May 24, 2015— Alone with Pope Francis at his residence at Santa Marta, in the Vatican, Argentine journalist Juan Berretta, in an historic one-on-one interview, engages one of the most important people in the world, who reveals his personal thoughts and feelings. "I want them to remember me as a good person," he says. And he admits, from the depths of his heart, "Being with people does me good."
In a small and simple room in the Santa Marta residence, in the Vatican, Pope Francis received La Voz de Pueblo [The People’s Voice] without the presence of third parties, and under only one condition: "The only thing I ask is that you play clean," he said before we began to record. Later, during the 45 minute interview, he would admit that "reporters used to make me panic." It’s clear that he has overcome that trauma.
Jorge Bergoglio was willing to walk us through his personal life, answering with intensity and with gestures when the question interested him, and also giving dry and direct answers when faced with a question that, according to his response, could create an uproar outside the walls of the Holy See. Solitude, pizza, fear of physical pain, his magnetism, the things that make him cry, pressure, television, the value of utopias… These were some of the points that he touched on during the conversation, which started on the topic of his election.
Did you used to dream of being the Pope?
Never! Nor about being the president of the Republic or the general of the Army. You’ve seen that there are some kids who dream about that. Not I.
But you didn’t fantasize about that possibility as you advanced in your service as a bishop, either?
After I was in positions of authority for 15 years, where they kept assigning me, I went back to the simple life, to being a confessor, a parish priest… The life of a religious, of a Jesuit, changes according to needs. And regarding the possibility, I was on the list of "papabili" during the other conclave… But this time, because of my age, 76 years old, and because in addition there were certainly better-suited people… So nobody mentioned my name, nobody. Besides, they said that I was a "kingmaker" (as they call cardinals who, due to their experience and authority, are more able than others to influence the electoral results). So much so, that not even one photo of me came out in the newspapers; nobody was thinking about me. The London bookmakers ranked me in 46th place (he laughs heartily). I wasn’t thinking about myself either; it didn’t even occur to me.
Despite the fact that in 2005 you were the second most voted after Ratzinger?
Those are things people say. What’s true is that at least in the other election I was in the newspapers; I appeared among the "papabili." Inside, it was clear that it had to be Benedict, and there was almost unanimity in his favor, and I liked that very much. His candidacy was clear, and there was no clear second-place candidate. There were several possibilities, but none was strong. That’s why I came to Rome with just what I was wearing and with a ticket to go back on Saturday night so I could be in Buenos Aires on Palm Sunday. I even left my homily finished on my desk. I never thought it was going to happen.
And when you were elected, what did you feel?
Before the final election I felt great peace. "If it’s what God wants…," I thought. And I stayed peaceful. While they were counting the votes, which takes forever, I prayed the rosary, unworried. My friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes was at my side. In a vote prior to the definitive one he said to me, "Don’t worry, eh. This is how the Holy Spirit works…" (he laughs again).
And you accepted immediately?
They took me to the Sacristy, they changed my cassock, and game on! And there, I said what came to me naturally.
So then, it was something natural.
Yes, I felt full of peace and I said what came from my heart.
Do you recognize the magnetism people experience towards you? I say this because of the "plus" your personage gives to the papal institution.
And, yes… I know that people… (he pauses) First, I didn’t understand why that happened. And some cardinals tell me that the people say, "We understand him." Of course, I try to communicate clearly in my audiences, in the things that I say, like today (at the public Wednesday audience) when I told a story about when I was in fourth grade. That is when the people understand what I want to say. Like when I talked about the case of parents who are separated, who use their children like hostages; it’s very sad, they turn them into victims. The father speaks badly about the mother, or the other way around, and the poor child ends up lost and confused in his head. I try to be concrete, and that is what you call magnetism; certain cardinals tell me that it is related to the fact that the people understand me.
Do you enjoy public audiences?
Yes, I enjoy them humanly and spiritually, both ways. Being with people is good for me, it gives me "good vibes," as they say. It’s like my life gets involved with the people. I, psychologically, can’t live without people; I could never be a monk, that’s why I stayed here to live in this house (in the Santa Maria residence). This is a guest house. There are 210 rooms; 40 of us who work in the Holy See live here and others are guests, bishops, priests, lay people, who stay here while passing through. And that does me a lot of good. Coming here, eating in the dining room, where all the people are, celebrating that Mass when people come from outside, from parishes, four days a week… I like that very much. And I became a priest to be with the people. I give thanks to God that I haven’t lost that.
What do you miss from your life before the papacy?
