During his September 25, 2018, flight from Tallinn, Estonia, back to Rome, at the end of the Apostolic Journey to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (September 22-25, 2018), the Holy Father Francis met with journalists on board the plane for a press conference, which is transcribed and translated below. Greg Burke, Director of the Vatican Press Office, moderated the discussion.
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Good evening, Holy Father. Above all, thank you. Three countries in four days isn’t very easy, it’s somewhat tiring . . . It seemed a bit like four countries in four days, because on the first day there was the surprise of China, so we even did this: we got close to China. Let’s try to stay with the subject — we have said this so many times –, to talk about the trip. We will certainly begin with the local journalists of each country, but in the press conference, we will seek to talk about the trip to the Baltic countries. I don’t know if you’d d like to say something first.
First of all, to thank you for the work you did, because for you also three countries in four days is not easy. It’s tiring, especially, having to go from one place to another. I thank you so much for the service you offer to people about this trip, which is the most important thing of your communication: what happened there . . . There were very interesting things on this trip, and I expect questions in this connection.
Thank you. The first is Saulena Ziugzdaite, Bernardinai.LT, of Lithuania:
Holy Father, thank you for this time and for this whole trip. When you spoke in Vilnius of the Lithuanian soul, you said we should be a bridge between East and West. But it’s not easy to be a bridge: it’s always through others. Some say that our tragedy is that we are on the bridge. Perhaps some say: it’s decidedly better to become part of the West with its values. What did you intend — what does it mean to be a bridge?
It’s true . . . It’s obvious that today you form part, politically, of the West, of the European Union, and you did so much to enter the European Union. Immediately after independence, you carried out all the adjustments, which weren’t easy, and you succeeded in entering the European Union, namely, in belonging to the West. You also have relations with NATO: you belong to NATO, and this means the West. If you look at the East, your history is there — a harsh history; part of your tragic history also came from the West, from the Germans, the Poles, but especially Nazism, this came from the West. And, as regards the East, from the Russian empire.
To make bridges exacts strength; strength not only to belong to the West, which gives you strength but for your own identity. I realize that the situation of the Baltic countries is always in danger, always. There is the fear of invasion . . . because history itself reminds you of this. And you are right when you say that it’s not easy, but this is a game that is played every day, one step after another: with culture, with dialogue . . . But it’s not easy. I believe the duty of all of us is to help you in this. More than helping you, to be close to you, with the heart.
Thank you, Holy Father. The next question comes from Gints Amolins, Latvijas Radio (Latvia)
Good day, Holiness. In the Baltic countries, you spoke often of the importance of roots and of identity. From Latvia and also from Lithuania and Estonia, there are so many people that have left for more prosperous countries and many are already putting down roots elsewhere. And then, there are also demographic problems, as in Europe in general, because of the low birth rate. So, in this situation what can or should our countries do, what should the leaders of our countries do and also each one of us personally? How should this problem be assessed?
In my homeland, I didn’t know people from Estonia and Latvia, whereas the Lithuanian immigration — in relative terms — is very strong. There are so many in Argentina. And they take there their culture, history and are proud of the double effort to insert themselves in the new country and also keep their identity. In their celebrations, there are traditional costumes, traditional songs and always, every time they can, they return to the homeland to visit . . . I think that the struggle to keep their identity makes them very strong, and you have this: you have a strong identity — an identity that was forged in suffering, in defense, and in work, in the culture.
And what can be done to defend one’s identity? Recourse to the roots, this is important. Identity is an ancient thing, but it must be transmitted. Identity is inserted in the membership of a people, and membership in a people is transmitted. The roots are transmitted to the new generations, and this <is done> with education and with dialogue, especially between the old and the young. And you must do it because your identity is a treasure. Each identity is a treasure but conceived as belonging to a people. This is what comes to <mind>, I don’t know if it responds to your question.
Thank you, Holy Father. And now Evelyn Kaldoja, Postimees (Estonia)
Thank you. I would like to ask the question in English. In today’s homily, you said that there are some that cry out and threaten the use of arms and the use of armies, etc., etc. Considering where we find ourselves, on that same Square where NATO soldiers were sent to Estonia as protection. Many thought about the situation of the eastern borders of Europe. Are you worried about the tensions in that area and about Catholics on either side of Europe’s borders?
