The following is ZENIT’s English translation of an interview Pope Francis gave the Italian daily Il Messaggero, published on Sunday, June 30th.
Pope Francis: Communism Stole Our Flag
(Franca Giansoldati) The appointment is at Saint Martha’s in the afternoon. A speedy check and a Swiss gentleman leads me to a small parlor.
There are six armchairs of somewhat worn out green velvet, a small wooden table, one of those old televisions. Everything is in perfect order. The marble shines, some pictures. It could be a parish waiting room, one of those where one goes to ask for advice, or to fill in marriage documents.
Francis enters smiling: “Finally! I read you and now I finally meet you.” I blush. “Instead, I know you and now I listen to you.” He laughs. The Pope laughs heartily, as he will do at other times in the course of an hour long off the cuff conversation. Rome with its big-city evils, the era of change that weakens politics, the effort to defend the common good; the re-appropriation by the Church of the issues of poverty and sharing (“Marx didn’t invent anything”), the dismay in face of the degradation of the peripheries of the soul, the slippery moral abyss in which children are abused, the tolerance of begging, the work of minors and, not least the exploitation of child prostitutes not even fifteen-years-old. And by clients who could be their grandfathers.
“Pedophiles” – this is how Pope describes them. Francis talks, explains, interrupts himself, returns to the subject — passion, gentleness, irony. A faint voice seems to lull the words. His hands accompany his way of reasoning, he clasps them, loosens them, they seem to trace invisible shapes in the air. And he is on excellent form, despite rumors about his health.
–Q: It is now the Italy-Uruguay [soccer World Cup] game. Holy Father, who are you rooting for?
— Pope Francis: Oh me, for no one, truly. I promised the President of Brazil (Dilma Roussef) I would stay neutral.
–Q: Shall we begin with Rome?
–Pope Francis: But you’re aware that I don’t know Rome? Just consider that I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time when I took part in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI (in 2005). I haven’t even been to the museums. The fact is that, as cardinal, I didn’t come here often. I know Saint Mary Major because I always went there. And then Saint Lawrence Outside-the-Walls where I went for Confirmations when Don Giacomo Tantardini was there. Obviously I know Piazza Navona because I always lodged on Via della Scriofa, behind there.
–Q: Is there something Roman in Argentine Bergoglio?
–Pope Francis: Hardly anything at all. I am more Piedmontese, those are the original roots of my family. However, I’m beginning to feel Roman. I intend to visit the area, the parishes. I’m discovering this city little by little. It’s a most beautiful metropolis, unique, with the problems of large cities. A small city has an almost univocal structure; a metropolis, instead, includes seven or eight imaginary cities that overlap on various levels — also cultural levels. I am thinking, for instance, of the urban tribes of young people. It’s like this in all big cities. In November, in fact, we will hold a congress at Barcelona dedicated to the pastoral care of metropolises. In Argentina, exchanges were promoted with Mexico. One discovers so many intersecting cultures, but not so much because of migration, but rather because of transversal cultural territories, each having their own membership. The Church must be able to respond also to this phenomenon.
–Q: Why, since the beginning, have you wished to stress so much the role of the Bishop of Rome?
–Pope Francis: Francis’ first service is this: to be the Bishop of Rome. He has all the Pope’s titles, universal Shepherd, Vicar of Christ, etc., in fact, because he is Bishop of Rome. It’s the first choice, the consequence of Peter’s primacy. If tomorrow the Pope wished to be the Bishop of Tivoli, clearly they would throw me out.
–Q: Forty years ago, under Paul VI, the Vicariate promoted a congress on the evils of Rome. A picture emerged of a city in which one whoever had much, had the best, and whoever had little, had the worst. In your opinion, what are the evils today of this city?
–Pope Francis: They are those of metropolises, as Buenos Aires. One who increases his profits, and one who is always poorer. I didn’t know about the congress on the evils of Rome. They are very Roman questions and, at the time, I was 38 years old. I am the first Pope who didn’t take part in the Council and the first who studied theology after the Council and, at that time, for us the great light was Paul VI. For me, Evangelii Nuntiandi remains a document that has never been surpassed.
–Q: Is there a hierarchy of values to be respected in the management of public affairs?
–Pope Francis: Certainly, to always protect the common good. This is the vocation of every politician. It is an ample concept that includes, for instance, the protection of human life, of its dignity. Paul VI used to say that the mission of politics is one of the highest forms of charity. Today, the problem of politics – I don’t speak only of Italy but of all countries, the problem is worldwide – is that it has been devalued, ruined by corruption, by the phenomenon of bribery. A document published by the French Bishops 15 years ago comes to mind. It was a Pastoral Letter entitled: ‘Rehabilitating Politics’, and it precisely addressed this question. If service isn’t the foundation, it’s not even possible to understand what politics is.
