On Friday, just as Donald Trump was being sworn into office in Washington DC, Pope Francis was granting EL PAÍS a long interview at the Vatican, during which he called for prudence in the face of widespread alarm over the new US president.
For an hour and 15 minutes, inside a modest room in Casa de Santa Marta, where he lives, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was born in Buenos Aires 80 years ago and is on his way to completing his fourth year as Pontiff, explained that “in the Church there are saints and sinners, decent men and corrupt men,” but that what worries him the most is “a Church that has been anesthetized by mundanity,” one that is far removed from the problems of the people.
The hallmark of the Church is its proximity to people. We all are the Church
Francis showed himself to be up to speed not just on what is happening within the Vatican, but also in the southern border of Spain or in the tough neighborhoods of Rome. He says that he would love to travel to China – “as soon as they send an invitation” – and that, even though he sometimes “slips up,” his only revolution is the Evangelical one.
The drama of the refugee crisis has affected him greatly – “that man cried and cried on my shoulder, with the life-jacket in his hand, because he hadn’t managed to rescue a four-year-old girl” – as much as the visits he has made to women who were sold into slavery by prostitution mafias in Italy. He still does not know whether he will die as pope or will opt for the open road of Benedict XVI. He admits that sometimes he has felt used by his Argentinean countrymen, and he calls on Spaniards to do something that looks easy but is not: “Talk to one another.”
Question. Your Holiness, after nearly four years in the Vatican, what is left of the street priest that came from Buenos Aires to Rome with the return ticket in his pocket?
Answer. He is still a street priest. Because, as soon as I can, I still go out on the streets to greet people at the general audiences, or when I am traveling… my character has not changed. I’m not saying that is a deliberate thing: it has been a natural process. It is not true that you have to change once you get here. To change is unnatural. To change at 76 is tantamount to putting on makeup. Perhaps I cannot do everything I want, but my street soul is alive, and you can see it.
Q. In the last days of his papacy, Benedict XVI said about his last years at the helm of the Catholic Church: “The waters ran troubled and God seemed asleep”. Have you felt that loneliness too? Was the Church hierarchy asleep with regard to people’s problems, both new and old?
A. Within the Church hierarchy, or among the Catholic Church’s pastoral agents (bishops, priests, nuns, laymen), I am more afraid of those who are anesthetized than of those who are asleep. I am talking about those who are anesthetized by mundane affairs. They sell out to mundaneness. That is what worries me. Everything is seemingly calm, everything is apparently quiet, everything is going right…that is too much order. When you read the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul’s epistles, it was a mess, there were troubles, people were on the move. There was movement and there was contact with people. An anesthetized person is not in touch with people. He protects himself against reality. He is anesthetized. Nowadays there are so many ways of anesthetizing oneself against daily life, aren’t there? Maybe the most dangerous illness for a pastor is the one produced by anesthetics, and that is clericalism. I am over here and the people are over there. But you are those people’s pastor! If you don’t take care of those people, if you give up on taking care of those people, then you should pack your bags and retire.
Q. Is there a part of the Catholic Church that is anesthetized?
A. It is a risk that we all run. It is a danger, it is seriously tempting. Being anesthetized is easier.
Q. It is a better life, a more comfortable life.
A. That is why, rather than those who are asleep, I worry about those who are anesthetized as a result of that mundane spirit. A spiritual mundanity. I am always struck by the fact that Jesus Christ, during the last supper, when he prays to his Father on behalf of his disciples, he does not ask “Keep from breaking the Fifth Commandment, keep them from killing, from breaking the Seventh Commandment, keep them from stealing”. No, he says: “Keep them from the evils of the world, keep them from the world”. A mundane spirit has a numbing effect. When that happens, the pastor becomes a civil servant. And that is clericalism, which is the worst evil that may be afflicting today’s Church.
Q. The troubles that Benedict XVI faced towards the end of his papacy, and which were contained inside that white box that he gave you in Castel Gandolfo, what are they?
