Following is a Zenit-provided working translation of the in-flight press conference Pope Francis held on his flight from North Macedonia to Rome, at the end of his May 5-7, 2019, Apostolic Trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia. ZENIT’s Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, covered the Pope’s trip to Bulgaria:
His Holiness Francis’ Apostolic Journey to
Bulgaria and North Macedonia
May 5-7, 2019
The Holy Father’s Press Conference during the
Return Flight from Skopje
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Good evening! Good evening, Holy Father, and thank you — after such an intense day, after such intense days — for being here to share a thought, a reflection on this very intense and beautiful trip. A brief trip, an inevitably brief press conference, for which I add no other words except this: Holy Father, today you have in fact walked in the footsteps of Mother Teresa, a great witness of Christian love, and we were all affected – as you, we know – by the death of Jean Vanier, a friend, a brother of the least, another great witness. Before the questions, I want to ask you if you wish to share a thought about Jean Vanier.
I knew of Jean Vanier’s illness; Sister Genevieve kept me informed. A week ago I called him on the telephone; he listened to me but he could hardly speak. I would like to express my gratitude for this witness: a man who was able to read the Christian efficacy [fecundity] in the mystery of death, of the cross, of sickness, in the mystery of those that are held in contempt and rejected in the world. He worked, not only for the least but also for those that risk being condemned to death before being born. His life was spent thus. Simply thank you to him and thank you to God for having given us this man with his great witness.
Thank you, Holy Father. The first question asked is Bigana Zherevska’s, of Macedonian TV.
Bigana Zherevska of Macedonian TV MRT:
Holiness, it’s a great pleasure to have you in our country and we feel honoured by your visit. What interests us is to hear from you what was the thing that most struck you of these two countries? What struck you most? A person? A thing? An atmosphere? What will you remember of these two countries when you return to Rome?
They are two totally different countries. Bulgaria is a nation with an age-old tradition. Macedonia also has an age-old tradition but not as a country, as a people, which succeeded ultimately in constituting itself a nation: <ig was> a good fight. For us Christians, Macedonia is a symbol of the entrance of Christianity in the West. Christianity entered the West through you, that Macedonian that appeared to Paul in a dream: “Come to us, come to us!” (Cf. Acts 16:9). He, [Paul] was going through Asia, that call is a mystery. And the Macedonian people are proud of this, they don’t lose an occasion to say to us: “Christianity entered Europe through us, through our door, because Paul was called by a Macedonian.” Bulgaria had to fight so much for its identity as a nation. In 1877, 200,000 Russian soldiers died to take back their independence from the hands of the Turks. Let us think what 200,000 means! <There were> so many fights for independence, so much blood, so much spirit to achieve the consolidation of its identity. Macedonia had its identity and now she has consolidated it as a people, also with small great problems, as that of the name and the things we all know. In both countries there are Orthodox and Catholic Christian communities, and also Muslim. The Orthodox percentage is very strong in both, it’s the strongest: that of the Muslims is less; and that of Catholics is minimal in Macedonia, greater in Bulgaria. However, one thing that I saw in both nations was the good relations between the different Creeds, between the different Faiths. We saw it in Bulgaria with the prayer for peace. This was something normal for Bulgarians, because they have good relations: everyone has the right to express his/her religion and the right to be respected. This struck me so much! Then the conversation with Patriarch Neofit was a beauty . . . He is a man of God! He edified me so much, a great man of God. I was struck in Macedonia by a phrase that the President said to me: “Here there isn’t tolerance of religion, there is respect.” There is respect. And this, today, in a world where respect is lacking so much — we thing <of> respect for human rights, for so many things, also respect for children, for the elderly –, one is struck <by the fact> that the spirit of a country is respect. It did me good. I don’t know if I’ve answered, more or less synthetically. Thank you.
Holy Father, now Petas Nanev of Bulgarian TV BTV asks a question.
Petas Nanev, of Bulgarian TV BTV:
Good evening. It’s rather a personal question: I wonder, Holiness, but you, as a human being, where do you find the strength in your body, in your spirit . . .?