–Q: You have said that corruption smells rotten. You have also said that social corruption is the fruit of a sick heart and not merely external conditions. Without corrupt hearts, there would be no corruption. The corrupt person does not have friends but useful idiots. Can you explain this better?
–Pope Francis: I have spoken about the matter on two consecutive days because I was commenting on the reading about Naboth’s vineyard. I like to talk about the [Mass] Readings of the day. The first day I addressed the phenomenology of corruption, the second day the way that the corrupt end up. In any case, the corrupt person has no friends, but only accomplices.
–Q: In your opinion, is there so much talk about corruption because the mass media insists too much on the matter, or because it is in fact an endemic and a grave evil?
–Pope Francis: No, unfortunately, it is a worldwide phenomenon. There are heads of state in prison in fact for this. I have wondered about it a lot, and I have come to the conclusion that so many evils grow especially during epochal changes. We are living not so much an age of changes , but a change of age. Therefore, it is about a change of culture; precisely in this phase things of this sort emerge. A change of age fuels moral decadence, not only in politics, but in financial and social life.
–Q: Even Christians don’t seem to give a shining witness …
–Pope Francis: It is the environment which facilitates corruption. I’m not saying that all are corrupt, but I think it’s difficult to remain honest in politics. I’m speaking about everywhere, not just Italy. I’m also thinking of other cases. Sometimes there are people who want to clear things up, but then they run into difficulty and it’s as if they’d been swallowed up by a multi-level, across the board, endemic phenomenon. Not because it’s the nature of politics, but because when times are changing the push towards a certain moral drift becomes stronger.
–Q: Are you more alarmed by the moral or material poverty of a city?
–Pope Francis: I am alarmed by both. For instance, I can help a hungry person so that he is no longer hungry. But if he has lost his job and doesn’t find employment, he has to deal with another poverty. He no longer has dignity. Perhaps he can go to Caritas and take home a food parcel, but he feels a very grave poverty that ruins his heart. An Auxiliary Bishop of Rome told me that many persons go to the cafeteria, secretly and full of shame, and take some of the food home. Their dignity is progressively impoverished, they live without hope.
On the streets of Rome you can see girls as young as 14 often forced into prostitution amid general neglect, while in the subway you see children begging. Is the Church still a leaven? Do you feel powerless as a bishop in the face of this moral decline?
–Pope Francis: I feel grief, I feel enormous pain. The exploitation of children makes me suffer. It’s the same thing in Argentina. Children are used for some manual labor because they have smaller hands. However, children are also exploited sexually, in hotels. Once I was alerted that on a street of Buenos Aires there were child prostitutes only 12 years old. I checked and it was in fact so. It made me sick. But even more so to see high-powered cars stop, driven by elderly men. They could be their grandfathers. They would make the girl get in and paid her 15 pesos that was then used to buy discarded drugs, the “paco.” For me, these persons who do this to girls are pedophiles. It also happens in Rome. The Eternal City, which should be a beacon to the world, is a mirror reflecting the moral decay of society. I think they are problems that can be resolved with a good social policy.
–Q: What can politics do?
–Pope Francis: Respond in a clear way, for instance, with social services that help families to understand, supporting them to come out of burdensome situations. The phenomenon indicates a deficiency of social service in the society.
–Q: The Church, however, is working so much ….
–Pope Francis: And she must continue to do so. Families in difficulty must be helped, uphill work that requires a common effort.
–Q: Increasingly in Rome young people don’t go to church, don’t baptize their children, can’t even make the sign of the cross. What strategy would be useful to reverse this trend?
–Pope Francis: The Church must go out into the streets, seek the people, go to homes, visit families, go to the fringes. She must not be a Church which receives only, but which offers …
–Q: And parish priests shouldn’t put curlers on their sheep …
Pope Francis: (Laughs). Obviously, we have been in a time of mission for some ten years. We must insist.
–Q: Are you worried about the declining birthrate in Italy?
–Pope Francis: I think more work must be done for the common good of children. To put the family at the top is a commitment; sometimes the salary isn’t enough to make it to the end of the month. There is fear of losing one’s work and of no longer being able to pay the rent. Social politics doesn’t help. Italy has a very low birthrate, Spain is the same. France is doing a bit better but it is also low there. It’s as if Europe was tired of being a mother, preferring to be a grandmother. Much depends on the economic crisis and not only on a cultural drift marked by selfishness and hedonism. I read a statistic the other day on the spending criteria of populations worldwide. After food, clothing and medicine, three necessary items, come cosmetics and spending for pets.