A. A very normal sample of daily life within the Church: saints and sinners, honest people and crooked people. Everything was in there! There were people who had been questioned and were clean, there were workers… Because here, inside the Curia, there are some true saints. I like to say it. We talk too easily about the level of corruption in the Curia. And there are corrupt people. But there are also many saints. Men who have spent all their lives serving people anonymously, behind a desk, or in conversation, or in a study…Herein there are saints and sinners. That day, what struck me the most was holy Benedict’s memory. He said: “Look, here are the records of the proceedings, inside the box”. “And here is the sentencing of all the individuals. So-and-so, he got that much”. He remembered everything! What an extraordinary memory. And he still retains it.
Q. Does he feel all right, health-wise?
A. His head is fine. His problem are the legs. He needs help to walk. He has an elephant’s memory, even in nuances. I may say something and he goes: “No, it wasn’t that year, it was that other year.”
Q. What are your main concerns with regard to the Church and the world in general?
A. With regard to the Church, I would say that I hope that it never stops being close to people. A Church that is not close to people is not a Church. It’s a good NGO. Or a pious organization made up of good people who meet for tea and charity work… The hallmark of the Church is its proximity. We are all the Church. Therefore, the problem we should avoid is breaking that closeness. Being close is touching, touching Christ in the flesh and blood through your neighbor. When Jesus tells us how are we going to be judged, in Matthew chapter 25, he always talks about reaching out to your neighbor: I was hungry, I was in prison, I was sick… Always being close to the needs of your neighbor. Which is not just charity. It is much more.
Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people
As for what worries me about the world, it is war. We already have a World War III in little bits and pieces. Lately there is talk of a possible nuclear war, as though it were a card game: they are playing cards. That is my biggest concern. I am worried about the economic inequalities in the world: the fact that a small group of humans has over 80% of the world’s wealth, with all its implications for the liquid economy, which at its center has money as a god, instead of men and women. Hence the throwaway culture.
Q. Your Holiness, going back to the global problems you just mentioned, Donald Trump is just now being sworn in as president of the United States, and the whole world is tense because of it. What do you make of it?
A. I think that we must wait and see. I don’t like to get ahead of myself, nor to judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will form an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not come to pass. We will see what he does and will judge accordingly. Always work with the specific. Christianity is either specific or it is not Christianity.
It is interesting that the first heresy in the Church took place just after the death of Jesus Christ: the gnostic heresy, condemned by the apostle John. Which was what I call a spray-paint religiousness, a non-specific religiousness…nothing concrete. No, no way. We need specifics. And from the specific we can draw consequences. We are losing our sense of the concrete. The other day, a thinker was telling me that this world is so upside down that it needs a fixed point. And those fixed points stem from concrete actions. What did you do, what did you decide, what moves did you make? That is why I prefer to wait and see.
Q. Aren’t you worried about the things we have heard up until now?
A. I’m still waiting. God waited so long for me, with all my sins…
Q. For the most traditionalist sectors, any change, even if it is only a change in language, amounts to treachery. At the other end of the spectrum, even for those who will never embrace the Catholic faith, no change is ever enough. You yourself have said that everything has already been written in the essence of Christianity. Are we then talking about a revolution of normalcy?
A. I always try —I don’t know if I always succeed— to do what the Gospel says. That is what I try. I am a sinner and not always successful, but that is what I try. The history of the Church has not been driven by theologians, or priests, or nuns, or bishops… Maybe in part, but the true heroes of the Church are the saints. That is, those men and women who devoted their lives to making the Gospel a reality. They are the ones who saved us: the saints. We sometimes think that a saint is a nun that looks up to the heavens and rolls her eyes. The saints are the specific examples of the Gospel in daily life! And the theology that you learn from a saint’s life is immense. There is no doubt that the theologians and the pastors are necessary. They are part of the Church. But we must come back to that: the Gospel. And who are the best messengers of the Gospel? The saints. You used the word “revolution”. That is a revolution! I am not a saint. I am not making any revolution. I am just trying to push the Gospel forward. In an imperfect way, because I make my blunders from time to time.
