The Pope, Africa and AIDs

Interview With Vatican Spokesman Father Lombardi

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, APRIL 2, 2009 ( In a lengthy interview with Rome Notes, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has reflected on Benedict XVI’s recent visit to Cameroon and Angola, and explained his own approach to dealing with the world’s media in light of recent controversies.

Speaking last Saturday in his office at Vatican Radio, he said the main highlight of the Pope’s most recent visit was the presentation of the «instrumentum laboris» to Africa’s bishops — a working document on the Synod for Africa scheduled for October. The synod’s theme: «The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace» formed the basis of his visit.

But he also referred to other key moments, such as the Holy Father’s meetings and discourses with the sick and suffering, women, young people, and other religious and political leaders. «The most important messages were well received and understood,» Father Lombardi observed, and the «response of the people was impressive — hundreds of thousands came out to see him.» The papal spokesman said what was most striking to many present was the Holy Father’s own visible interest in the continent.

«I was speaking with someone only the other day about President Sarkozy who spent three days in three different African countries but the Pope spent one full week in just two countries,» Father Lombardi said. «It’s unusual for Africans to have someone important staying so long, communicating directly with the people and going out onto the streets of the cities. It really was a demonstration of participation, and they understood this very well.»

As always, Father Lombardi said, Benedict XVI tried to direct the faithful not toward himself but toward Jesus Christ through his discourses and his «profound» liturgical preparation and participation. He noted in particular how the Pope again appealed to faith and reason, especially in his message to Muslim religious leaders, and how the Holy Father stressed the «socio-political aspects of Christian witness.»  

He said the Pope was deeply upset about the deaths of two teenage girls who died in a stampede while trying to see him in Luanda, and sent a delegation to offer his condolences to the families of the deceased. The party included the Holy Father’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the sostituto, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the apostolic nuncio to Angola, the bishop of Luanda, and the bishop responsible for organizing the event. When they arrived, the identity of one of the girls was unknown, but she has now been identified.

The deaths occurred because of the venue of the youth gathering, Father Lombardi said, which was a stadium rather than a field where the open-air Masses were held. For security reasons, large crowds had to enter through only a few narrow entrances. «It was very sad what happened,» said Father Lombardi, «but maybe it’s a miracle that in the past 20-30 years there’s only been one other incident like this, with John Paul II in Kinshasa in the early ’80s.»

On a lighter note, he said, the tortoise given to the Holy Father as a gift was «better off» remaining in Africa (it was later handed over to the nunciature). Had Father Lombardi perhaps thought of adopting it as a pet for himself? «I am not able to care for animals,» he laughed.  

Condom controversy

Father Lombardi, in good spirits throughout the interview, also spoke frankly about the controversy in the Western media over the Pope’s comments on AIDS and condoms.

Benedict XVI had told journalists on the plane to Cameroon that the problem of AIDS «cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.» The Pope was simply re-iterating the Church’s teaching, but the debate over his remarks still continues.

«It’s very clear,» the papal spokesman said, «that those who want to understand the meaning will, and if they don’t, then they will never understand.» He added that the Pope «wasn’t particularly disturbed» by the outcry, and he alluded to other times the largely Western media has latched onto an aspect of Church teaching and misrepresented it.

«You have to reflect and judge it with a long-term perspective,» Father Lombardi said. «For a couple of days, people are against what he has said, but afterward they can reflect a little and see the truth of the Pope’s words and what his intention was.» He referred to how the Holy Father’s comments at the University of Regensburg in 2006 later led to a better understanding between Muslims and Catholics.

However, what upset many was that someone modified the transcript of the Pope’s words so the sentence read condoms «risk increasing» the problem of AIDS rather than simply «increase it.» Father Lombardi was not responsible for the change but it originated in the Secretariat of State.

A well-intentioned official there was trying to put the Pope’s words into better Italian — something that is often done to the Pope’s extemporaneous remarks. However, the official appears to have genuinely made the mistake of changing the meaning of the Pope’s words in the process. Father Lombardi said he was aware of the irritation that caused (it happened once before, on the Pope’s 2007 trip to Brazil). That part of the text has since been changed back again to the Pope’s original words.

So will the Pope continue to speak freely to journalists on the papal plane when he travels to the Holy Land next month? «We will see, I think yes,» said Father Lombardi. That visit will be especially delicate, but the papal spokesman appears resolute not to tone down or spin the Pope’s words in any way. «In every situation you can have misinterpretations or problems. If you fear this, you’d have to stay in Rome and say nothing,» he said.

In spite of this mistake and various media brouhahas over recent years, commentators say that the Pope’s message continues to resonate with vast numbers of people. Father Lombardi agreed: «Misinterpretation of the media is not the entire world,» he said. «One is able to think with one’s own mind and understand. [Many people] appreciate the Pope’s teaching and understand he is saying things that are important for today’s world.»

But I ask him whether today’s 24-hour news cycle and the Internet require a more careful approach. «This is naturally a risk and part of the situation — that is clear,» said Father Lombardi. «But I think you also have to be confident that what you are doing is right, that what you are doing is being done with good intentions, otherwise you will be blocked by the other person.»

Father Lombardi continued: «Whoever has a bad view of the Pope and the Church has already decided we shouldn’t think, that we should be absent and disappear from the world. But no — we go on. The Pope has a very clear message of spirituality, of peace and reconciliation, which he tries to convey even if it is difficult.»

Father Lombardi disagrees with critics who say he is too overloaded with work (he is head of Vatican Radio and Vatican Television as well as director of the Vatican Press Office). «This is up to my superior to judge,» he said. «They have given me these jobs, I didn’t look for them, so whoever has given me this work can also tell me, ‘Thank you, I’m going to give it to another.'» He stressed that his other position that is sometimes cited — assistant to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus — is not labor intensive.

«I have done this [work as Vatican Press Office director] with good will and I will do it until they say otherwise,» Father Lombardi said cheerfully, adding that he was aware of the rumor being spread that he might be wearing too many hats. «I don’t know if someone has started this [rumor] to produce some effect,» he said with a laugh. «That is possible, but for me having this work is no particular problem.»

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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