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Pope Francis on Americans: “They Were So Friendly, It Was Beautiful”

© ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP
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Pope Francis takes questions from the press on the flight From Philadelphia to Rome

What surprised you about the US and what was different from how you imagined it? What challenges does the Church in the US face?

It was my first time there, I had never been before. I was surprised by the people’s warmth – they were so friendly, it was beautiful – and also by the differences between Washington where I received a warm but slightly more formal welcome, New York which was overflowing and Philadelphia where people were very expressive. Three different types of welcome. I was very much struck by the goodness and hospitality shown to me and by the piety of the religious celebrations – you could see people praying. Thanks to God it all went well, there were no provocations, no insults, nothing unpleasant happened. The challenge is this: we have to continue working with these faithful as we have been doing so far, in times of joy and difficulty, when there is no work, when there is sickness. The challenge of today’s Church is one it has always faced: being close to the people of the US. Not removed from them, but close to them. And this is a challenge that the Church in the US is well aware of.

 

Philadelphia has been through some very difficult times what with the sex abuse scandal. Many found it  surprising that in your speech to bishops in Washington you offered words of consolation to the Church. Why did you feel the need to show compassion to the bishops?

In Washington I addressed all bishops of the US. I felt the need to express my compassion to them because a terrible thing happened and many of them have suffered because they did not know and when it all came out they suffered a great deal: they are men of the Church, men of prayer, true pastors. Using a word from the Revelation, I said to them: I know you have come forth from the great tribulation. What happened was a great tribulation. Then there were the words I addressed to those who suffered the abuse: it was almost a sacrilege! Abuse is witnessed everywhere: in the family, in the local neighbourhood, in schools, in gyms. But when a priest commits an act of abuse it is very serious indeed because a priest’s vocation is to raise that boy or girl to love God, so that they grow up to be good people. Instead, he crushed this with evil and betrayed his vocation, the Lord’s calling. Those in the Church who covered up the abuse are also guilty and that includes bishops. It is a terrible thing and the message I meant to get across through the words of comfort I offered bishops was not: don’t worry, it’s nothing. But: this was a terrible thing, I imagine you must have wept a great deal.

 

You spoke a great deal about forgiveness. There are many priests who did not ask for forgiveness in light of the abuse committed. Do you forgive them? And what do you think about those families who are not prepared to forgive?

When a person commits an evil deed, they are aware of what they have done and they do not ask for forgiveness. I ask God to take him into account, I forgive him  but he does not receive this forgiveness because he is closed. All of us have a duty to forgive because all of us have been forgiven. Receiving forgiveness is another thing. If a priest remains closed, he does not receive it because he has locked the door from the inside. All we can do is pray that the Lord opens that door. Not everyone can receive it, not everyone knows how to receive it or are prepared to receive it. This explains why people end their lives in a bad way and cannot feel God’s caress. I understand that families are unable to forgive: I pray for them, I do not judge them. I understand them. A woman once told me: when my mother realized I had been abused she swore at God, she lost her faith and became an atheist. I understand that woman. And God, who is even more good, understands her. I am sure that God embraced this woman because what it was her own flesh, the flesh of her daughter that was assaulted. I do not judge those who are not able to forgive. But God is the best at finding ways of forgiveness.

 

We have heard a great deal about the peace process in Colombia. Now, there is an historic agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. Do you feel involved at all in this agreement?

When I heard the news that in March the accord will be signed I said to the Lord, “Lord, help us reach March.”  The willingness is there on both sides. It is there, even in the small group, everyone is in agreement. We have to reach March, for the definitive accord, which is the point of international justice. I was very happy and I felt like I was a part of it because I have always wanted this. I spoke to president Santos twice about this problem and not only me but the Holy See. The Holy See – not just me – was always willing to help and do what it could.

 

What do you feel when the plane takes off from a country you have just visited?

I must be honest, when the plane leaves after a visit, I see the faces of so many people pass before me and I feel the urge to pray for them and say to the Lord: “I came here to do something, to go good, perhaps I  have done wrong, forgive me but protect all those people who saw  me, who thought of what I said, who heard me, even those who have criticized me.”

 

I wanted to ask you about the migration crisis in Europe: many countries are putting up barbed wire border fences. What do you have to say about this?

You mentioned the word “crisis.” It’s become a state of crisis after long process. For years, this process has exploded because wars for which those people leave and flee are wars waged for years. Hunger. It’s hunger for years. When I think of Africa – perhaps this is a bit simplistic – I think of it as “the exploited continent.” That is where they went to get slaves from, then they went for its great resources and, now there are wars, tribal or not. But they have economic interests behind them. And, I think that instead of exploiting a continent or a nation, investments should be made so that these people might have work. That way this crisis could have been avoided. You asked me about barriers. You know what happens to all walls. All of them. All walls fall. Today, tomorrow or in 100 years, they will fall. It’s not a solution. Walls are not a solution. At the moment, Europe finds itself in a difficult situation, this is true. We have to be intelligent. Finding solutions is not easy. But dialogue beween nations can lead to solutions. Walls are never the solution. But bridges are, always. What I think is that walls last for a short or a long time but they are not the solution. The problem remains but it also creates more hatred.

 

Regarding the Synod, we would like to know if in your heart as a pastor, you really want a solution to the remarried divorcee issue. And also whether your motu proprio on speeding up the annulment process has closed this debate. Finally, how do you respond to those who fear that with this reform, there is a de facto creation of a so-called “Catholic divorce?”

