Pope Francis responds ex imo corde to the 23 questions Italian journalist Stefania Falasca poses to him in an interview published today in the daily “Avvenire,” the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.
It was not the first and, probably, not even the last interview of the Pontiff, but undoubtedly it is the one that, more than any other, reveals the Pope’s profound thought — too often debased to simple slogans –, on fundamental subjects such as ecumenism, mercy, the legacy of the Council.
In the conversation, Francis evaluated the Jubilee, which ends on Sunday, and about which he said “I didn’t make a plan; I allowed myself to be led by the Spirit.” Then he explains his ecumenical afflatus and the reason for the constant search for unity among Christians – necessary for today’s world lacerated by conflicts – which “is done walking, following Christ” — not with plans or agreements. Hence, he replies to the criticisms, of those fringes closed to God’s novelty, of a “Protestantization” of the Church – the same ones who express ‘doubts’ about Amoris Laetitia: “It doesn’t take away my sleep – he affirms – I continue on the way of those that preceded me. As for the opinions, it is always necessary to distinguish the spirit with which they are said.”
To give added value to the conversation is the friendship that links the Pope to his interlocutor, which began at the time of the Cardinalate at Buenos Aires and was strengthened over the years, then made public by the Pontiff himself with that first famous telephone call made “to a couple of friends of Rome” (Stefania and her husband Gianni Valente, who is also a journalist) a few minutes after his election to the throne of Peter.
And it was also a telephone call that stimulated the holding of this interview. The journalist asked “Father Bergoglio” for his gloss on the historic ecumenical journey to Lund, which remained unanswered during the press conference on the return flight from Sweden. “He took me off guard saying that he could not have answered me immediately. “But now?’ I asked him, and he granted me a good-natured reply,” says Falasca in an impassioned introduction.
Hence, she reports the Pontiff’s answers, who enters immediately in the dynamics of an intense ecclesial period as is the Jubilee and pauses on the ecumenical steps that have studded the apostolic journeys in this Extraordinary Holy Year. “The Church is the Gospel, she is not a journey of ideas,” affirms the Holy Father in the first answer, “this Year of Mercy is a process from the Council, which matured in time … In the ecumenical field also, the journey comes from long ago, with the steps of my Predecessors. This is the journey of the Church. It’s not me. I have not given any acceleration. In the measure in which we go forward, the journey, the journey seems to be faster, it is the motus in fine velocior.”
Therefore, there was no objective or pre-established plans behind this Jubilee, but only the hope “that many persons would discover their being much loved by Jesus and allow themselves to be embraced by Him.” Because, explains the Pope, “one who discovers that he is greatly loved begins to come out of his <unhealthy> solitude, of the separation that leads him to hate others and himself.” “God’s name is mercy and it is also His weakness, His weak point,” remarks Francis. “His mercy leads Him always to forgiveness, to forget our sins. I like to think that the Almighty has a bad memory. Once He forgives, He forgets, because He is happy to forgive. This is enough for me.”
“The Church exists only as instrument to communicate God’s merciful plan to men,” adds the Pontiff. However, some “continue to not understand,” remaining blocked in the logic of “white or black”; instead “it is in the flow of life that one must discern,” affirms the Holy Father. The Council said it but, as historians say, “a Council needs a century to be absorbed well by the body of the Church.” “We are half way there.”
In the interview, the Pope then reflects on the ecumenical meetings of the last months: “They are not the fruit of the Year of Mercy,” he specifies, “but part of an itinerary that comes from some time. It’s not a new thing. They are only longer steps in a journey begun some time ago.” In the same way the dialogues with the Primates and the leaders of the Christian Churches, which run through your pontificate, are nothing other than “the journey that has gone forward since the Council and is intensified.” In these meetings, “fraternity is felt,” says Bergoglio. “Jesus is in our midst. For me, they are all brothers. We bless one another – a brother blesses another <brother>.”
All, no one is excluded: Kirill, Hieronymos, Tawadros, Daniel of Rumania, Ilia and, of course, Bartholomew, the beloved Orthodox brother with whom Francis shares the greatest “spiritual attunement.” The Pope undertook with him the unforgettable trip to Lesbos, in the midst of Europe’s “rejected,” the refugees. In the Greek Island, he says: ”while together we were greeting all, there was a child that I bent down to. But the child wasn’t interested in me; he looked behind me. I turned around and saw why: Bartholomew had his pockets full of sweets and he was giving them, happily, to the children. This is Bartholomew, a man capable of carrying forward the Great Orthodox Council amid so many difficulties, of speaking of Theology at a high level, and of being simply with children. When he came to Rome he used the same room at Santa Marta’s in which I am now. The only reprimand he gave me was … that he had to change rooms.”
“It is an ecumenism, therefore, made of small gestures but that has always a gift of God, stresses Pope Francis. “We know also that we cannot, on our own, heal the wounds of our divisions, which lacerate the Body of Christ. Hence plans and systems can’t be imposed to become united,” he says with special reference to the meeting in Sweden on Oct. 31 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Thanks to it, there was a “purification” of Luther’s “memory,” “who wanted to make a reformation that should be like a medicine.” Then, however, “things were crystallized, political interests of the time were mixed in, and it ended in the cuius regio eius religio, by which one had to follow the religious confession of the one who had power.” There is with the Lutherans, notes the Holy Father, a concrete work of service to the poor to be carried out, while awaiting the clarification of theological questions. “It’s not about putting something aside. To serve the poor means to serve Christ, because the poor are the flesh of Christ. And if we serve the poor together, it means that we Christians find ourselves united in touching Christ’s wounds.”
Only “walking, by the work of Him whom we follow, can we discover ourselves united,” “we discover that we are also united in our common mission of proclaiming the Gospel,” adds the Pope. And he confirms that “any proselytism among Christians is sinful,” as Benedict XVI in fact said: “The Church never grows by proselytism but ‘by attraction.’” ”Hence, proselytism among Christians is in itself a grave sin … The Church isn’t a soccer team that seeks fans.”
On the other hand, to one who fears the intent of “Protestantizing the Church” or the “sell off of Catholic doctrine,” the Pope answers: “I continue on the way of those that preceded me, I follow the Council. As for opinions, it is always necessary to distinguish the spirit with which they are said.
For Francis, the real “cancer” in the Church is the “glorifying of one another”: if one doesn’t know who Jesus is, or has never encountered Him, he can always encounter Him; however, if one is in the Church, and moves in her because in fact, he cultivates and nourishes his hunger to dominate and self-assertion in the ambit of the Church, he has a spiritual illness, he thinks the Church is a self-sufficient human reality, where everything moves according to the logics of ambition and power.”
“This temptation, to build a self-referential Church, which leads to opposition and hence to division, always returns,” observes the Pope. It is “the Church’s sinful habit to look too much at herself, as if she believes she has her own light.” Therefore, the Fathers of the Church spoke of a mysterium lunae,’ or the fact that the Church, like the moon, “gives light but does not shine with her own light.” When, instead of looking at Christ, the Church looks too much at herself divisions also come,” glosses the Pontiff. “It’s what happened after the first millennium. To look at Christ frees us from this habit, and also from the temptation of triumphalism and rigorism. And it makes us walk together in the path of docility to the Holy Spirit, who leads us to unity.” However, it’s not necessary to be ‘impatient, distrustful, anxious”: it’s a journey “that requires patience in protecting and improving what already exists, which is much more than what divides.”