Going out into the street. I do miss that, the tranquility of walking through the streets. Or going to a pizzeria to eat a good pizza (he laughs).
You can ask for delivery to the Vatican.
Yes, but it’s not the same; the point is to go there. I always loved being out on the street. As a cardinal, I loved to walk along the streets, use public transportation, the subway. I love the city, I am a city dweller at heart. I couldn’t live in a city like yours, for example, it would be very hard for me… No, Tres Arroyos isn’t so small, I actually could live there. I couldn’t live out in the country.
Do you move around the city here?
Noooo, (he laughs heartily again). I visit parishes… But I can’t go out. Imagine me going out here (on the street) and things get complicated. One day I went out in the car alone with the chauffeur and I forgot to roll up the window; it was open and I didn’t realize it. And it turned into a mess… I was in the passenger’s seat, we had to go just over there, but the people didn’t let the car move forward. Of course, if the Pope is out in the street…
That has to do with your personality.
It’s true that here they call me undisciplined; I don’t follow protocol very much. Protocol is very cold, although there are official things to which I am totally faithful.
Can you sleep at night; do you disconnect?
I sleep so deeply that I lie down in bed and I fall asleep. I sleep for six hours. Normally, I am in bed at nine and I read until almost ten. When one of my eyes begins to water I turn out the light and I am out cold until four when I wake up on my own; it’s my biological clock. I need a siesta later, it’s true. I need to sleep from 40 minutes to an hour. There, I take off my shoes and I lie down on my bed. And I sleep deeply then too, and I also wake up on my own. On the days when I don’t take a siesta, I feel it.
What do you read before falling asleep?
Right now I am reading about Saint Silvanus the Athonite, a great spiritual teacher.
During your visit to Manila in the summer, you spoke of the importance of crying. Do you cry?
When I see human dramas. Like the other day when I saw what is happening with the Rohingya people, who are travelling on those big boats in Thai waters, and when they get near land, they give them a little bit of food, water, and they cast them out to sea again. This moves me deeply, that kind of drama. Then, sick children. When I see what they call here "rare diseases," that are the result of disregard for the environment, I get all stirred up inside. When I see those little children, I say to the Lord: "Why them and not me?" I am also moved when I go to prison. Of the three Holy Thursdays that I’ve had, on two of them I went to jails, one time to one for juveniles and the other time to the Rebibbia one. And afterwards in other cities in Italy that I visited, I went to the jail, and I had lunch with them; and while I was talking with them, the thought came into my head: "To think that I could be here…" That is to say, none of us is certain that we will never commit a crime, something worth going to jail for. And then I ask why God allowed me not to be here. And I feel sorry for them and I thank God that I am not in jail, but at the same time I feel like that gratitude is a luxury too, because they didn’t have the opportunity that I had of not having committed a crime worthy of imprisonment. That makes me cry inside. I feel that very strongly.
But do you end up crying with tears?
I don’t cry publicly. There were two times that I was on the borderline, but I was able to stop on time. I was very, very moved, there were even a few tears that escaped me, but I played dumb and after a little while I passed my hand over my face.
Why didn’t you want them to see you cry?
I don’t know, it seemed to me I had to keep going.
What were those situations?
One I remember, the other I don’t. The one I remember had to do with the persecution of Christians in Iraq. I was talking about that and I felt profoundly moved. To think of those children…
What are you afraid of?
In general, I’m not afraid. I tend to be more reckless; I act without weighing the consequences. Sometimes that causes me headaches because an extra word slips out here and there (once again, he laughs hard). As far as assassination attempts go, I am in God’s hands and in my prayer I spoke to the Lord and I said to him, "Look, if this has to happen, let it happen; I only ask you for one gift: that it not cause me pain" (he laughs), because I am a coward when it comes to physical pain. I can withstand spiritual suffering, but physical suffering, no. I am very cowardly in that regard. It’s not that I’m afraid of getting an injection, but I prefer not to have problems with physical pain. I have a very low tolerance; I take it as an after-effect of the lung operation they performed on me when I was 19 years old.
Do you feel pressured?
There is pressure. Every person in government feels pressure. Right now, what is hardest for me is the intense amount of work. I am working at a very hard rhythm. It’s a syndrome of the end of the school year, which ends here at the end of June. And then a thousand things happen at the same time, and there are problems… And afterwards, there are the problems they create for you, with what I said or didn’t say… The mass media also grab a word from over there and take it out of context. The other day I was in the parish of Ostia, near Rome. I go along greeting the people, and they had put the elderly and the sick in the gymnasium. They were sitting down and I walked by and greeted them. Then I said, "Look how funny, here where children usually play are the elderly and the sick. I understand you because I’m old too and I also have my aches and pains, I’m a little bit sick." The next day the newspapers say: "The Pope admitted that he was sick." There’s nothing you can do against that enemy.