Q. Don’t you think that many Catholics may feel something like the syndrome of the prodigal son’s sibling, and may think that you are more focused on those who left than on those who remained and obeyed the Church’s commandments? I remember that in one of your trips, a German journalist asked you why you never talk about the middle class, about those who pay their taxes…
A. There are two questions in there. The syndrome of the eldest child: I know that those who feel comfortable within a Church structure that doesn’t ask too much of them, or who have attitudes that protect them from too much outside contact, are going to feel uneasy with any change, with any proposal coming from the Gospel. I like to think about the owner of the hotel where the Samaritan took the man who was beaten and robbed by thieves along the way. The owner knew the story, the Samaritan had told him: a priest had passed by, he looked at the time, saw that he was late for temple and left the man there, he didn’t want to get blood-stained because that would prevent him from celebrating mass according to the law. A lawyer passed by, he looked and said: “I better not get involved, it will make me late, tomorrow in court I will have to testify and… No, it’s better not to get involved.” As if he had been born in Buenos Aires, he turned his back using that city’s slogan: “Better not get involved”. And then along came a man who was not Jewish, he was a pagan, he was a sinner, he was deemed the scum of the earth, yet he was moved by the hurt man’s plight and he helped him get up. The owner’s astonishment was tremendous, because it was unusual.
The novelty of the Gospel is astonishing because it is essentially scandalous. Saint Paul tells us about the scandal of the cross, the scandal of the Son of God becoming man. It is a good kind of scandal, because Jesus condemns the outrage against children too. But the evangelical essence was scandalous by those days’ criteria. By any mundane criteria, it is a scandalous essence. So the eldest child syndrome is the syndrome of anyone who is too settled within the Church, the one who has clear ideas about everything, who knows what must be done and doesn’t want to listen to strange sermons. That is the explanation for our martyrs: they gave their lives for preaching something that was upsetting.
That is your first question. As for the second one: I didn’t want to answer the German journalist right away, but I told him: I am going to think about it, you may be somewhat right… I am always talking about the middle class, even without mentioning it. I use a term coined by the French novelist Malègue, who talks about “the middle class of sanctity”. I am always talking about parents, grandparents, nurses, the people who live to serve others, who raise their kids, who go to work… Those people are tremendously saintly! And they are also the ones who carry the Church onward: the ones who earn their living with dignity, who raise their children, who bury their dead, who care for their elders instead of putting them into an old people’s home: that is our saintly middle class.
From an economic point of view, these days the middle class increasingly tends to vanish, and there is the risk that we will take shelter in our ideological caves. But this “middle class of sanctity”: the father, the mother who celebrate their family, with their sins and their virtues, the grandfather, the grandmother, with the family at the center, that is “the middle class of sanctity”. That was a great insight on the part of Malègue, who writes a sentence that is really impressive. In one of his novels, Augustine, an atheist asks him: “But do you believe that Jesus Christ is God?” He is presenting the problem: Do you think that the Nazarene is God? “For me, it is not a problem”, is the protagonist’s answer, “the problem would have been if God hadn’t become the Christ”. That is “the middle class of sanctity”.
My concern is for women to give us their thinking, because the Church is female, it is Jesus Christ’s wife, and that is the theological foundation of women
Q. Your Holiness, you have mentioned the ideological caves. What do you mean by that? What are your concerns in this regard?
A. It is not a concern. I am stating the facts. One is always more at ease in the ideological system that he has built for himself, because it is abstract.
Q. Has it been exacerbated in recent years?
A. It has always existed. I would not say it has been exacerbated, there has also been much disappointment in connection with that statement. I think there was more [polarization] in the period before World War II. I think. I haven’t given it much thought. I am putting things together… In the restaurant of life you always get many ideological dishes. You may always take refuge in that. They are shelters that prevent you from connecting with reality.
Q. Holy Father, over the course of these years, during your trips, we have seen you get moved by others and in turn you have moved many who listened to you… There are three very special occasions: once in Lampedusa, when you asked whether we had cried with the women who lost their children to the sea; in Sardinia, when you spoke about unemployment and the victims of the global financial system; in the Philippines, over the tragedy of the exploited children. What can the Church do about it, what is being done, and what are governments doing?