The threat of arms. Today, the global expenses for arms are scandalous. I was told that, with what is spent on arms in a month, all the hungry in the world could be fed for a year. I don’t know if it’s true, it’s terrible. Industry, the arms trade, also the arms contraband is one of the greatest corruptions. And before this, there is the logic of defense. David was able to overcome with a sling and five stones, but today there aren’t any Davids. I think that to defend a country, we need a reasonable and non-aggressive defense army — reasonable and non- aggressive. This way defense is licit, and it’s even an honor to defend the homeland so. The problem comes when it becomes aggressive, not reasonable, and border wars break out. We have so many examples of border wars, not only in Europe, to the East, but also in other Continents: they fight for power, to colonize a country. This is, in my opinion, the answer to your question. Today’s arms industry is scandalous in face of a starving world. Second, it’s licit, reasonable to have an army to defend the borders, because this does honor; as it’s licit to have the key to the door of one’s home — for defense
Thank you, Holy Father. The next question is from the German group: Stefanie Stahlhofen, of the German Catholic agency CIC (Germany)
Holy Father, in the ecumenical meeting at Tallinn you said that, in face of the sexual scandals, young people don’t see a clear condemnation on the part of the Catholic Church. In Germany, a new inquiry came out, in fact, today on sexual abuses and how the Church has addressed many cases.
I’ll speak about this later. I’ll answer first the questions on the trip. This is the rule. However, it will be the first question after those on the trip.
Let’s stay with the trip . . .
A journalist is coming from Lithuanian Radio-Television.
I’ll speak in English. In all three countries, you expressed yourself in favor of openness: openness in regard to migrants, openness in regard to the other. But in Lithuania, for example, there was a confrontation on the affair of a girl who greeted you on landing, in front of the plane: in fact, she didn’t have a Lithuanian look. She was part Italian, with somewhat dark skin . . . My question is: in the Baltic countries, do they hear from you only what they want to hear, or do they listen to that which you are trying to say to them? Do they listen to your message on openness?
The message on openness to migrants is sufficiently before your people; there aren’t strong populist fires, no. Estonia and Latvia also have open people who want to integrate the migrants, but not massively, because it can’t be done, to integrate them with the prudence of the government. We spoke about this with two of the Heads of State, and they touched on the argument, not I. And in the Presidents’ addresses, you will see that the word “hospitality,” openness” is frequent. This indicates a will of universality in the measure it can be done, because of space, work, etc. in the measure in which they can be integrated, because of space, work, etc.; — this is very important — in the measure in which it’s not a threat against one’s identity. They are the three things that I understood of the people’s migrations. And this touched me very much: prudent and well thought out openness. I don’t know if you think something other.
My question is how your message was received?
I believe it was, in the sense that I mentioned. Because today the problem of migrants throughout the world — and not only external migration, but also internal, in the Continents — is a serious problem; it’s not easy to study it. In every country, in every post, in every place, it has different connotations.
Thank you, Holy Father. We have finished the questions on the trip.
