Pope Francis in Latin America: A “Journey of the Soul”

In-Depth Interview with Il Sismografo Director Luis Badilla on the Impact of Holy Father’s Apostolic Visit

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Luis Badilla Morales, Director of the news site Il Sismografo, is a sort of living encyclopaedia, who talks roaming naturally between pontificates, magisterial documents, trips and policy dynamics. His home page – founded in 2009 in response to an “appeal” of Benedict XVI – gathers every day articles from more than 7,000 digital press sites, offering a careful and up-to-date press review on everything that concerns the Vatican and the Church in the world. As an observer of “Vatican events” and as a Chilean, his views on not only Francis’ recent visit to South America, but also the forthcoming challenges, such as the trip to Cuba and the United States, the Synod, Francis’ relation with the media and his geo-ecclesial policy is insightful.

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ZENIT: If you could summarize in three words the eight days of Francis’ trip to Latin America, which would we use?

Badilla: Dignity, change and solidarity. If we analyze the Holy Father’s texts, the message he left to the local Churches in short is “you must support these people in change, because the dignity of persons is at stake. And this can only be done if there is collaboration and solidarity between the parties.”

ZENIT: The choice of these three countries was already significant, certainly not central in global geo-politics. Yet again the option for the peripheries …

Badilla: I have described Francis’ trip to South America as a “journey of the soul.” A journey – that is also confirmed by sources close to him – which is an old plan of his since his election to the Chair of Peter and which is tied to his experience in Buenos Aires when, as Provincial of the Jesuits, he established many social and human relations with fellow Jesuits of those countries. He sent people to study in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, and he took already ordained Jesuits to Buenos Aires. In addition, it is already per se a great “periphery.” And he chose this strange corridor that goes from the Pacific to the Atlantic precisely because he holds that it is “the periphery of the periphery”: weak countries, squeezed, as people or as Churches, to the south by Argentina and Chile, to the north by Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. Therefore, he applied the same scheme he used in Europe, where he visited Bosnia and Albania first, in line with the two geo-ecclesial choices, because the Pope has a geo-ecclesial policy: he uses trips, the “itinerant Magisterium” as part of the Pontifical Magisterium.

ZENIT: In the three stages we were able to observe a serene Pope, who almost took a “breath of fresh air” from certain “Roman” boundaries, making his true soul emerge, especially in Paraguay without the shadow of two strong personalities, such as Correa and Morales … What are your thoughts on this?

Badilla: It’s true, and there are many reasons. I’ll mention only two. The first is that he felt “at home,” a return to his people, his culture, and his history. And this was even seen physically: he did not feel tired, he did not rest in the Nunciature but continued to meet the people. The second reason is the fact that the Pope was able to express himself in his language, a fundamental aspect to make oneself well understood. Because language is not a whole of sounds, it’s a structure of thought: one who speaks German thinks in German, one who speaks Italian thinks in Italian. Francis was able to give the most in his own language. And we admired a Pope who explained to us infinitely better what his Magisterium is. Many things that seemed somewhat cryptic, not very clear, we now have all laid out on the table.

ZENIT: Do you think Pope Francis will have the same “relaxed” attitude in his September trip to Cuba and the United States?

Badilla: Certainly, because the trip to South America is the first part of an American tour. We still can’t decipher Pope Francis’ Magisterium completely until he arrives in this “second part” in Cuba, Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Only then will we have a complete and integrated view of all the elements. Moreover, in the pilgrimage to Latin America there were already many anticipations of the next trip: such as style, topics, dynamics and priorities. Of course, being a question of different individual situations, the Pope “will come down from his horse” in a different way.

ZENIT: Hence, can we perceive a continuum between the poor of Bañado Norte and the powerful in the United Nations? What is the thread that links these two trips?

Badilla: The Pope has always said that “the center is seen better from the periphery.” After having seen the look he had from the periphery, we can understand better how he will descend now into the hegemonic center of the

United States. I believe, more than anything else that the Pope’s visit to Cuba and the United States will put an end to the Cold War in the American Continent, that it will be labelled concluded when a peaceful coexistence is possible. The relation of the United States with Cuba was a polluting element for the relation with all the rest of Latin America. Therefore, the “defrosting” reached, which the Pope is going to seal with his presence, puts an end to this conflict in no way finished.

ZENIT: A “defrosting” to which the Pope contributed actively despite his saying that he “only prayed for it” …

Badilla: That is part of his modesty – Presidents Obama and Castro themselves confirmed the Pope’s role in this process. And we believe them.