First of all I would like to say to you that I don’t go to a witch! Truly, I don’t know. It’s a gift of the Lord. When I am in a country I forget everything, but not because I want to forget; it comes spontaneously to me to forget, and I’m only there. And then this gives me perseverance. I don’t get tired on the trips. Then I get tired — afterwards. But from where do I get the strength? I believe the Lord gives it to me. There’s no explanation. I pray to the Lord to be faithful, to serve Him in this work of trips, that the trips not be tourism, I ask this. And the rest is grace that comes from Him. It doesn’t come to me to say anything else to you . . . But then . . . I don’t do so much work!
Holy Father, now you are asked a question — we stay in Eastern Europe — by Silvije Tomasevic, of Croatian TV and press, of “Vecernji list.”
Silvije Tomasevic, of Croatian TV and press, of “Vecernji list”:
Holiness, among the national Orthodox Churches they are not always in agreement: for example, they haven’t recognized the Macedonian Church. However, when the Catholic Church must be criticized, they are in unison: for example, the Serbian Church doesn’t want Cardinal Stepinac to be canonized. Your comment on this situation . . .
In general, relations are good; they are good and there is good will. I can tell you sincerely that, among the Patriarchs, I found men of God. Neofit is a man of God. And then, one I carry in my heart — a preference — is Elia II of Georgia: he is a man of God who did me so much good. Bartholomew is a man of God. Kirill is a man of God . . . They are the great Patriarchs that give witness. You can say to me: but this one has this defect; he is too political, this one has another defect . . . But we all have them, I <do>too. However, in the Patriarchs I found brothers; and in some truly — I don’t want to exaggerate — but I would like to say the word: saints, men of God. And this is very important. There are historical things, historical things of our Churches, some <are> old. For example, today the President [of North Macedonia] said to me that the schism between East and West began here, in Macedonia. Does the Pope come now to patch up the schism? I don’t know, but we are brothers, because we can’t adore the Holy Trinity without the united hands of brothers. This conviction is not only mine, but also of the Patriarchs — all <of them>. This is a great thing. Then there is a historical point: are you a Croat? [He answers: yes]. I thought so from the scent . . . [laughs] the scent of Croatia. This is a historical case: Stepinac’s canonization. Stepinac was a virtuous man, therefore the Church declared him Blessed. One can pray to him, he is Blessed. However, at a certain point of the process of canonization there were points that were not clear, historical points. I, who with my responsibility, must sign the canonization have prayed, reflected, have asked for advice and I saw that I had to ask the Serbian Patriarch Irenaeus, a great Patriarch, for help. And Irenaeus offered the help. We created a Historical Commission together and we worked together so that Irenaeus knows that the only thing that interests me is the truth, not to make a mistake. Of what use is a declaration of holiness if the truth isn’t clear? It’s of no use to anyone. We know that [Cardinal Stepinac] is a good man and that he is Blessed, but to take this step I sought the help of Irenaeus to know the truth. And it’s being studied. The Commission was set up first of all; they gave their opinion. However, other points are being studied now, reflecting further on some points so that the truth is clear. I’m not afraid of the truth, I’m not afraid. I’m only afraid of God’s judgment. Thank you.
Holy Father, I believe there is room for another question, if you think so: Joshua McElwee, of the National Catholic Reporter.
Joshua McElwee, of the National Catholic Reporter:
An infinite thank you, Holy Father. In Bulgaria you visited an Orthodox community that has continued a long tradition of Ordaining women Deaconesses to proclaim the Gospel. In a few days, you will meet with the International Union of Superiors General, which three years ago asked for a Commission on the History of women Deaconesses. Can you tell us what you have learned from the Commission’s report on women’s ministry in the first years of the Church? Have you taken a decision?