Very good. I would like to say something on some points of the trip that I lived with special intensity
The fact of your history, of the history of the Baltic Countries: a history of invasions, of dictatorships, of crimes, of deportations . . . When I visited the Museum in Vilnius: “museum” is a word that makes one think of the Louvre . . . No. That museum was a prison; it was a prison in which the detained, for political or religious reasons, were taken. And I’ve seen cells of the measure of this seat, where one could only stand, torture cells. I’ve seen places of torture, where, with the cold, there is in Lithuania, they took naked prisoners and threw water on them, and they stayed there for hours and hours, to break their resistance. And then I entered the hall, the large room of executions. The prisoners were taken there by force and killed, with a shot to the back of the head. Then they were taken out on a conveyor belt to a truck and thrown in the forest. They killed more or less forty a day. In the end, there were close to 15,000 that were killed there. This is part of Lithuania’s history, but also of the other countries. What I saw was in Lithuania. Then I went to the place of the Great Ghetto, where thousands of Jews were killed. Then, on the same afternoon, I went to the Monument in memory of the condemned, killed, tortured and deported. That day — I tell you the truth — I remained destroyed: it made me reflect on the cruelty. But I say to you, based on the information we have today, the cruelty hasn’t ended. The same cruelty is found today in so many detention places, it’s found today in so many prisons; the overpopulation of a prison is also a system of torture, a way of living without dignity. A prison today that doesn’t provide the detained with a prospect of hope, is already a torture. Then we saw on television the cruelty of ISIS; terrorists: that Jordanian pilot burnt alive, those Coptic Christians beheaded on the beach of Libya, and so many others. Today cruelty has not ended. It exists throughout the world. And I want to give this message to you, as journalists: this is a scandal, a grave scandal of our culture and of our society
Another thing I saw in these three countries is hatred [of the past regime] for religion, regardless of which it is. Hatred. I saw a Jesuit Bishop of Lithuania or Latvia, I don’t remember well, who was deported to Siberia for ten years, then to another concentration camp . . . Now he is elderly, he is smiling . . . So many men and women who were tortured and deported to Siberia, for having defended their faith, which was their identity, and they didn’t return or were killed. The faith of these three countries is great; it’s a faith born in fact of martyrdom, and this is something that perhaps you saw, speaking with the people, as you journalists do, to have news of the country.
Moreover, this very important experience of faith produced a singular phenomenon in these countries: an ecumenical life, which doesn’t exist elsewhere, <which is> so generalized. There is a true ecumenism: ecumenism between Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans and also Orthodox. We saw it yesterday in the Cathedral, during the ecumenical meeting at Riga, in Latvia: a great thing; brothers, close, together in one church . . . , close. Ecumenism has put down roots there.
Then, there is another phenomenon in these countries, which is important to study, and perhaps you can do many good things in your job, studying this: the phenomenon of the transmission of culture, of identity, of faith. Usually, grandparents did the transmission. Why? Because the parents worked; father and mother had to work, and had to be enrolled in the party — whether in the Soviet or the Nazi regime – and also educated to atheism. However, the grandparents were able to transmit the faith and the culture. In the time when the use of the Lithuanian language was banned, when it was taken out of schools, when they went to religious services — be they Catholic or Protestant — they took prayer books to see if they were in the Lithuanian language or in the Russian or German language. And many — a generation at that time — learned the mother tongue of the grandparents: it was the grandparents that taught writing and reading in the mother tongue. This makes us think and some article, some television service would be good on the transmission of culture, of language, of art, of faith in the times of dictatorship and persecution. One could not think otherwise, because all the means of communication, which at that time were few – radio – were taken by the State. When a government becomes — wants to become dictatorial, the first thing it does is to take over the means of communication.
I wanted to underscore these things.
And now, I refer to today’s meeting with young people. Young people are scandalized: I introduce here the first question which was outside the subject of the trip. Young people are scandalized by the hypocrisy of the grownups. They are scandalized by the wars; they are scandalized by the inconsistency; they are scandalized by the corruption. And on this matter of corruption, there is that, which you stressed, of the sexual abuses. It’s true that there is an accusation of the Church, and we all know, we know the statistics, I won’t state them here. However, even if it has been only one priest that abused a child, this would be in any case monstrous, because that man was chosen by God to bring the child to Heaven. I understand that young people are scandalized by this very great corruption. They know it’s everywhere, but in the Church, it’s more scandalous, because children must be taken to God, not destroyed. Young people seek to make their way with experience. Today’s meeting with young people was very clear: they want to be heard; they want to be heard. They don’t want fixed formulas. They don’t want a directive accompaniment. And the second part of this question, which was the first beyond the trip, was that “the Church isn’t doing what it should in this, in cleansing this corruption.