A. The symbol I proposed for the new Migrations office —in the new structure, I took directly over the department of Migrations and Refugees, with two secretaries— is an orange life jacket, like the ones we all know. During a general audience, there was a group of people working to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. I was passing through, greeting people, and a man had one of those things in his hands and he started to cry on my shoulder, and he sobbed: “I wasn’t able to do it, I didn’t get to her in time, I wasn’t able to do it.” And when he calmed down a little he told me: “She wasn’t more than four years old. And she went down. I am giving this to you.” This a symbol of the tragedy that we are living.
Q. Are governments rising to the occasion?
A. Everyone does what they can or what they want to do. It is very hard to pass judgment. Undoubtedly, the fact that the Mediterranean has become a graveyard is food for thought.
Q. Do you feel that the way you reach out to the margins, to those who suffer and are lost, is a welcome attitude, considering it is accompanied by a machine that is perhaps used to a very different pace? Do you feel that you and the Church go at a different pace? Do you feel support?
A. I think that, fortunately, the responses are generally good, very good. When I asked the parishes and the schools in Rome to take in immigrants, many said that it had been a failure. It is not true! It was not a failure at all! A high percentage of Rome’s parishes, when they didn’t have a big house or they had a very little one, they had their parishioners rent an apartment for an immigrant family. In convent schools, whenever there was room, they welcomed an immigrant family… The answer is that we have done more than you know, because we haven’t advertised it. The Vatican has two parishes and each parish has an immigrant family. An apartment at the Vatican for one family, another for the other one. The response has been constant. Not a 100% response, I don’t know the proportion, I think maybe 50%.
Then there is the problem of integration. Each immigrant constitutes a very serious problem. They are fleeing their country, because of hunger or because of the war. They are exploited. Take Africa: Africa is the symbol of exploitation. Even when given their independence, in some countries, they are the owners of their land on the surface, but not underground. So they are always used and abused…
The migrant reception policy has several phases. There is an emergency phase: you have to welcome them, because otherwise they will drown. Italy and Greece have led by example. Even now, Italy, with all the problems caused by the earthquake, still provides care. They come to Italy because it is the nearest shore, of course. I think they also get to Spain through Ceuta. But rather than staying in Spain, most of them tend to go north in search of better opportunities.
Q. But in Spain there is a fence in Ceuta and Melilla, so they cannot go through.
A. Yes, I know. And they want to go north. So the problem is: welcome them, yes, for a couple of months, give them accommodations. But the integration process must start at some point. Receive and integrate. The role model for all the world is Sweden. Sweden has nine million people. Of those, 890,000 are “new Swedes”, children of immigrants or immigrants with Swedish citizenship. The Foreign minister —I think it was her, the one who came to send me off— is a young woman, the daughter of a Swedish mother and a father from Gabon. Integrated immigrants. The problem is integration. When there is not integration, ghettos spring up. I am not blaming anyone, but it is a fact that there are ghettos. The young men who committed the atrocity in Zaventem [airport] were Belgian, they were born in Belgium. However, they lived in an immigrant neighborhood, a closed neighborhood. So the second phase is the key: integration. So much so that, what is the big problem for Sweden now? It isn’t that they don’t want any more immigrants to come, no! They can’t get enough of the integration programs! They wonder what else they can do to get more people to come. It is astonishing. It is an example for the whole world. And it is nothing new. I said it right from the start, after Lampedusa… I knew of Sweden because of all the Argentinians, Uruguayans, Chileans who went there in the era of the military dictatorships and who were welcomed there. I have friends who went there as refugees and who live there. You go to Sweden and they give you a healthcare program, papers, a residency permit… And then you have a home, and the following week you have a school to learn the language, and a little bit of work, and you are on your way.
In that respect, Sant’Egidio in Italy is another model to follow. The Vatican is in charge of 22 [migrants], and we are taking care of them, and they are slowly becoming independent. The second day, the kids were going to school. The second day! And the parents are getting gradually settled in an apartment, with a bit of work here, a bit of work there… They have instructors to teach them the language… Sant’Egidio has that same attitude. So, the problem is: urgent rescue, of course, for everyone. Second: receive, welcome as best as possible. Afterwards, integrate.
