New, wide-ranging interview in Roman daily also touches on social justice and Church policies.
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The Rome daily “Il Messaggero” on Sunday published an interview with Pope Francis by journalist Franca Giansoldati. In his responses to questions on a wide range of issues, the Holy Father focused, among other things, on the challenges of change in the current “era” and “culture,” which has consequences for political, financial, and social life. The Church, along with various civil and social institutions, must respond to these challenges by protecting the common good and defending human life and dignity.
“Always protecting the common good, which includes “defending human life and dignity” is “the vocation of every politician,” the Holy Father said. Today, the problem of politics – which Pope Francis called a “worldwide problem” – is that it “has been devalued, ruined by corruption, by the phenomenon of bribery.” This “moral decay, not only in politics but also in the financial or social” sector, is driven by “change of epoch” that we are experiencing today, which is also “a change of culture.” In this context, our anxieties about poverty are not concerned solely with material poverty.
“I can help someone who is hungry, so that they are no longer hungry,” the Pope said. “But if someone has lost his job,” he is involved in another kind of poverty. He no longer has his dignity.” Helping families in need, then, requires a “joint effort.” Pope Francis recognized that this is an “uphill” journey, but insisted it must be undertaken, working above all for the good of children. “Starting a family is an effort,” he said, because of economic difficulties that “social policy does not help.”
Commenting on the very low birth rates in Europe – which makes it seem “as if she were tired of being a mother, preferring to be grandmother,” the Holy Father noted that the causes of this phenomenon lie not only in a “cultural drift marked by selfishness and hedonism,” but also in the current economic crisis.
Pope Francis was asked how he would respond to being called “a communist” because of comments he has made about economic matters.
“I would only say that the communists have stolen the banner… The banner of the poor is Christian; poverty is at the heart of the Gospel.” The cause of the poor is pre-eminently a Christian cause. The Gospel cannot be understood “without understanding real poverty.”
At the same time, the Pope said there is also a “very beautiful ‘poverty of the spirit,’” being poor in the sight of God because God fills you up. The Gospel, in fact, is addressed indiscriminately to the poor and to the rich and "does not at all condemn those who are rich,” but rather condemns their riches when they become the objects of idolatry.
To the question “Where is the Church of Bergoglio headed?” Pope Francis replied, "Thanks be to God, I don’t have any Church – I follow Christ. I didn’t found anything.”
He went on to say “my decisions are the fruit of the meetings before the conclave. I have done nothing on my own.”
Turning to his upcoming trips to Korea, in August, and to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, in January, he said the Church in Asia “is a promise." He also spoke about China, saying it represents “a great, a very great pastoral challenge.”
During the interview, Pope Francis also took up a number of other themes already addressed during his pontificate, such as the place of women in the Church. Without an understanding of femininity, the Pope said, one “cannot understand the Church herself.” Women “are the most beautiful thing God has made. The Church is a woman.” He said that in doing theology, one must take account of this “femininity,” and that the Church must continue to work on and develop a “theology of the woman.”
Pope Francis spoke also about the corruption and the economic and sexual exploitation of children. The Pope speaks of incidents of child prostitution that were reported to him when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, involving even elderly men. “For me,” the Pope said, “people who do this to young girls are paedophiles.”
Finally, on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome, Pope Francis spoke about the everyday life and traditions of the City of which the Pope is the bishop. This role, the Holy Father said, is “the first service of Francis.” Pope Francis said Rome shares many of the problems of other cities “such as Buenos Aires.” He said a conference dedicated to the theme of “the pastoral care of the great cities” will take place in Barcelona in November. Pope Francis expressed his hope that the citizens of Rome, the inhabitants of a city “that should be a beacon in the world,” would not lose “joy, hope, confidence, despite difficulties.”
Here is an Aleteia translation of the complete interview:
(Franca Giansoldati) The meeting is at Santa Marta, in the afternoon. A quick confirmation and a Swiss Guard has me sit in a small sitting room. Six slightly worn velvet armchairs, a wooden table, an old fashioned television. Everything is in perfect order, the marble polished, a few paintings. It could be a waiting room at a parish, one of those where you go to ask advice or to see to marriage documents.