And are you on top of everything that is published?
No, no. I only read one newspaper, La Repubblica, which is a middle class paper. I do it in the morning and it doesn’t take me more than 10 minutes to skim it. I haven’t watched television since the year 1990 (he takes his time to answer). It’s a promise I made to Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the night of July 15, 1990.
For any particular reason?
No, no, I said to myself, "this isn’t for me."
You don’t watch the San Lorenzo [Argentine soccer club] games?
I don’t watch anything.
How do you find out the results?
There is a Swiss Guard who gives me the results and how they are doing in the league tables every week.
Among the popes, would you be a Messi or a Mascherano?
I wouldn’t know what to tell you because I don’t know how to distinguish between the styles of the two, because I don’t watch football. Messi came here twice and that’s it, I haven’t seen him.
Do you navigate on the Internet?
Not at all. And I never gave interviews; this is something that has just started to come to me. It’s the grace of state. Before, facing a journalist made me panic.
What is your view of Argentina from the Vatican?
I see it as a country with many possibilities and so many lost opportunities, as Cardinal Quarracino used to say. And it’s true. We are a country that has lost so many opportunities throughout history. Something is going on there, given all the wealth that we have. Like the story about the ambassadors from countries who went to God to complain because so many riches had been given to the Argentinians, and only one to them, either agriculture or mining. God listened to them and replied: "No, excuse me, to balance things out, I gave the Argentinians to themselves."
Are politics in Argentina continuing to evolve?
No, not at all. I cut off receiving politicians here because I realized that some were using that and my photo, although it’s also true that another one neither said he had been with me nor published the photo. But to avoid that, no more politicians in private audiences. If they come, they go to the general audiences, and I greet them. But I don’t know how the elections are going, nor who the candidates are. I can imagine who the main ones are, but I don’t know how the tensions are either. I know that the PRO [political party] won in the PASO [primary elections] in Buenos Aires, because I saw it in the newspaper; it was even mentioned in La Repubblica.
Do you like it when they catalog you as "the Pope who is poor”?
If they put other words with that, yes. "Poor guy," for example… (he laughs heartily again). Poverty is the center of the Gospel. Jesus came to preach to the poor. If you take poverty out of the Gospel, you don’t understand anything; you take its heart out.
Isn’t it a utopia to think that poverty can be eliminated?
Yes, but utopias pull us forward. It would be sad if a young man or woman didn’t have a utopian dream. There are three things we all need to have in life: memory, capacity to see the present, and a utopian vision for the future. We can’t lose our memory. When nations lose their memory, there’s the great drama of neglecting the elderly. Capacity to analyze the present, to interpret it and know the path to follow with that memory, with those roots we carry, how I have to handle the present. That’s the life of young people and adults. And the future, that’s for the young people above all and for the children [to determine], with memory, with capability of managing the present, of discerning, and a utopian vision for the future, which is where young people are involved. That is why the future of a nation is shown in caring for the elderly, who are the memory, and for the children and young people, who are the ones who will carry it forward. We adults have to receive that memory, work on it in the future and give it to the children. I once read something very beautiful: "The present, the world we have received, is not only an inheritance of the grownups, but rather a loan given us by our children so we can give it back better than it was." If I cut my roots and I lose my memory, that which happens to every plant will happen to me: I am going to die; if I live only in the present without looking at forward to the future, I will suffer the same thing as every bad administrator who doesn’t know how to make projections. Environmental pollution is a phenomenon of that kind. The three have to go together; when any of them is missing, a nation beings to decline.
What are the worst evils affecting the world today?
Poverty, corruption, human trafficking… I might be wrong about the statistics, but what would you say to me if I asked you on what item more money is spent in the world after food, clothing and medicine? The fourth is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. This is very serious, eh. Taking care of pets is like love that is a bit programmed; that is to say, I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat, and now I don’t need to experience a love of human reciprocity. I am exaggerating, this shouldn’t be taken literally, but it is something to worry about.
Why do you always repeat, "pray for me?"
Because I need it. I need to be sustained by the prayer of the people. It’s an interior necessity; I need to be sustained by the prayer of the people.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good person. I’d like them to say: "This man was a good person who tried to do good." I have no other aspiration.
Article originally published by La Voz del Pueblo. Translated by Matthew Green.