Q. Your Holiness, half a century has passed since many significant events happened: the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI’s trip to the Holy Land and his embrace with the Patriarch Athenagoras. Some people say that in order to know you, one must know Paul VI. He was up to a point the unappreciated Pope. Do you also feel that way, like an uncomfortable Pope?
A. No, no. I think that I should be less well understood because of my sins. Paul VI was the unappreciated martyr. (…) Evangelii gadium, which frames the pastoral principles that I want for the Church, is an update of Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. He is a man who was ahead of history. And he suffered a lot. He was a martyr. There were many things that he wasn’t able to do, he was a realistic person and he knew that he wasn’t able to and he suffered for it, but he offered us his suffering. He did what he could. And the best thing that he did was planting the seeds. The seeds of things that history collected afterwards. Evangeli Gadium is a mix ofEvangeli Nuntiandi and the Aparecida document. Things that developed from the bottom up. Evangeli Nuntiandi is the best post-Council pastoral paper, and it is still relevant. I don’t feel unrecognized. I feel accompanied by all kinds of people, young people, old people… There are some who don’t agree, of course, and they have the right not to, because if I felt bad because someone disagrees with me, I would have the germ of a dictator in me. They have the right to disagree. They have the right to think that the path is dangerous, that the outcome may be bad, they have the right. But provided that they talk, that they don’t hide behind others. Nobody has the right to do that. Hiding behind others is inhumane, it is a crime. Everyone has the right to debate, and I wish we would all debate more, because it creates a smoother connection between us. Debating unites us. A debate in good faith, not with slander nor things like that.
Q. You don’t feel uncomfortable with power?
A. But I don’t have the power. Power is something that is shared. Power exists when we make decisions that have been meditated, talked about, and prayed over; prayer helps me very much, it is a great support to me. I don’t feel uncomfortable with power. I feel uneasy with certain protocols, but that is because I come from the streets.
Q. You haven’t watched TV for 25 years now, and you were reportedly never were very fond of journalists. Yet you have reinvented the whole communication system of the Vatican, you have professionalized it and have made it into a dicastery [a department of the Curia]. Are media that important for the Pope? Is there a threat against the freedom of the press? Can social media be detrimental for the freedom of the individual?
A. I don’t watch television. I simply felt that God was asking that of me. On July 16, 1990 I made that promise, and I have not broken it. I have only been to the television center that was next to the archbishopric to watch a couple of films that I was interested in, which I thought would be appropriate for my message. I used to love the movies, I had studied a lot about cinema, most of all the Italian cinema of the postwar period, Italian realism, and the Polish director Wajda, and Kurosawa, and several French directors. But not watching TV didn’t prevent me from communicating. Not watching TV was a personal decision, nothing more. Communication comes from God. God communicates. God has communicated with us throughout history. God doesn’t exist in isolation. God communicates, and has spoken, and has accompanied us, and has challenged us, and has made us change course, and He is still with us. You cannot understand Catholic theology without God’s communication. God is not static up there, watching how people have fun or ruin themselves. God gets involved, through the word and through his flesh. And that is my starting point. I feel a little afraid when mass media don’t express themselves with an ethos of their own. For instance, there are ways of communicating that, instead of helping, weaken unity. A simple case in point: a family that is having dinner without conversation, because they are watching TV or the kids are with their phones, texting people who are somewhere else. When communication loses the flesh, the human element, and becomes liquid, it is dangerous. It is very important for families to communicate, for people to communicate, and also in the other way. Virtual communication is very rich, but there is a risk if it is lacking human, normal, person-to-person communication. The concrete element of communication is what will make the virtual element take the right course. We are no angels, we are concrete individuals. Communication is key and must go forward. I have spoken about the sins of communication in a lecture I gave in Buenos Aires at ADEPA, the association that bring together Argentinean publishers. The chairmen invited me to a dinner in which I gave this lecture. I signaled the sins of communication and said: don’t commit them, because you have a great treasure in your hands. Today, communicating is divine, it always was, because God communicates, and it is also human, because God communicated in a human way. So, for functional purposes, there is a dicastery to channel all this. But it is a functional thing. Communication is essential to the human being, because it is essential to God.
