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Interview with Veteran Vaticanista on Pope Francis and His Predecessors


Kathy Schiffer - published on 09/24/14

Andrea Tornielli reflects on the pontificates of Francis, Benedict XVI and John Paul II

When Pope Francis departed last weekend for Albania, one of the passengers aboard his plane was veteran Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli.

Tornielli is Vatican correspondent for the respected Italian newspaper La Stampa and coordinator of the website Vatican Insider, which is published in three languages and focuses specifically on the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the world. Tornielli has authored 25 books, including ones on Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, Padre Pio, and, most recently, "Fioretti: The Little Flowers of Pope Francis". In "Fioretti,Tornielli has collected heartwarming incidents, excerpts from homilies, testimonies, encounters, tweets and telephone calls — stories from Pope Francis’ first year in the papacy, all of which exemplify the gospel in action.

He spoke with me this week about this latest book, about his career as a vaticanista (pope watcher), and about Pope Francis’s first year as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Many of the stories in your book were first reported in Catholic media, including Vatican Insider. How did you select the anecdotes for the book? Did you simply collate some of your earlier articles, arranging them in a framework?

No. Actually, I did a lot of research: reviewing already published articles, but also talking with friends, reading homilies delivered at the Domus Sanctae Martae. I tried to put these together in a single volume, because one article written each day, after one month, is not actually “on the record.” I tried to choose stories which, brought together, best describe the pope and his faith, and I think the reader will find in this book his humility, his faith, his simplicity, his great desire to be near people who are suffering.  

You have reported on Pope Francis, but also on Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II.  Is Francis, with his informal style, more accessible to journalists?  How does reporting on the papacy today differ from reporting during Pope Benedict’s tenure?

There is a difference! The difference is that for the past 20 years Pope Francis, the former Jorge Bergoglio, was a model of a shepherd, in the streets with the people. “I was a priest of the streets,” he has said. He was a bishop in the streets, too — often traveling not by car, but on foot, meeting the people, staying with people. That’s the reason I think Pope Francis’s model of the pontificate of the bishop of Rome is changing the way the world sees the pope.  

Pope Benedict, on the other hand, was elected after serving for many years as chief of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He is a humble man, a simple man, but it was more difficult, in my opinion, for him to be as accessible in his first year because of his personal history.

But I want to relay also that I think the pontificate of Pope Benedict, and the portrait of Cardinal Ratzinger, was not presented very well by the media — especially by some of his collaborators. Because, you know, there were “Ratzingeriana” — those who were trying to reduce Cardinal Ratzinger and his complexity to a kind of conservative icon. But, in reality, Pope Benedict’s theology is much richer than was described by the media, and during the last seven years of his pontificate.

In my biography of Cardinal Ratzinger, I reported on the attacks and criticisms he received, especially during the last years of his pontificate. I really felt that he was more complex than he was portrayed in the media, and that he and Francis share a common vision of the Church. Both popes understand the Church as speaking to man, but not organized by man, not in men’s hands.  

Have you been granted personal access to the Holy Father? Have you been able to interview him personally?

Yes. In fact, I first met Archbishop Bergoglio and interviewed him ten years before his election to the papacy. And when he was in Rome, I’d go out to dinner with friends and he would be a part of our group. So I had many opportunities to meet him in informal circumstances.  

I never visited with him in Argentina before his election. Now, though, I travel with him. As a journalist, I traveled with him to Brazil, South Korea, the Holy Land and, most recently, Albania.

In your book, you include stories about Pope Francis’s everyday holiness, his courage, his mercy, his fidelity. What characteristic do you consider most prominent?

Most prominent? I think Pope Francis’s most important message is the message of mercy. Remember that back on March 17, in the first Mass he celebrated as Pope at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and before his first Sunday Angelus, he spoke about the mercy of God and said that for him, this is the most important message to impart.

Throughout the world, with all of its violence, poverty, and trouble, all are waiting for the gospel message of mercy. They need to know that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven.