“ I take Pennsylvania’s Report, for example, and we see that up to the first years of the 70’s there were so many priests who fell into this corruption. Then, in more recent times, they diminished because the Church realized that it had to fight another way. In past times, these things were covered up. They were covered up also at home when an uncle violated a niece when the father violated the children. They were covered up because it was a very great shame. It was the way of thinking in past centuries, and of the past century. There is a principle in this that helps me very much to interpret history: a historical event is interpreted with the hermeneutics of the time in which the event happened, not with today’s hermeneutics. For example, indigenism: there were so many injustices, so many brutalities. However, it can’t be interpreted with today’s hermeneutics, when we have another awareness. A last example: the death penalty. The Vatican also as a State, when it was a Papal State, had the death penalty: the last person was beheaded around 1870, a criminal, a youth. But then the moral conscience grew, the moral conscience grew. It’s true that there are always scapegoats, there are always hidden death penalties: you are old, bothersome, I won’t give you the medicines . . . , and then they say: “he went.” It’s a social condemnation to death today. However, I think that with this I have answered the question. The Church: I take the example of Pennsylvania, I look at the proportions and I see that, when the Church began to be aware of this, it tried very hard. And in recent times I have received so many, so many condemnations issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and I’ve said: “Forward, forward.” But, after a condemnation, I have never signed a request for grace. One doesn’t negotiate on this; there is no negotiation.
Antonio Pelayo of “Vida Nueva” (Spain)”
Holy Father, a few days ago an Agreement was signed between the Holy See and the Government of the People’s Republic of China. Can you give us some additional information on this, on its content? Because some Chinese Catholics, in particular, Cardinal Zen, have accused you of selling out the Church to Beijing’s Communist Government, after so many years of suffering. What is your response to this accusation?
This is a process of years, a dialogue between the Vatican Commission and the Chinese Commission, to sort out the appointment of Bishops. The Vatican team worked a lot. I would like to mention some names: Monsignor Celli, who went with patience, dialogued and returned…for years and years! Then Monsignor Rota Graziosi, a humble 72-year-old Curial Monsignor, who wanted to be parish priest but stayed in the Curia to help in this process. And then, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, who is a very devout man, but he has a special devotion to the lens: he studies all the documents: periods, commas, accents . . . And this gives me very great security. And this team, with these qualities, went forward. You know that when a peace agreement is made or a negotiation, both parties lose something; this is the rule. Both parties and one goes forward. This process went like that: two steps forward, one backward, to forward, one backward…; then months passed without talking to one another, and then . . . They are God’s times, which are similar to Chinese time: slowly . . . This is wisdom, the wisdom of the Chinese. The situation of Bishops who were in difficulty were studied case by case, and in the end, the dossiers arrived on my desk and I was the one responsible for signing them, in the case of the Bishops. In regard to the Agreement, the drafts passed on my desk, we talked, I gave my ideas, the others discussed them and went ahead. I think of the resistance, of the Catholics that suffered: it’s true; they will suffer. There is always suffering in an agreement. But they have great faith and they write, send messages, affirming that what the Holy See, what Peter says, is what Jesus says: the “martyred” faith of these people goes forward today. They are great men I signed the Agreement, the Plenipotentiary Letters to sign that Agreement. I am the one responsible. The others, whom I appointed, worked for more than ten years. It’s not an improvisation: it’s a journey, a true journey.
And then, a simple anecdote and a historic fact, two things before finishing. When there was that famous press release of an ex Apostolic Nuncio, the episcopates worldwide wrote me saying that they felt close, that they prayed for me; the Chinese faithful also wrote, and the signature on this writing was the Bishop’s – let’s say so – of the traditional Catholic Church and of the Bishop of the Patriotic Church: together, both, and the faithful of both Churches. This was for me a sign from God. And the second thing: let’s not forget that in Latin America — thank God this has been exceeded! — we forget that for 350 years it was the kings of Portugal and of Spain who appointed the Bishops. And the Pope only gave the jurisdiction. We forget the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Marie Therese got tired of signing the appointments of Bishops and gave the jurisdiction to the Vatican. Other times, thank God, which today are not repeated! However, the present case isn’t for the appointment of Bishops: it’s a dialogue on the eventual candidates. It’s done in dialogue, but the appointment is Rome’s; the appointment is the Pope’s, this is clear. And we pray for the sufferings of some people who don’t understand or who have behind them so many years of clandestinity.
I thank you so much! They tell us that supper is ready and the flight isn’t long. Thank you so much! Thank you so much for your work. And pray for me.
Thank you, Holy Father. Enjoy your supper and have a nice rest.
© Libreria Editrice Vatican[Original text: Italian] [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]