Francis comes in smiling: “Finally! I read you and now I finally meet you.” I blush. “Instead, I know you and now I am listening to you.” He laughs. The Pope laughs heartily, as he will other times over the course of an hour-long off the cuff conversation. Rome with its big-city evils, the era of changes that are weakening politics; the struggle to defend the common good; the Church re-appropriation of the issues of poverty and sharing (“Marx didn’t invent anything”), alarm in the face of the decay of the peripheries of the soul, a slippery moral abyss in which children are abused, and begging, child labour and, not least of all, the exploitation of child prostitutes barely 15 years of age is tolerated … and by clients who could be their grandfathers.
“Pedophiles”: this is precisely what the Pope calls them. Francis speaks, he explains, he pauses, he returns. Passion, sweetness, irony. A faint voice, his words seem to lull. His hands accompany his way of thinking, the interweaving, the obstacles, they seem to trace invisible shapes in the air. He is in very good shape despite the rumors concerning his health.
It’s time for the match between Italy and Uruguay. Holy Father, who are you rooting for?
Oh me, no one, really. I promised the President of Brazil [Dilma Dilma Roussef] that I would remain neutral.
Shall we begin with Rome?
But you’re aware that I don’t know Rome? Just consider that I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time when I took part in the Conclave that elected Benedict XVI [in 2005]. I’ve never even been to the museums. The fact is that I didn’t often come to Rome as a cardinal. I know St. Mary Major because I would always go there. Then there is St. Lawrence outside the Walls, where I went for several confirmations when Don Giacomo Tantardini was there. Obviously I know Piazza Navona because I always stayed on Via della Scrofa, just behind it.
Is there anything Roman in the Argentinian Bergoglio?
Hardly anything at all. I am more Piedmontese; those are my family roots. Yet I am beginning to feel Roman. I intend to go and visit the area, the parishes. I am discovering the city little by little. It’s a beautiful city, quite unique, with the problems of any large city. A small city has a clear structure, whereas a metropolis contains seven or eight imaginary cities that overlap on various levels. Also on cultural levels. I think, for example, about the urban tribes of young people. It’s the case in all big cities. In November, in Barcelona, we’ll hold a conference dedicated precisely to the pastoral care of big cities. In Argentina exchanges were promoted with Mexico. We find many cross-cultures, but not so much because of migration, but rather because cross-cultural territories, each having their own membership. Cities within cities. The Church also must respond to this phenomenon.
Why, from the beginning, have you wished to place such great emphasis on the role of Bishop of Rome?
The first service of Francis is this: to be the Bishop of Rome. All the titles which belong to the Pope, Universal Shepherd, Vicar of Christ, etc, he has because he is the Bishop of Rome. It is the first choice. The consequence of the primacy of Peter. If tomorrow the Pope wanted to be the Bishop of Tivoli, it’s clear they would drive me out.
Forty years ago, under Paul VI, the Vicariate promoted a meeting on the evils of Rome. A picture of a city emerged in which whoever had much had the best, and whoever had little had the worst. Today, in your opinion, what are the evils of this city?
They are those of the big cities, like Buenos Aires. Those who profit more and more, and those who are always poorer. I wasn’t aware of the conference on the evils of Rome. They are very Roman issues, and at the time I was 38 years old. I am the first Pope who never took part in the Council and the first to study theology after the Council, and the great light for us at the time was Paul VI. For me,
Evangelii Nuntiandi remains a pastoral document which has been unsurpassed.
Is there a hierarchy of values to respect in the management of public affairs?
Of course. Always to protect the common good. This is the vocation of any political figure. It is a broad concept which includes, for example, care for human life, its dignity. Paul VI used to say that the mission of politics is one of the highest forms of charity. Today the problem with politics—I am not speaking only about Italy but rather about all countries, the problem is a global one—is that it is devalued, ruined by corruption, by the phenomenon of bribery. A document which the French bishops published 15 years ago comes to mind. It was a pastoral letter entitled "Rehabilitating Politics" and it addressed precisely this question. If service isn’t the foundation, we can’t even begin to understand what politics is.