–Q: Animals count more than children?
–Pope Francis: It’s another phenomenon of cultural degradation. And this because the emotional relationship with animals is easier, can largely be programmed. An animal isn’t free, whereas to have a child is something complex.
–Q: Does the Gospel speak more to the poor or to the rich to convert them?
–Pope Francis: Poverty is the center of the Gospel. The Gospel cannot be understood without understanding real poverty, keeping in mind that there is a most beautiful poverty of the spirit: to be poor before God so that God can fill you. The Gospel addresses the poor and the rich alike. And it speaks both of poverty and of wealth. It does not, in fact, condemn the rich at all, except when riches become the idolatrous objects — the god of money, the golden calf.
–Q: You are regarded as a communist, pauperist, populist Pope. The Economist, which has dedicated a cover to you, stated that you speak like Lenin. Do you identify yourself in this depiction?
–Pope Francis: I say only that the Communists have stolen the flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the center of the Gospel. The poor are at the center of the Gospel. Let’s take Matthew 25, the protocol on which we will be judged: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, naked. Or, let us look at the Beatitudes, another flag. The communists say that all this is communist. Yes, right, twenty centuries later. Now when they speak one could say to them: but you are Christians [laughs].
–Q: If you allow me a criticism …
–Pope Francis: Of course.
–Q: Perhaps you speak little of women, and when you do, you address the argument only from the point of view of maternity, the woman spouse, the woman mother, etc. And yet now women lead states, multinationals, armies. In your opinion, what position do women occupy in the Church?
–Pope Francis: Women are the most beautiful thing God has made. The Church is woman. Church is a feminine word. Theology can’t be made without this feminine dimension. You are right about this, we don’t speak enough about it. I agree that more work must be done on the theology of woman. I have said so and work is being done in this regard.
–Q: Do you perceive a certain underlying misogyny?
–Pope Francis: The fact is that woman was taken from a rib … [he laughs heartily]. It’s a joke, I’m joking. I agree that there must be more reflection on the feminine question, otherwise the Church herself cannot be understood.
–Q: Can we expect historic decisions from you, such as a woman head of a dicastery, I don’t say of the clergy …
–Pope Francis: [laughs] Well, so many times priests end up under the authority of their housekeepers…
–Q: In August, you will go to Korea. Is it the door to China? Are you pointing to Asia?
–Pope Francis: I will go to Asia twice in six months: to Korea in August to meet Asian young people and, in January to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The Church in Asia holds great promise. Korea represents so much; it has behind it a most beautiful history. For two centuries it had no priests and Catholicism progressed thanks to the laity. There were also martyrs. In regard to China, it is a great cultural challenge, very great. And then there is the example of Matteo Ricci, who did so much good …
–Q: Where is Bergoglio’s Church heading?
–Pope Francis: Thank God I have no Church; I follow Christ. I didn’t found anything. From the point of view of style, I haven’t changed from the way I was at Buenos Aires. Yes, perhaps some little thing, because one must, but to change at my age would be ridiculous. In regard to the plan, instead, I follow what the Cardinals have requested during the General Congregations before the Conclave. I go in that direction. The Council of Eight Cardinals, an external body, was born from that. It was requested to help reform the Curia. Something, moreover, that isn’t easy because a step is taken, but then it emerges that this or that must be done, and if before there was one dicastery, it then becomes four. My decisions are the fruit of the pre Conclave meetings. I haven’t done anything on my own.
–Q: A democratic approach?
–Pope Francis: They were decisions of the Cardinals. I don’t know it it’s a democratic approach. I would say it is more Synodal, even if the word is not appropriate for cardinals.
–Q: What do you wish for Romans on the feast of their Patrons Saints Peter and Paul?
–Pope Francis: That they continue to be good. They are very affectionate. I see it in the audiences and when I go to the parishes. I hope they won’t lose their joy, hope and trust despite the difficulties. The romanaccio [Roman dialect] is also beautiful.
–Q: Wojtyla learned to say volemose bene, damose da fa’ [Roman dialect phrases meaning “Let’s love another, let’s get to work!”]. Have you learned any sayings of you own?
–Pope Francis: For now little. Campa e fa’ campa [live and let live]. [Naturally, he laughs].
Courtesy of Il Messagero.
Translation by ZENIT