A Normal Man Who Loves Being a Priest

Author: Ferruccio de Bortoli

A Normal Man Who Loves Being a Priest

Ferruccio de Bortoli

Pope Francis in an interview granted to the Editor-in-Chief of 'Corriere della Sera'

In moral discipline the question is not changing doctrine but seeking its depth

Published here is a translation of the integral text of the interview granted by Pope Francis to the Editor-in-Chief of the Milanese daily 'Corriere della Sera', published on 5 March [2014]. The interview was published simultaneously in Spanish in the Argentinian daily newspaper 'La Nación'.

One year has passed since that simple "good evening" that moved the world. The span of 12 very intense months — not only for the life of the Church — struggles to contain the great harvest of Francis' changes and the many profound signs of his pastoral innovation. We are in a small room in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. A single window looks out onto a courtyard that opens slightly onto a small corner of the blue sky. It is a most beautiful day, springlike, warm. The Pope appears suddenly through a door, with a relaxed and smiling face. He is amused by the various recording devices that the senile anxiety of the journalist placed on the table. "Do they all work? Yes? Good". The assessment of this year? No, he doesn't like assessments. "I only make them every 15 days, with my confessor".

Holy Father, every now and then you telephone people who have asked you for help, and sometimes they don't believe it's you.

Yes, it has happened. When someone phones it is because one wants to talk, to ask a question, to ask for advice. As a priest in Buenos Aires it was easier. It is still my custom. A service. I feel it within. Of course, now it is not so easy given the number of people who write to me.

Is there a contact, an encounter, that you remember with particular affection?

An 80-year-old widow who had lost her son wrote to me. And now I give her a little call every month. She is happy. I am being a priest. I like it.

In regard to your relationship with your predecessor: Have you ever asked Benedict XVI for advice?

Yes. A pope emeritus is not a statue in a museum. He is an institution. We were not accustomed to it. Sixty or 70 years ago, the figure of a bishop emeritus didn't exist. That came after the Council and now it's an institution. The same has to happen with the Pope emeritus. Benedict is the first and perhaps there will be others. We don't know. He is discreet, humble, and he doesn't want to intrude. We spoke about it and we decided together that it would be better for him to see people, to go out and participate in the life of the Church. Once, he came for the blessing of the statue of St Michael the Archangel, then for lunch at Santa Marta, and after Christmas, I invited him to participate in the Consistory and he accepted. His wisdom is a gift from God. Some would have preferred that he retreat to a Benedictine abbey far from the Vatican. I thought about grandparents who, by their wisdom and counsel, strengthen the family and do not deserve to end their days in a retirement home.

This is our impression of your way of governing: you listen to everyone but you decide alone — somewhat like the Father General of the Jesuits. Is the pope a man who is alone?

Yes and no, but I understand what you wish to say to me. The Pope is not alone in his work because, he is supported and advised by many. And he would be a man who is alone were he to decide without listening or after having pretended to listen. However, there comes the moment when one must decide, when one must sign, a moment when he is alone with his sense of responsibility.

You have reformed and criticized some attitudes among the clergy, shaken up the Curia, not without some resistance and opposition. Has the Church already changed as you wanted it to one year ago?

Last March, I had no plan to change the Church. I wasn't expecting this transfer of diocese, let us say. I began to govern, seeking to put into practice everything that had emerged in debate among the Cardinals of various Congregations. But in my actions I wait for the Lord to inspire me. I'll give you an example: the spiritual care of people who work in the Curia was discussed, and then spiritual retreats began. More importance should have been given to annual retreats: everyone has a right to spend five days in silence and meditation, whereas before in the Curia they listened to three homilies a day and then some continued working.

Tenderness and mercy are at the heart of your pastoral message ...

And of the Gospel. It is the heart of the Gospel. Otherwise one cannot understand Jesus Christ, the tenderness of the Father who sent him to listen to us, to heal us, to save us.

But has this message been understood? You said that the "Francis mania" would not last long. Is there something in your public image that you do not like?

I like to be among the people, with those who suffer, and to visit parishes. I don't like the ideological interpretations, a certain mythology, of Pope Francis. When it is said, for instance, that I go out of the Vatican at night to feed beggars on Via Ottaviano — the thought has never occurred to me. Sigmund Freud said, if I'm not mistaken, that in all idealization there is a kind of aggression. To depict the Pope as a sort of superman, some kind of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps peacefully and has friends like everyone else. He is a normal person.

Are you homesick for Argentina?