The Commission was set up; it worked for almost two years. They were all different, all “rospi di diversi pozzi,” all thought differently, but they worked together and came to an agreement, up to a certain point. However, each one of them has his own view, which doesn’t agree with that of the others, and they stopped there as Commission, and each one is studying how to go forward. On the feminine diaconate: there is a way of conceiving it not with the same vision of the male diaconate. For instance, according to the Commission, the formulas of diaconal Ordination found up to now are not the same as the male diaconal Ordination, and they are more like that which today would be the blessing of an Abbess. This is the outcome of some of them. I’m speaking so from memory. Others say: no, this is a diaconal formula . . . But they argue; it’s not clear. There were Deaconesses at the beginning. But was it a sacramental Ordination or not? There is arguing on this, it’s not seen clearly. Yes, they helped, for example, in the liturgy, in Baptism: as Baptisms were by immersion, when a woman was baptized the Deaconesses helped; also for the anointing of the woman’s body. Then a document came out in which it was seen that the Deaconesses were called by the Bishop when there was a marital quarrel, for the dissolution of the marriage, or the divorce or the separation. When the woman accused the husband of striking her, the Deaconesses were sent by the Bishop to look at the woman’s body for bruises, and so they testified for the judgment. These are the things I remember. However, fundamental is that there is no certainty that it was an Ordination with the same form and the same end of the male Ordination. Some say: there is doubt, let’s go on to study. I’m not afraid of study. However, up to this moment <the Ordination of women> should not be. Then it’s curious that where there were Deaconesses it was almost always a geographic area , especially Syria, and in other parts little or nothing. I’ve received all these things from the Commission. Each one continues to study. A good job was done because they reached a certain common point, and this can be useful as the basis to go forward to study and give a definitive answer on yes or on no, according to the characteristics of the time. An interesting thing: some — now no one says it –some theologians of thirty years ago said that there weren’t Deaconesses because women were in a second plane in the Church and not only in the Church. However, it’s curious: at that time there were so many pagan priestesses, feminine priesthood in pagan cults was the order of the day. And how can one explain that, <although there was> feminine priesthood, pagan priesthood, it didn’t happen in Christianity? This is also something that is being studied. We have come to a certain point, and now every one of the members is studying <the issue> according to his thesis. This is good. Varietas delectat.
Thank you, Holy Father, for you availability: the conference ends here, precisely because the flight is brief and supper will be served shortly. So, thank you to all, also for the great work that was done in these days, with alarm clocks in the night for the various transfers. Thank you, Holy Father.
However, I would like to say something to you about the trip — in what I found most consolation, and what struck me profoundly of the trip: two “limit” experiences: an experience with the poor today here, in Macedonia, in Mother Teresa’s Memorial. There were so many poor, but it was necessary to see the meekness of those Sisters: they took care of the poor without paternalism, as if they were <their> children. <Their> meekness and also the capacity to caress the poor. Tenderness, the tenderness of these Sisters! Today we are used to insulting one another: one politician insults another, a neighbour insults another, in families they also insult one another. I don’t dare say there is a culture of insult, but insult is a handy weapon, also to speak badly of others, calumny, defamation . . . And to see these Sisters who took care of every person as if he were Jesus, struck me. A good youth approached me and the Superior said to me: This one is good,” and she caressed him and said in front of him: “Pray for him because he drinks too much!” — but with the tenderness of a mother, and this made me feel the Church as Mother. To see the maternity of the Church is one of the most beautiful things. Today I felt it there and I thank the Macedonians for having this treasure in the city of Skopje.
And then another “limit” experience were the First Communions in Bulgaria. It’s true; I was emotional because my memory went to October 8, 1944, to my First Communion, when we came in singing “O holy altar, guarded by the Angels,” that old song that no doubt some of you remember. I saw those children that open themselves to life with a sacramental decision. The Church guards children, they are a limit [they are small]. They must grow, they are a promise, and I lived this very intensely. I felt that at that moment those 245 children were the future of the Church, they were the future of Bulgaria.
These were two things that I lived with much intensity. I wanted to communicate this to you. And thank you so much! Pray for me.