Q. The Vatican’s diplomatic machine works at full capacity. Both Barack Obama and Raúl Castro thanked it publicly for its work during their rapprochement. However, there are other cases such as Venezuela, Colombia or the Middle East, which remain blocked. In the first case, the parties have even criticized the Vatican’s mediation. Do you fear that the Vatican’s image may suffer for it? What are your instructions in these cases?
A. I ask the Lord that he give me the grace of not taking any measure for the sake of image alone. Honesty and service, those are the criteria. You may make mistakes sometimes, your image will suffer, but it doesn’t matter if there was goodwill. History will judge afterwards. And there is a principle, a very clear one for me, that must govern everything both in pastoral action and in Vatican diplomacy: we are mediators, rather than intermediaries. We build bridges, not walls. What is the difference between a mediator and an intermediary? The intermediary is the one that has a real estate business for instance, who looks for someone who wants to sell a house and for someone who wants to buy one, he helps them reach an agreement and he gets a commission, he renders a good service but he always gets something out of it, and rightly so because it is his job. The mediator is the one who wants to serve both parties and wants both parties to win even if he loses. Vatican diplomacy must be a mediator, not an intermediary. If, throughout history, it has sometimes maneuvered or managed a meeting that filled its pockets, that was a very serious sin. The mediator builds bridges that are not for him, but rather for others to cross. And he doesn’t charge a fee. He builds the bridge and then he leaves. That is to me the image of Vatican diplomacy. Mediators, rather than intermediaries. Bridge builders.
Q. Will that Vatican diplomacy extend soon to China?
A. In fact, there is a committee that has been working for years with China, they meet every three months, once here and once in Beijing. There are many talks with China. China has always had that aura of mystery that is fascinating. Two or three months ago they had an exhibition of pieces from the Vatican Museums in Beijing, and they were very happy about it. And next year they will come to the Vatican with their own exhibits.
Q. And will you soon be going to China?
A. As soon as they send me an invitation. They know that. Besides, in China, the churches are packed. In China they can worship freely.
Q. Both in Europe and in America, the repercussions of the crisis that never ends, the growing inequalities, the absence of a strong leadership are giving way to political groups that reflect on the citizens’ malaise. Some of them —the so-called anti-system or populists— capitalize on the fears of an uncertain future in order to form a message full of xenophobia and hatred towards foreigners. Trump’s case is the most noteworthy, but there are others such as Austria or Switzerland. Are you worried about this trend?
A. That is what they call populism here. It is an equivocal term, because in Latin America populism has another meaning. In Latin America, it means that the people —for instance, people’s movements— are the protagonists. They are self-organized. When I started to hear about populism in Europe I didn’t know what to make of it, until I realized that it had different meanings. Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of populism in the European sense of the word is Germany in 1933. After [Paul von] Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, it needs a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: “I can, I can”. And Germans vote for Hitler. Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk. In times of crisis we lack judgment, and that is a constant reference for me. Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let us defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other people who may rob us of our identity. And that is a very serious thing. That is why I always try to say: talk among yourselves, talk to one another. But the case of Germany in 1933 is typical, a people who were immersed in a crisis, who were searching for their identity until this charismatic leader came and promised to give their identity back, and he gave them a distorted identity, and we all know what happened. Where there is no conversation… Can borders be controlled? Yes, each country has the right to control its borders, who comes in and who goes out, and those countries at risk —from terrorism or such things— have even more of a right to control them, but no country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility to talk with their neighbors.
Q. Do you see, Holy Father, any sign of 1933 Germany in today’s Europe?
A. I am no expert, but, with regard to today’s Europe, let me refer you to three speeches I have made, two in Strasbourg and the third one on the occasion of the Charlemagne prize, the only award I have accepted because they insisted a lot due to the situation Europe was in, and I accepted it as a service. Those three speeches contain what I think about Europe.