ZENIT: Turning to Latin America, there were so many strong phrases spoken by the Pope in the eight days of the trip: “ideological colonizations,” a “system dominated by money,” an “economy that kills — denunciations, moreover, expressed already on different occasions. In those countries, instead, what consequences can they have, especially from the political point of view?

Badilla: Two elements already emerge from the Pope’s addresses. First: a great trust in the protagonist role of the people. Second, a certain mistrust in the dealings of politics. The Holy Father wants the people to assume as their own initiative the social redemption, especially those on the margin, object of social injustices. Everything always in the horizon of the defense of one’s dignity because, as John Paul II affirmed – “the rights of man are the rights of God.” In the second case, the Pope sees that the politicians don’t seem to realize the great crisis of civilization that characterizes the present moment; hence, they have a superficial and slow reactive capacity. Therefore, during his trip he often spoke of the “urgency of change”: in the sense that it’s not enough to change, but it must be done opportunely, otherwise one might be outside the maximum amount of time. In Laudatio Si’ he also says : we must change when it is appropriate, because perhaps there is a good solution for the future but, in the meantime, everything is collapsed. Therefore, for the Pope, a people that want to act is better. Hence the expression “to create mischief” – very badly translated in Italian with “fare casino”  [to make some noise] – in the sense of “stirring the waters,” not to have them putrefy. And in Latin America, he added: “to create mischief” but “in an organized way,” namely not for the pleasure of creating chaos but to have the waters flow with order and to avoid total failure.

ZENIT: Is this, then, the “Bergoglian revolution”?

Badilla: No, Bergoglio’s revolution begins from a precise point, which is the personal encounter with Christ, because by encountering Christ one become
s a brother and cannot do without the one beside one. And the Church exists and serves to proclaim this message. I know that this is somewhat of an annoyance, given that some would like a “dusty” Church, closed in books and in the sacristies. Bergoglio’s revolution therefore is the idea of an “outgoing Church,” which completes John XXIII, who called Vatican II precisely to open the windows and renew the air. After 50 years, Francis believes “this isn’t enough; the doors must also be opened and we must go out.” In fact, many times he has added “ better a damaged Church than a hidden Church.” Hence, I see in this Pope a way of closing the circle, which then, after all, is nothing new, because it is what Christianity has always preached, except that for a long time we forgot it.

ZENIT: In these eventual “incidents” can we also include certain discussions regarding the Synod?

Badilla: I think that a hermeneutic for the Synod is the Wednesday catecheses on the family, which will continue up to October. Pope Francis is expecting much from the forthcoming assembly and, rereading the past Synod, with all the controversies and discussions (to a great extent of the media). What the Pope is trying to have understood is that the Church doesn’t fear any situation, there is nothing that is a taboo or of which she feels alien or distant. He would like a Synod that doesn’t exclude any argument, but treats them all with absolute freedom, convinced that the pastoral approach is that of total and absolute mercy. Also because it isn’t good that the Church continue to have archaic attitudes, surpassed or inadequate to the urgencies of the moment.

ZENIT: Therefore, it isn’t true – as some detractors said and wrote last October – that Francis’ Church  is one that points to a decline or to compromise?

Badilla: No, in fact I believe that Francis’ Church points to the maximum, respecting of course the dialectic of the ecclesial community. Because there is nothing in play that jeopardizes the Doctrine: the question is purely “pastoral.” Or, in Bergoglian language, “Christ’s caress for all, in particular those that suffer. And one can suffer also inside the Church.

ZENIT: A last question – more of a curiosity. You who with Il Sismografo edit daily a complete press review of the Holy Father’s activities, what resonance did the trip to South America have at the media level? Was Morales’ crucifix the only news?

Badilla: There is a mistaken and insufficient perception. We can affirm the contrary and also document it, given that we reviewed 7,000 sites in 24 hours. Long before the trip, the press dedicated enormous space to the Holy Father’s pilgrimage. Some days we succeeded in identifying more than 16,000 texts in five languages, with a constant average of 12,000. Suffice it to think, then, that the “New York Times” had one live on Whatsapp to follow the papal trip to understand many things … I believe that, after this stage in Latin Americas, the media discovered a new Bergoglio or in any case it is reading him in a different way. It’s a quality leap in the relation with the press, especially the secular media.

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Salvatore Cernuzio

Crotone, Italy Bachelor's degree in Communication Sciences, Information and Marketing (2008) and Master's degree in Publishing and Journalism (2010) from LUMSA University of Rome. Vatican Radio. Rome Seven. "Ecclesia in Urbe. Social Communications Office of the Vicariate of Rome. Second place in the Youth category of the second edition of the Giuseppe De Carli Prize for religious information.

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