss what Jesus’ contribution is to contemporary man. However, at the end – which for me is a sign of the will of God — we decided to discuss the family, which is going through a very serious crisis. It’s difficult to form a family. Young people no longer get married. There are many separated families, whose common life plan failed. The children suffer a lot. And we have to give an answer. However, we have to reflect a lot on this, and in depth. This is what the Consistory and the Synod are doing. We must avoid staying on the surface of the topic. The temptation to resolve each problem with casuistry is an error, a simplification of profound things. It’s what the Pharisees did: a very superficial theology. And it is in the light of this profound reflection that particular situations will be able to be addressed seriously, also that of the divorced.
Why did Cardinal Walter Kasper’s report in the last Consistory (an abyss between the doctrine on marriage and the family and the real life of many Christians) generate so much division among the Cardinals? Do you think that the Church will be able to go through these two years of toilsome journey to come to a broad and serene consensus?
Holy Father: Cardinal Kasper made a beautiful and profound presentation, which will soon be published in German, in which he addresses five points, the fifth of which is that of second marriages. I would have been more worried if there hadn’t been an intense discussion in the Consistory, because it would have been useless. The Cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented different points of view, which are always enriching. Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow. That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.
In the recent past, it was customary to refer to “non-negotiable values,” especially on questions of bioethics and sexual morality. You haven’t used that formula. Is that choice a sign of a less prescriptive style, more respectful of individual conscience?
Holy Father: I never understood the expression “non-negotiable values.” Values are values and that’s that. I can’t say which of the fingers of the hand is more useful than the rest, so I don’t understand in what sense there could be negotiable values. What I had to say on the topic of life I have put in writing in “Evangelii Gaudium.”
Many countries have regulated civil unions. Is it a path that the Church can understand? But up to what point?
Holy Father: Marriage is between one man and one woman. The secular States want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of coexistence, spurred by the need to regulate economic aspects between persons as, for instance, to ensure healthcare. Each case must be looked at and evaluated in its diversity.
How will the role of women be promoted within the Church?
Holy Father: Casuistry doesn’t help in this case either. It’s true that women can and must be more present in decision-making posts of the Church. But I would call this a promotion of a functional type. And with that alone, one doesn’t advance much. Rather, we must think that the Church has the feminine article, “la”: it is feminine by origin. Theologian Urs von Balthasar worked a lot on this topic: the Marian principle guides the Church by the hand of the Petrine principle. The Virgin is more important than any Bishop and any of the Apostles. The theological reflection is already underway. Cardinal [Stanislaw] Rylko [president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity], together with the Council of the Laity, is working in this direction with many expert women.
Half a century after Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” can the Church take up again the topic of birth control? Your confrere, Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini [the late Archbishop of Milan] believed it was now time.
Holy Father: It all depends on how the text of “Humanae Vitae”is interpreted. Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended to confessors much mercy and attention to concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, as he had the courage to go against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to apply a cultural brake, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism. The object is not to change the doctrine, but it is a matter of going into the issue in depth and to ensure that the pastoral ministry takes into account the situations of each person and what that person can do. This will also be discussed on the path to the Synod.
Science evolves and redraws the ends of life. Does it make sense to prolong life in a vegetative state?
Holy Father: I’m not a specialist on bioethical arguments, and I’m afraid of being mistaken in my words. The Church’s traditional doctrine states that no one is obliged to use extraordinary methods when someone is in his terminal phase. Pastorally, in these cases I have always advised palliative care. On more specific cases, should it be necessary, it’s appropriate to seek the advice of specialists.
Will your trip to the Holy Land lead to an agreement of intercommunion with the Orthodox that Paul VI, fifty years ago, almost signed with [Patriarch] Athenagoras?
Holy Father: We are all impatient about achieving “sealed” results. But the path of unity with the Orthodox means above all walking and working together. In Buenos Aires, several Orthodox came to the catechetical courses. I usually spent Christmas and 6 January together with their bishops, who sometimes even asked the advice of our diocesan offices. I do not know if the story is true that Athenagoras told Pope Paul VI that he proposed that they walk together and send all the theologians to an island to discuss among themselves. It’s a joke, but it is important that we walk together. Orthodox theology is very rich. And I believe that they have, at this time, great theologians. Their vision of the Church and collegiality is marvelous.
In a few years the greatest world power will be China with which the Vatican has no relations. Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit like you.
Holy Father: We are close to China. I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he answered me. The relationships are there. They are a great people whom I love.
Why, Holy Father, do you never speak about Europe? What is it about the European project that does not convince you?
Holy Father: Do you remember the day when I spoke of Asia? What did I say? (Here the reporter ventures to give some explanation, collecting vague memories only to realize that he had fallen for a nice trick). I have not spoken about Asia, or Africa, or Europe. Only about Latin America when I was in Brazil, and when I had to receive the Commission for Latin America. There hasn’t yet been a chance to talk about Europe. It will come.