The truth is that I don't get homesick. I would like to visit my sister, who is sick; she is the last of the five of us. I'd love to see her, but this doesn't justify a trip to Argentina: I call her on the phone, that is enough. I don't think I'll go before 2016, because I have already been to Latin America, to Rio. Now I have to go to the Holy Land, to Asia, and then to Africa.

You just renewed your Argentine passport. And yet, you are a head of state.

I renewed it because it had expired.

Were you displeased by the accusations of being a marxist, especially in America, after the promulgation of 'Evangelii gaudium'?

Not at all. I have never shared the Marxist ideology because it is not true; but I have known many great people who professed Marxism.

The scandals that rocked the life of the Church are fortunately behind us. A public appeal was made to you on the delicate subject of the abuse of minors, which was published by 'Il Foglio' and signed by the philosophers Besancon and Scruton among others. They asked that you raise your voice against the fanaticism and evil conscience of a secularized world which has little respect for children.

I wish to say two things. Cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very profound wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and paved the way. The Church has progressed considerably along this path, perhaps more than anyone. The statistics on the phenomenon of violence against children are shocking, but they also clearly show that the vast majority of abuse happens in the family and the neighbourhood environment. The Catholic Church is maybe the only public institution to have acted on this transparently and responsibly. No one else did as much. And yet the Church is the only one being attacked.

Holy Father, you say that "the poor evangelize us". The attention given to poverty, the most powerful mark of your message, is taken by some observers as a profession of pauperism. The Gospel does not condemn wealth; and Zacchaeus was wealthy and charitable.

The Gospel condemns the worship of wealth. Pauperism is one of the critical interpretations. In Medieval times there were many pauperist currents. St Francis had the genius to set the theme of poverty within the context of the evangelical journey. Jesus says that one cannot serve two masters, God and Wealth. And when we are judged at the end of time (Matthew 25) our closeness to poverty will matter. Poverty draws us away from idolatry and opens the doors to Providence. Zacchaeus gives half of his wealth to the poor. And at the end, the Lord will call to account those whose barns are full of their own egoism. What I think about poverty, I expressed clearly in Evangelii gaudium.

You have pointed out in globalization, especially financial, some of the evils assaulting humanity. However, globalization has also brought millions of people out of poverty. It has brought hope, a rare sentiment not to be confused with optimism.

It is true that globalization has saved many from poverty; however, it has condemned many others to die of hunger, for this kind of economic system becomes selective. The globalization envisioned by the Church does not resemble a sphere in which every point is equidistant from the centre and in which the distinctive features of peoples are lost. Rather, it resembles a polyhedron, with its different facets, in which each nation retains its own culture, language, religion and identity. The current "spherical" form of economic globalization, especially financial, generates only one way of thinking, a weak way of thinking. And the human person is no longer at its centre, only money.

The subject of the family is central to the work of the Council of eight Cardinals. Many things have changed since John Paul II's Exhortation 'Familiaris consortio'. There are two Synods scheduled, and big changes are expected. Regarding divorced persons you have said: they should not be condemned, they should be helped.

The Church has a long journey to make, a process that the Lord wants. Three months after my election, the topics for the Synod were submitted to me, and it was proposed that we discuss what Jesus is offering man today. But in the end, through gradual changes — which for me were a sign of God's will — we decided to discuss the family which is going through a very serious crisis. Young people rarely marry. There are many broken families in which a common plan of life has failed. The children suffer greatly. We must respond. But in order to do this, we need to reflect very deeply. This is what the Consistory and the Synod are doing. We need to avoid stopping at the surface. The temptation to resolve every issue through casuistry is a mistake, a simplification of profound things. This is what the Pharisees did, it is a very superficial theology. And it is in the light of this profound. reflection that particular situations will be able seriously to be addressed with pastoral depth, also those pertaining to the divorced.

Why did Cardinal Walter Kasper's report in the last Consistory (on the abyss between the doctrine on marriage and the family and the real life of many Christians) generate so much division among the cardinals? How do you think that the Church will be able to go through these two years of toilsome journey and arrive at a broad and peaceful consensus? If the doctrine is solid, why is debate needed?

Cardinal Kasper offered a beautiful and profound presentation, which will soon be published in German. He addressed five points, the fifth of which is that of second marriages. I would have been concerned if there hadn't been intense discussion in the Consistory, it would have been useless. The Cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented many different viewpoints, which enrich [the discussion]. Fraternal and open debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow. That does not frighten me. Indeed, I seek it.