You said that corruption smells rotten. You also said that social corruption is the fruit of a sick heart and not merely of external conditions. There wouldn’t be corruption without corrupt hearts. A man who is corrupt doesn’t have friends but rather chumps who are useful to him. Can you explain this to us better?
I spoke about the matter on two consecutive days because I was commenting on the reading about Naboth’s vineyard. I like to speak about the daily readings [at Mass]. The first day I addressed the phenomenology of corruption, the second day how those who are corrupt end. The corrupt man, then, doesn’t have friends; he only has accomplices.
In your opinion, is there so much talk about corruption because the mass media insist too much on the matter, or because we are actually dealing with an endemic and serious evil?
No, unfortunately it is a global phenomenon. There are heads of state in prison precisely for this. I have thought a lot about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that many evils increase especially during times of momentous change. We are not experiencing so much an era of changes as we are a change of era. We are therefore dealing with a change in culture; it is precisely at this stage that things of this sort emerge. The change of an era feeds moral decadence, not only in the political sphere but also in economic and social life.
Even Christians don’t seem to giving a shining witness …
It’s the environment that facilitates corruption. I’m not saying that everyone is corrupt, but I do think that it’s difficult to remain honest in politics. I am speaking about everywhere, not about Italy. I am also thinking about other cases. Sometimes there are people who would like to clear things up, but then they run into difficulty and it’s as if they’d been swallowed up by a multi-level, across the board, endemic phenomenon. Not because it’s the nature of politics, but because when times are changing the push towards a certain moral drift becomes stronger.
Are you more alarmed by a city’s moral or material poverty?
Both alarm me. Take a man who is suffering from hunger, for example. I can help him so that he’t no longer hungry, but if he’s lost a job and can no longer find work, that’s another kind of poverty. He has no more dignity. He might be able to go to Caritas and bring home a package of food, but he experiences a very serious poverty that ruins his heart. An auxiliary bishop of Rome told me that many people go to the cafeteria and secretly, full of shame, take some of the food home. Their dignity is progressively impoverished, they live without hope.
On the streets of Rome you can see girls as young as 14 often forced into prostitution amid general neglect, while in the subway you see children begging. Is the Church still a leaven? Do you feel powerless as a bishop in the face of this moral decline?
I experience suffering. I experience enormous suffering. The exploitation of children makes me suffer. It’s the same in Argentina. For some types of manual labor children are used because they have smaller hands. But children are also exploited sexually, in hotels. Once I was told that, on one street in Buenos Aires, there were child prostitutes only 12 years old. I checked and it was actually the case. It made me sick. But it made me even more sick so to see big cylinder cars driven by old men stop. They could have been their grandfathers. They had the little girl get in and paid her 15 pesos that was then used to buy drugs. For me, these people who do this to young girls are pedophiles. It also happens in Rome. The Eternal City, which should be a beacon in the world, is a mirror reflecting the moral decay of society. I think these problems are resolved through good social politics.
What can politics do?
Respond in a clear way. For example, with social services that help families … by assisting them to get out of difficult situations. The phenomenon points to a deficiency in society’s social services.
Yet the Church is working very hard …
And she must continue. She needs to help families that are struggling. It is an uphill battle that requires a common commitment.
In Rome, more and more young people don’t go to Church, they don’t baptize their children, they don’t even know how to make the sign of the Cross. What strategy will help to reverse this trend?
The Church has to go out into the streets, seek people out, go to their homes, visit families, go to the peripheries. She must be a Church that not only receives but that offers.
And pastors shouldn’t put curlers on the sheep …
(Laughing) Obviously. We have been in a moment of mission for almost ten years. We must insist.
Does the culture of the declining birthrate in Italy worry you?