 

With the reform of the marriage annulment procedure, I closed the door to the administrative path, which was the path through which divorce could have made its way in. Those who think this is equivalent with “Catholic divorce” are mistaken because this last document has closed the door to divorce by which it could have entered. It would have been easier with the administrative path. There will always be the judicial path. The majority of the Synod fathers in last year’s Synod called for the process to be streamlined because there are cases that have dragged on for ten or so years. There’s a sentence, then another sentence, and after that there’s an appeal and then another appeal. It never ends. The double sentence was introduced by Pope Lambertini, Benedict XIV because in central Europe there were some abuses, and so he introduced this in order to stop these abuses but it’s not something essential to the process. The procedure changes, jurisprudence changes, it gets better. The motu proprio facilitates the processes and the timing, but it is not divorce because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. And this the Church cannot change. It’s doctrine. It’s an indissoluble sacrament. The legal trial is to prove that what seemed to be a sacrament wasn’t a sacrament, for lack of freedom, for example, or for lack of maturity, or for mental illness, or, there are so many reasons that bring about (an annulment), after a study, an investigation. That there was no sacrament. For example, that the person wasn’t free.  Another example – though now it’s not so common – is that in some sectors of common society, at least in Buenos Aires, there were weddings when the woman got pregnant: “you have to get married.” I strongly advised my priests – almost prohibiting them –  not to celebrate weddings in these conditions. We called them “speedy weddings.” They were to keep up appearances. Then babies are born and some work out but there’s no freedom. Others go wrong little by little; they separate and say: “I was forced to get married because we had to cover up this situation” and this is a reason for nullity. In as far as the issue of second marriages – divorcees, who enter into a new union – is concerned, read the Instrumentum laboris, the Synod’s working document. To me it seems a bit simplistic to say that the solution for these people is the possibility of accessing communion. But remarried divorcees is not the only issue, there is also the problem of new unions and of young people who don’t want to get married. Another problem is emotional maturity for marriage, faith: do I believe this is forever? To become a priest there is an eight-year preparation period, but to make a lifelong commitment to someone through marriage, all it takes is four premarital preparation sessions! Thinking about how to prepare for marriage is a difficult thing. But “Catholic divorce” does not exist. Nullity is granted if the union never existed. But if it did, it is indissoluble.

 

We know that you visited the Little Sisters of the Poor and we were told that you wanted to show your support for them and their case in the courts. Holy Father, do you also support government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?

I do not recall all specific cases of conscience objection. But what I can say is that conscientious objection is a human right. And if a person does not allow others to be conscientious objectors, then they deny them a right. Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying “this right that has merit, this one does not.” I always felt moved as a boy when I read the Song of Roland, in which there is a scene about the Muslims queuing up at the baptismal font or before the sword. And, they had to choose. Conscientious objection was not permitted. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights.

 

At the UN you used very strong language to denounce the world’s silence in the light of the persecution of Christians. [French] President [Francois] Hollande has started bombing ISIS in Syria. What is your view on this?

I heard about this a couple of days ago and I am not fully up to speed on the current situation. When I hear the words bombing, death, blood, here I will repeat what I said in Congress and at the UN: these things need to be avoided. But, I cannot judge the political situation because I don’t know enough about it.

 

Ignazio Marino, the mayor of Rome, city of the Jubilee, said he came to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia because you invited him…

I did not invite Mayor Marino, is that clear? And neither did the organizers I spoke to invite him. He professes himself to be a Catholic, he came of his own accord.

 

I wanted to ask you a question about relations between the Holy See and China and the situation in this country which is quite difficult for the Catholic Church too. What is your take on this?

China is a great nation that offers the world a great culture, so many good things. I said once on the plane when were flying over China on the way back from Korea that I would very much like to go to China. I love the Chinese people and I hope there is possibility of establishing good relations. We are in contact, we talk, we are moving forward. But for me, visiting a great friendly country like China, which has so much culture and so much opportunity to do good, would be a joy.

 

Your words about the women religious of the US were striking. Some of them are asking for the female priesthood. Will we see female priests in the Catholic Church as in other Christian Churches?

The sisters of the United States have done marvels in the field of education, in the field of health. The people of the United States love the sisters – I don’t know how much they may love the priests, (laughs, Ed.) – but they love the sisters, they love them so much. They are great, they are great, great, great women. This is why I felt I had to say thank you for what they have done. An important US government figure told me in the last few days: “The education I have, I owe above all to the sisters.” The sisters have schools in all neighborhoods, rich and poor. They work with the poor and in the hospitals. Regarding the issue of women priests, that is not possible. St. John Paul II said so clearly. Not because women do not have the ability. In the Church women are more important than men, because the Church is a woman: [In Italian] it is “la chiesa,” not “il chiesa.” The Church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests. I must admit we are a bit late in an elaboration of the theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology. Yes, that’s true.

 

Your trip to the US was a success. Do you feel more powerful after all those crowds that turned up?

I don’t know if I was successful or not. But I am afraid of myself because if I am afraid of myself I always feel weak in the sense of not having power. Power is a fleeting thing, here today, gone tomorrow. It’s important if you can do good with power. And Jesus defined power: the true power is to serve, to serve in the most humble of ways. And I must still make progress on this path of service because I feel that I don’t do everything that I should do.

 

Holy Father, you have become a star in the United States. Is it good for the Church for the Pope to be a star?

You know what a Pope’s title is? “Servant of the servants of God.” It’s a little different from being a star. Stars are beautiful to look at. I like to look at them in the summer when the sky is clear. But the Pope must be the servant of the servants of God. There is also another truth. How many stars have we seen that go out and fall. It is a fleeting thing. But being a servant of the servants of God is something that is not passing.

This interview was published by La Stampa’s Vatican Insider and is reprinted here with permission.
 

 

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