In the recent past, it was customary to refer to the so-called "non-negotiable values," especially on questions of bioethics and sexual morality. You have not taken up this phrase. Yet, the doctrinal and moral principles have not changed. Is this choice perhaps meant to signal a less prescriptive style, one more respectful of individual conscience?

I have never understood the expression "non-negotiable values". Values are values and that's that. I can't say that among the fingers on the hand there is one less useful than another. And so I don't understand in what sense there could be negotiable values. What I had to say on the issue of life, I set down in writing in Evangelii gaudium.

Many countries have regulated civil unions. Is that a path that the Church could fathom? But up to what point?

Marriage is between one man and one woman. The secular states want to give grounds to civil unions in order to regulate various situations of cohabitation. They have been pressed by the need to regulate economic affairs between persons, to ensure health care for instance. We are talking about cohabitation agreements of various types; I wouldn't be able to list the various forms. We need to look at the various cases and evaluate them in their variety.

How will the role of women be promoted in the Church?

Casuistry doesn't help here either. It is true that women can and must be more present in the places where decisions are made in the Church. But I would call this a promotion of a functional type. One doesn't make much headway only in this way. Rather, we must think that the Church is a "she": she is feminine from the beginning. The great theologian Urs von Balthasar did extensive work on this topic: the Marian principle guides the Church alongside the Petrine principle. The Virgin Mary is more important than any bishop and any of the Apostles. Theological reflection is underway. Cardinal Rylko, together with the Council for Laity, is working on the matter with many women who are experts in various subjects.

A half-century after Paul VI's 'Humanae vitae', can the Church take up again the issue of birth control? Cardinal Martini, your confrere, held that the moment had already come.

Everything depends on how Humanae vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended to confessors much mercy and attention in concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, as he had the courage to go against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to apply a cultural brake, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism. The issue is not one of changing doctrine, but of delving into the issue more deeply and of ensuring that pastoral ministry takes into account situations of particular persons and what is possible for each person to do. This will also be discussed in the process of the Synod.

Science is evolving and retracing the boundaries of life. Does it make sense to prolong life in a vegetative state? Can a living will be a solution?

I am not a specialist in bioethics, and I fear that my words will be equivocated. The traditional doctrine of the Church states that no one is obliged to use extraordinary methods once we know that a person is in a terminal phase. In my own pastoral ministry, in these cases I have always advised palliative care. In more specific cases, should it be necessary, it is good to seek the advice of specialists.

Will your upcoming visit to the Holy Land lead to an agreement of inter-communion with the Orthodox, which Paul VI, 50 years ago, almost signed with [Patriarch] Athenagoras?

We are all impatient about achieving "signed and sealed" results. But the path of unity with the Orthodox above all means walking and working together. In Buenos Aires, several Orthodox were coming to catechetical courses. I usually spent Christmas and 6 January together with their bishops, who would sometimes also ask advice from our diocesan offices. I do not know if the story is true that Athenagoras told Pope Paul VI that he proposed that they walk together and send all the theologians to an island to discuss among themselves. It's a joke, but it is important that we walk together. Orthodox theology is very rich. And I believe that, at this time, they have great theologians. Their vision of the Church and collegiality is marvelous.

In a few years the greatest world power will be China, with which the Vatican has no relations. Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit like you.

We are close to China. I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he answered me. The relationships are there. They are a great people whom I love.

Why, Holy Father, do you never speak about Europe? What is it about the European project that does not convince you?

Do you remember the day I spoke about Asia? What did I say? [Here the reporter ventures to give some explanation, collecting vague memories only to realize that he had fallen for a nice trick]. I have not spoken about Asia, or Africa, or Europe. Only about Latin America when I was in Brazil, and when I had to receive the Commission for Latin America. There hasn't yet been an opportunity to talk about Europe. It will come.

What book are you reading these days?

Peter and Magdalene by Damiano Marzotto on the feminine dimension of the Church. It is a beautiful book.

And are you able to see any good films, another one of your passions? "The Great Beauty" won an Oscar. Will you see it?

I don't know. The last movie I saw was Benigni's "Life is Beautiful". And before I had seen Fellini's "La Strada". A masterpiece. I have also enjoyed Wajda...

St Francis had a carefree youth. I ask you: have you ever been in love?

In the book The Jesuit, I recounted that I had a girlfriend at the age of 17. And I also mention it in Heaven and Earth, the volume that I wrote with Abraham Skorka. In seminary, a girl made my head spin for a week.

And how did it end, if you don't think it indiscreet of me to ask?

They were things of youth. I spoke with my confessor about it [a big smile].

Thank you Holy Father.

Thank you.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 March 2014, page 6

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