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Father Antonio Spadaro is a Jesuit priest, doctor of theology and a specialist in the field of social communications. He is a journalist, and the chief editor of La Civiltà Cattolica. Aleteia was very happy to have a chance to meet with him recently, and ask some questions about his relationship with Pope Francis, the challenges this pope brings to the Church, and the outlook for World Youth Day and beyond.
How did you come to be a close associate of Pope Francis?
This may seem strange, but the truth is that he just called me, and on my cell phone! I was very surprised and unsure what to say or how to address him.
The Holy Father just called and said: ‘Hello, this is Pope Francis speaking’?
Exactly. It was quite funny, because that day I was to deliver a lecture at a seminary, and the phone rang at 6:55, and from some unknown number. I was wondering whether to pick it up because I was in a hurry. In the end, I decided to pick up and was going to ask the calling person to call back later. Then I heard: “Good morning, this is Pope Francis speaking.”
And the pope said?
After a moment of complete shock, like, ‘Oh, my God!” I said perhaps a little incredulously: “His Holiness?” Then I asked, how do I respond to the Holy Father. And he said: “There is nothing to be alarmed about,” and we began to talk freely. During the conversation I asked him for an official audience, as the editor of “La Civiltà Cattolica.” This is not really so unusual, due to the strong relationship our magazine has with the Vatican. For the chief editor to have an audience with the new pope is a tradition. Francis agreed to this audience, which occurred a few weeks later, and there I asked him for permission to grant me an interview. He agreed. As a result, we spent three long afternoons together. It was our first long and serious conversation. So it just started like that.
And now, how often do you meet?
Irregularly. Rather, from time to time. I am no one special; the Holy Father meets so many people from all over the world. This makes him well informed — very abreast of things. Usually, I accompany the Pope on his travels, and I was also with his appointment as a member of two synods dedicated to the family.
Still, you are closer to Pope Francis than most people in the world. Hence, for example, you may know the answer to this question: Does the pope have his own cell phone?
No, he does not. He has no computer, no phone. In the House of St. Marta His Holiness uses a traditional landline or sometimes calls from his personal secretary’s phone.
I ask this because Francis clearly does not avoid the so-called selfies.
That’s true, but not due to a personal familiarity with the smartphone. I was even present at a situation in which someone first asked him for a photo together and tried to set it. Francis looked surprised. His face appeared puzzled, as if to say, “What are you doing? I do not understand what this is all about.” But after he understood, his face lit up and he permitted the picture. Since then, he is quite willing to agree to selfies with young people.
But why? Just to give young people a little fun?
No. The reason is deeper. If you are taking an ordinary photo, the subject is completely separated from the photographer. In the case selfie photographer and the subject of the pictures are together on the same side; the separation disappears. There is nothing to do with a fad, then, but rather touches on his deep pastoral sensitivity. Francis is not a technology geek and calls himself a technological dinosaur. But he understands the logic of the internet and social networks.
Why does the pope, speaking to the young, so often mention the elderly?
This is due to the vision of the Church, which is global. He simply does not like to pigeon-hole people. Young people need hope for the future, while the elderly need care and are often marginalized. For society to be healthy, it is necessary to keep the elderly at the awareness of the young, because society needs both energy young and old wisdom. Francis sees the future and the past together. Thus, in a natural way, he talks to young about old – he is not trying to build a separate ideology dedicated exclusively young people. He talks to them always in the context of the whole society, because that is exactly what their lives must encounter — the whole society, with the elderly living side-by-side with them.
The young people who have come from all over the world to Kraków to meet the pope are often in the course of the search for identity. Do you think they would receive from Francis some guidance in this respect?
Francis does not speak of and would rather not talk about identity as something that distinguishes us from others. On the contrary, for him, identity is something that is built up on the basis of relationships with others — something that emphasizes the process of participation, of experiencing something together. Hence identity is found, for example, in the feeling of being a member of the family, society, nation or religion. The Pope does not focus on the differences but rather looks to find bridges and common elements. On the religious level, he uses events such to strengthen this identity and help to form the character.
For example, the washing of the feet during the liturgy of Holy Thursday: the Holy Father selects special places, like a prison, a refugee center, or something like that. He washes the feet there, and he is present to very different people — men and women, convicts, including Muslims. It should be looked at as a symbolic reference to the actual identity of Europe. For Francis, the Christian roots of Europe are not some abstract value, which you have to defend against enemies. These actions are rooted in what Jesus did; he served and washed his feet. These are the real roots of Europe.
This vision of European Christianity, and no doubt also for us, the Poles, is the challenge. Just as Francis seems to change established routines for which the Church has always had a clear explanation, is the pope not afraid that — as some suggest – this introduces too much confusion?
I think that for him the questions are more important than the answers. Naturally, the explanations are important, but for Francis, a good response is not a thought, an idea, or a science, but it is Jesus himself as a person, and how to create a relationship with him. The pope is more interested in driving people to the relationship [with Christ] than on what answer to provide for each question. Besides, he knows very well that the answer that seems appropriate for one does not always fit all.
Some would call this relativism.
And this is a huge mistake! Francis himself has also explained this. In one of his public letters he addressed the fact that there is such a thing as a good relativism, in this sense: that God enters into a personal relationship with each person, and each relationship is bound to be different [in the sense that] what may be a huge step forward for some may be something quite ordinary for others. In other words, the Gospel, which is unchangeable, is the answer — the most important answer, at that. There may be different answers to particular problems, though.
Do you expect something special of the World Youth Day in Poland, Father?
World Youth Day is taking place in Europe, and Europe is currently in a specific situation. We have serious tension. We also have a crisis of values, while Poland, in the background, seems to be the heart of Europe. With its great and proud history, it has had to suffer many things and fight for freedom. So it’s something interesting, when we compare Poland with the rest of the continent. Apart from that, it is the young participants with the pope that offer a unique flavor to each World Youth Day. Let us prepare for surprises!
Translated from the Polish