"Sometimes, you would want to be the first to guess what he was going to do, but then you know you’re going to be wrong!"
Earlier this month, La Croix, the venerable Catholic daily newspaper in France, made a splash when it published an exclusive interview with Pope Francis, in which he spoke about clericalism, the sex abuse crisis, secularism and a host of other issues confronting the world.
So I was a little surprised to get an email from one of the journalists who conducted that interview, Sébastien Maillard. He was interested in talking with me for a story he’s doing about the Jubilee of Deacons, about to get underway this weekend in Rome. (I’m in Rome to give a talk as part of the Jubilee on Friday.) Was I available, he asked, to chat by phone or in person? I sent him my cell phone number and within a few moments, he called. I invited him over to my hotel, Casa Bonus Pastor. “I can be there in 15 minutes,” he said.
And so it was that I found myself in the hotel lounge, sitting across from a tall, lanky young Frenchman with curly, uncombable hair and an easy smile, as he took out a pen and pad and started asking me about how and why I became a deacon.
We chatted for about 20 minutes or so and then I said, “Let me ask you something. Would you mind if I interviewed you?” During our conversation, he’d touched on some interesting ideas about Francis and what it was like covering this particular pope, a “pope of surprises,” as he described him. At one point he mentioned that people had different reasons for attending papal audiences over the years. “They wanted to see John Paul,” he explained, “and hear Benedict. But Francis, they want to touch.”
Sébastien was happy to expand on his thoughts a bit. Below is the transcript of that conversation.
GK: So, what are your impressions of covering this pope, after doing it for three years now?
SM: As a journalist we always want to be able to predict, to say what is going to happen. With this pope, you have to accept that you don’t know where you’re going and you’re going to be surprised, in a good sense. This pope has always something new to tell us. For example, when he creates cardinals. The cardinals themselves do not know beforehand that their name is going to come out. And so I remember interviewing all the new cardinals at the last consistory, and asking them how they discovered they were cardinals and they said, “Well, I heard it on the news or my sister saw it on TV and told me.” So they’re surprised themselves.
But I think Pope Francis doesn’t want to play any tricks. There is a Christian way of being surprised. He says himself, “Our God is a God of surprises.” Jesus Christ was the good news, in the sense of a good surprise, and so, he tries to bring us also surprise, by naming cardinals or by bringing back refugees to Rome—that was a surprise for the news, for the media, but also for the families themselves who were informed just 24 hours before that they would be welcomed aboard the papal plane. So it’s a bit frustrating, I know. Sometimes, you would want to be the first to guess what he was going to do, but then you know you’re going to be wrong! So it’s better to accept the freshness and beauty of good surprises.
GK: So what has this meant for you as a journalist?
SM: It has meant accepting not knowing what is going to happen today. You know when Easter is going to come. Christmas is supposed to be on the 25th of December. But apart from that, you aren’t sure of anything. And when the bulletino (the Vatican Press Office daily bulletin) comes out at noon, you can really expect anything. I think the same thing, for example, when the pope met the patriarch of Moscow, Kiril, in Cuba. That was a surprise, it would be hard to guess. When the pope creates cardinals or decides he’s going to go to Albania—I think that was also a surprise for the secretary of state. (Laughter.)
So I think he likes to not be where you expect him and not just to maneuver or play a trick. But it’s also for me as a Christian a way of accepting that the Holy Spirit is not always where or when you want him to be there and I think it’s another way of evangelizing.
GK: I did an essay recently and I referred to him as the New Evangelist of the New Evangelization. He has captured something, particularly in the way he uses the media. And I don’t think it’s a conscious thing that he’s doing, it’s just the way that he is, but I talked about the live interview with ABC News just before he came to the United States, and he took questions from people all over the country by satellite. The way he presents himself to the world is unlike anything we’ve seen. It seems to be purely instinctual. And as many people have said, he leads like a pastor, not an official or an administrator or something. He’s like a parish priest. And I think that’s one of the things that people love about him.
SM: Well, I was fortunate for this interview with La Croix to spend a full hour with him and it was like discussing with your parish priest. He expects to be interrupted—not to be rude, you know, but he wants it to be like a real conversation. He likes to be challenged. For instance, I remember once on one of his press conferences on a return flight, one with a German journalist who said, “You always talk about the poor, you talk about the rich, but you never talk about the middle class.” And the pope didn’t justify himself or try to explain, but instead he said, “You are right. This is very interesting. I will think about that.” And you could tell he liked being challenged on this.
I think he is the pope of the path, of the walk. Meaning, you can tell he is always thinking, his own thinking is in motion. He is never at a standstill. Perhaps John Paul II was the pope of life, talking about the sanctity of life. Benedict, was the pope of truth, speaking with the clarity of the truth. And Francis for me is the pope of the walk. The way. Jesus Christ himself defines himself as the way, the truth, the life. You have a pope for each one.
GK: That is beautiful. You should be a theologian. (Laughter).
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Does Pope Francis Still Surprise You?]