Francis gets candid with Israeli interviewer, revealing hopes and frustrations.
In his first interview with an Israeli media outlet—and a long one at that—Pope Francis has opened up a little more about his life, his frustrations and his approach to the priesthood and the papacy.
The interview was conducted during 10 hours of face-to-face meetings between the Pope and Henrique Cymerman of Israel News, and several phone calls, one of which came in the wake of an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue that left five people dead.
“I harshly condemn any kind of violence in the name of God," Francis told the journalist. "I’ve been following the worrying escalation in Jerusalem and other communities in the Holy Land with much concern, and I pray for the victims and all those suffering from the unacceptable violence, which doesn’t bypass places of worship and ritual. From the depths of my heart, I am urging all the parties involved to put an end to the hatred and violence and work towards reconciliation and peace. It’s hard to build peace; but living without peace is an absolute nightmare."
Reflecting on his own visit to the Holy Land this year, a trip that he said opened his eyes to many things, Francis revealed that being in the land of the Incarnation was a spiritual high point. “When I experience powerful emotions,” he said, “I become introverted; and it slowly grows until it is evident on the outside.
Cymerman asked the Pope about the possibility of opening Vatican archives that might shed more light on the role of the Church during World War II, particularly that of Pope Pius XII. Francis strongly defended his wartime predecessor, reminding the interviewer that before the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy, Pius was almost universally hailed for his assistance to the Jews who were persecuted by the National Socialists who then ran Germany.
“During the Holocaust, Pius gave refuge to many Jews in monasteries in Italy. In the Pope’s bed at Castel Gandolfo, 42 small children were born to couples who found refuge there from the Nazis. These are things that people don’t know,” Francis said. “I’m not saying that he didn’t make mistakes. But when you interpret history, you need to do so from the way of thinking of the time in question. I can’t judge historical events in modern-day terms. It doesn’t work. I’ll never get to the truth like that.”
But the Pope also made the point that today, there is more persecution of Christians than there was in the early days of the Church. He acknowledged the risks to his own person, particularly with the threat from the Islamic State group, but indicated a resigned attitude towards mortality: “At my age, I don’t have much to lose.”
More important to him is the ability to be close to people as a pastor. At World Youth Day in Rio, for example, he insisted on forgoing the bullet-proof glass-encased Popemobile. “I told them I wasn’t going to bless the faithful and tell them I love them from inside a sardine can, even if it’s made of glass,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a wall.”
He said that on his way back from the pastoral visit to Korea this year, he wanted to stop in Iraq, where the Islamic State has forced thousands of Christians and others from their homes, but that his security people "wouldn’t let me.”
The Pope told Cymerman that he regularly signs a waiver assuming responsibility “for anything that might happen” to him in public, particularly on foreign trips.
Asked if he still feels like a “simple priest” or if he has “become accustomed” to the fact that he holds “the highest position in the Catholic Church,” Francis responded.
He said that the conclave that elected him made a number of recommendations for changes, and that he is now putting many of them into effect, such as the Council of Cardinals with which he meets once every two or three months to discuss Vatican reforms.
One change, though, may be attributable to his immediate predecessor, and Francis once again spoke about following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict in announcing an early retirement, if he discerns that that is God’s will. Francis, however, might not stay at the Vatican. He spoke about having already made plans before his election to the papacy to retire to a home for retired priests in Argentina and work as a "rank-and-file priest" and "help the communities."
One thing apparently hasn’t changed for Jorge Mario Bergoglio since he moved to Rome. According to Cymerman, the Pope always carries with him in his white robes a photo of his favorite soccer team, Argentina’s San Lorenzo.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.