What book are you reading these days?
Holy Father: ‘Peter and Magdalene’ by Damiano Marzotto on the feminine dimension of the Church. A beautiful book.
And you’re not able to see any good films, another of your passions? “La Grande Bellezza” won an Oscar. Will you see it?
Holy Father: I don’t know. The last movie I saw was Benigni’s ‘Life is Beautiful’. And before I had seen Fellini’s ‘La Strada’. A masterpiece. I also liked Wajda…
St. Francis had a carefree youth. I ask you: have you ever been in love?
Holy Father: In the book The Jesuit, I recount when I had a girlfriend at the age of 17. And I mention it also Heaven and Earth, the volume that I wrote with Abraham Skorka. In the seminary, a girl made my head spin for a week.
And if you do not mind me asking, how did it end?
Holy Father: They were things of youth. I spoke with my confessor about it [a big smile].
Thank you Holy Father.
Holy Father: Thank you.
[Translation by ZENIT]
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will continue to have a number of pressing engagements during Lent, but next week he will participate, as is tradition, in the annual weeklong spiritual exercises with the heads of Vatican departments.
The retreat normally takes place in the Vatican, but, consistent with St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, this year it will take place far from familiar surroundings.
At 4pm on Sunday afternoon, after reciting the Angelus, the Holy Father and Curial heads will leave the Vatican by coach and embark on a 45-minute journey to Ariccia, a small, picturesque town in the Castelli Romani district, close to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.
The retreat itself will take place in the Pauline residence, Casa del Divin Maestro, a popular retreat center, surrounded by woodland and close to Lake Albano.
Prior to becoming pope, Francis had always taken part in retreats at a distance from his own home, according to the Vatican. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Holy Father’s Jesuit order, recommends in the 20th annotation of his Spiritual Exercises that a participant on retreat will “benefit himself the more he separates himself from all friends and acquaintances and from all earthly care.”
The saint stresses that, from this isolation, “three chief benefits, among many others, follow.” The first is that the separation helps to “serve and praise God, our Lord,” and this “merits no little in the sight of his Divine Majesty.”
The second is that, being thus isolated, “and not having his understanding divided on many things, but concentrating his care on one only, namely, on serving his Creator and benefiting his own soul, he uses with greater freedom his natural powers, in seeking with diligence what he so much desires.”
The third chief benefit, he says, is that “the more our soul finds itself alone and isolated, the more apt it makes itself to approach and to reach its Creator and Lord; and the more it so approaches him, the more it disposes itself to receive graces and gifts from his Divine and Sovereign Goodness.”
In a message to the Italian Federation of Spiritual Exercises this week, the Pope said a good course of spiritual exercises helps those who participate in them to develop an “unconditional adherence to Christ” and to “understand that prayer is the irreplaceable means of union with him crucified.”
First Anniversary During Retreat
After arrival in Ariccia on Sunday, at 6pm, the Pope and the assembled officials will celebrate vespers, listen to an introductory meditation from the retreat leader, Father Angelo De Donatis, an Italian priest who once served as spiritual director of the Roman Seminary, and participate in Eucharistic adoration.
The rest of the days contain the following routine: 7:30am Mass, 8:30am breakfast, 9:30am meditation, 12:30pm lunch, 4pm meditation, 6pm vespers and Eucharistic adoration and then 7:30pm supper.
During the week, all papal audiences, including the weekly general audience, are suspended. On the final day, Friday, March 14, the day begins with Mass, followed by a meditation before departure for the Vatican at 10:30am.
The Pope will be on retreat when the Church celebrates the first anniversary of his election on March 13 (the Vatican has produced an online book of pictures and memorable quotations of Francis’ first year here).
His message for Lent appeals to the whole Church to “bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ.”
Once back in the Vatican, the Pope will resume his Lenten engagements. He will recite the Angelus on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 16. At 4pm, he will make another pastoral visit to his diocese, this time to the Roman parish of Santa Maria dell’Orazione.
The rest of the month will be filled with papal and general audiences and the Angelus. But on March 29, the Pope will preside over a penitential liturgy at 5pm in the Vatican basilica, and on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 6, he will visit another Roman parish, yet to be announced.
Holy Week Schedule
The Holy Father will then lead the Church into his second Holy Week as pope. He will preside over the Palm Sunday Procession and Mass in St. Peter’s Square on April 13 and celebrate the chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday, April 17. It has not been announced yet by the Vatican if he will wash the feet of prisoners, as he did last year.
On Good Friday afternoon, he will celebrate the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica and lead the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum at 9:15pm. The Easter vigil Mass in the basilica will take place at 8:30pm on Easter Saturday, April 19. On Easter Sunday, he will celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Square at 10:15am, followed by his Easter address urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and the world) on Easter Sunday from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica at midday.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.