When you read the gospels, you see that sinners are attracted to Jesus, and they are not rejected by him. I think this is the most important theme in the messages of Pope Francis: the message of mercy. All of the other things — his humility, his desire to be near people who are suffering, his simplicity and his desire not to live like a king with a court, his desire to travel around the world — all of these are encompassed in his message of the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pope Francis believes that the most important mission for him is to present to people around the world this testimony, the message of the mercy of love.

Some people are saying that the Vatican should have upgraded security for the Holy Father’s trip to Albania, but Father Lombardi has downplayed the risk. The Ambassador from Iraq, though, warned of the dangers. There were reports of direct threats to Pope Francis and to St. Peter’s Basilica. Do you consider his open-air Jeep and security to be adequate, given the times in which we live?

Is there a risk? Yes, sure. In his open-air car, he is exposed. But he is 77 years old; and in the Pope’s mind, at his age he doesn’t have much to lose.

Now I don’t know the specific risks with ISIS and Islamic terrorism. I traveled a lot with Pope John Paul II and heard many threats from terrorist groups, but nothing ever happened. In July 2013, during his press conference on the flight returning from Brazil to Rome, the pope acknowledged that yes, there is a possibility that an isolated fanatic could try to kill me. But there is also God.

Before every trip, Pope Francis makes a visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he prays before the Virgin Mary for the good goals of the trip. He returns there after every trip, to thank Mary for her protection. Even after 12 hours of flying, he wants to go first to the Basilica.

To your knowledge, are there times when Pope Francis is at odds with his advisors at the Vatican?

Yes, absolutely. But this is not a novelty. Every pope has disagreements within the Vatican. Each pope brings his own style to the papacy, and people need time to synchronize themselves with a new pope. There are people who are in tune with the pope, who understand his message very well and who share his goals. There are others who think the pope is wrong, and they are waiting for a new time. This is the reality of the Vatican Curia. This is normal, but unfortunate—inside the Vatican are men who are sinners, just like us outside the Curia. 

Do you expect any changes in Curial appointments? I’m thinking here about recent speculation that Cardinal Burke will be removed from his position.

I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. I’ve read the speculation, but I have no opinion about it.

You have worked with Pope Francis, and with his predecessors Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II. There are style differences, to be sure, but what—in your estimation—is the most important difference in the content of his papacy?

With each pope, the message is the same, the message of mercy and love, but within that same message, each pope has chosen to underline a different thing. Saint John Paul II wanted to institute the devotion to the Divine Mercy, and he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska, saying that this is the time of mercy. Now this pope underlines a different part of the message, but this is normal in the history of the Church. Because, listen, if the pope lived to be in perfect continuity with his predecessors, then now — after 2,000 years — this pope would be a fisherman in Galilee.

Pope Francis, in his first year as pope, has been popular for his humility and accessibility, but to date, he has not written extensively. Apart from his homilies and short addresses, he has released only one encyclical, Lumen Fidei, and the Apostolic Exhortation which was begun by Pope Benedict, Evangelii Gaudium. Do you anticipate that we will be seeing additional encyclicals coming from his pen?

Well, remember, there was the first exhortation by Pope Benedict. Pope Francis added some things to it and signed it. And now he is working on an encyclical about ecology and the salvation of the earth and of all creation. And, also, on the creation of good and evil, the devil and the Fall. He is working on this text, and it will be published next year.

But I think it is not necessary to present the message by encyclical. You can also share the message in a simple homily every morning, or in personal testimony. We are living in a world of testimony, pictures, personal stories. This is my opinion: That a picture, a word, a gesture can reach more people around the world than can an encyclical.

I remember that in 1983, Pope John Paul II made the extraordinary gesture of forgiving Mehmet Ali Ağca, who had tried to kill him. The pope visited his attacker in prison and embraced him. Media around the world were captivated by that image of mercy, and spent more time reporting on it than they had spent reporting the message of Misericordia, which had been released three years earlier. The message was the same—but it was the gesture, more than the text, which reached an audience around the world.

Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

Devotions and FeastsPope Benedict XVIPope FrancisPope John Paul II
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