I think we have to work harder for the common good of children. Starting a family is a commitment, sometimes a salary isn’t enough to make it to the end of the month. People are scared of losing their jobs or of not being able to pay the rent. Social politics doesn’t help. Italy has an extremely low birthrate; Spain is the same. France is going a little better but she’s also low. It’s as if Europe is tired of being a mother and prefers to be a grandmother. A lot depends on the economic crisis, and not only on a cultural drift marked by selfishness and hedonism. The other day I was reading a statistic on the spending criteria of populations worldwide. After food, clothing and medicine, three needed items, comes cosmetics and expenses for pets.
Animals count more than babies?
It’s another phenomenon of cultural decline. This is occurring because relationships with animals are easier, more easily to control. An animal isn’t free, whereas having a child is complex.
Does the Gospel speak more to the poor or to the rich to convert them?
Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel. One cannot understand the Gospel without understanding real poverty, while taking into account that there a very beautiful poverty of spirit also exists: to be poor before God so that God may fill you. The Gospel is addressed to the poor and rich alike. And it speaks of poverty and of wealth. It does not in fact condemn the rich at all, but rather riches when they become idols. The god of money, the golden calf.
You are taken for a communist, pauperist, populist Pope. The Economist, which dedicated a cover to you, stated that you talk like Lenin.
I’ll only say that the communists have stolen the flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. Take Matthew 25, the protocol on which we shall be judged: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, naked. Or let’s look at the Beatitudes, another flag. The communists say that all of this is communist.
Yes, right, 20 centuries later. So when the talk you could say to them: but you are Christians (he laughs).
Will you allow me a criticism…
You perhaps seldom speak about women, and when you speak, you address the issue only from the perspective of mothering, woman as bride, woman as mother, etc. And yet women are now leading states, multi-national corporations, armies. In your opinion, what place do women occupy in the Church?
Women are the most beautiful thing God has made. The Church is a woman. Church is a feminine word. We cannot do theology without this femininity. You are right, we don’t talk about this enough. I agree that we have to work more on the theology of woman. I said it and we are working on it.
You don’t see a certain underlying misogyny?
The fact is that woman was taken from a rib… (he laughs heartily). It’s a joke, I’m joking. I agree that we have to study the feminine question more deeply, otherwise we cannot understand the Church herself.
May we expect historic decisions from you, such as a woman as the head of a dicastery, I’m not saying [the Congregation] for Clergy …
(He laughs) “Beh, many times priests end up under the authority of their housekeepers.
In August you will travel to Korea. Is it the door to China? Are you pointing to Asia?
I will go to Asia twice in six months. In Korea in August to meet young Asians. In January to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The Church in Asia holds great promise. Korea represents so much, it has a beautiful history behind it. It didn’t have priests for 200 years, and Catholicism advanced thanks to the laity. There were also martyrs.
With regard to China it is a great cultural challenge. Very great. And then there is the example of Matteo Ricci who did such great good…
Where is the Church of Bergoglio going?
Thanks be to God, I don’t have a Church, I follow Christ. I didn’t found anything. From the point of view of style, I haven’t changed how I was in Buenos Aires. Yes, perhaps something little, because one has to, but changing at my age would have been ridiculous. Regarding the plan, however, I am following what the cardinals requested during the General Congregations before the Conclave. I am going in that direction. The Council of eight cardinals, an external body, comes from there. They requested it so that it might help to reform the Curia. Something, by the way, which isn’t easy because you take a step, but then you see that you need to do this or that, and if before there was one dicastery they then become four. My decisions are the fruit of the pre-Conclave meetings. I haven’t done anything alone.
A democratic approach…
They were the decisions of the cardinals. I don’t know if it’s a democratic approach. I would say more synodal, even if for cardinals the word isn’t appropriate.
What is your wish the Romans for the Feast of their Patrons, Saints Peter and Paul?
That they continue to be good. They are very friendly. I see them at the audiences and when I go to the parishes. My hope is that they do not lose their joy, hope, and trust despite difficulties. The Roman dialect is also very nice.
Wojtyla learned to say a few phrases in the Roman dialect: Let’s love each other [volemose bene], let’s get to work [damose da fa’]. Have you learned any sayings in the local Roman dialect?
Just a little for now. “Live and let live” [Campa e fa’ campa’].
Courtesy of Il Messagero.