Q. Is corruption the great sin of our times?
A. It is a big sin. But I think that we must not think of ourselves as historically exclusive. There has always been corruption. Always and right here. If you read about the history of the Popes, you will find some nice scandals… And that is just to mention my own house and not talk about others. There are examples of neighboring countries where there was also corruption, but I will stick to my own. There was corruption here. A lot. Just think of Pope Alexander VI, and Lucrezia with her [poisoned] “teas”.
Q. What news are you getting from Spain? What feedback are you getting about the way your message, your mission, your work is being received in Spain?
A. What I just got from Spain are some polvorones [shortbread] and turrón de Jijona [nougat] that I am going to share with the boys.
Q. Ha ha. In Spain there is a very lively debate on secularism and religiousness, as you already know…
A. Very lively indeed…
Q. What do you think about it? Is it possible that the secularism process, in the end, will force the Catholic Church out to the margins?
A. Talk amongst yourselves. That is the advice I give to every country. Please talk. Have a fraternal conversation, if you feel up to it, or at least in a civilized way. Don’t hurl insults at each other. Don’t condemn before talking. If, after the conversation, you still want to insult the other guy, alright then, but first talk. If, after the conversation, you still want to condemn the other guy, alright then, but first talk. Today, with our level of human development, politics without talking is inconceivable. And that applies to Spain and elsewhere. So, if you ask me for advice for the Spanish people, I say: talk. If there are problems, first talk.
Q. It is no surprise that your words and your decisions are followed with special interest in Latin America. How do you see that continent? How do you see your own country?
A. The trouble is that Latin America is suffering the effects —which I emphasized in Laudato Si— of an economic system that has the money god at its center, and that means policies that lead to a lot of exclusion. Which leads to a lot of suffering. It is obvious that Latin America today is the target of a strong attack from economic liberalism, the one I condemn in Evangelii Gaudium when I say that “this economy kills”. It kills with hunger, it kills with a lack of culture. Migration flows not just from Africa to Lampedusa or Lesbos. Migration also flows from Panama to the Mexican-U.S. border. People migrate in search of something, because liberal systems don’t give them job opportunities and foster criminality. In Latin America there is the problem of the drug cartels, drugs that are consumed in the United States and Europe. They make them for the rich countries here, and they lose their lives in the process. And there are those who do it willingly. In my homeland we have a term to describe them: cipayos. It is a classic, literary word that is included in our national poem. The cipayo is the one who sells his homeland to the foreign power who pays him the most. In the history of Argentina, for instance, there has always been a cipayo among the politicians. Or some political position worthy of cipayos. Always. So Latin America must re-arm itself with political groups that will recover the strength of the people. The biggest example for me is Paraguay after the war. The country lost the War of the Triple Alliance and was left almost entirely in the hands of women. And the Paraguayan woman felt that she had to rebuild the nation, defend her faith, defend her culture and defend her language, and she did it. The Paraguayan woman wasn’t a cipaya, she defended what was hers, and she repopulated the country. I think that she is the most glorious woman in the Americas. That is an example of someone who never gave up. Of heroism. In Buenos Aires there is a neighborhood on the banks of the Río de la Plata, where the streets bear the names of patriotic women, women who fought for independence, for their homeland. Women have better sense. Maybe I am exaggerating. Correct me if I am. But they have a stronger inclination towards defending their homeland because they are mothers. They are less cipayas. They are less at risk of being cipayas.
Q. That is why it hurts so much to witness all the violence against women, which is such a scourge in Latin America and so many other places…
A. Everywhere. In Europe… In Italy, for instance, I have visited organizations that rescue female prostitutes who are being taken advantage of by Europeans. One of them told me that they had brought her in from Slovakia in a car trunk. They tell her: you have to earn such and such today, and if you don’t bring it in, we will beat you. They beat her. In Rome? The circumstances of these women, in Rome, is terrifying. In the house that I visited, there was a woman that had had an ear cut off. When they don’t earn enough, they are tortured. And they are trapped because they are frightened, the abusers tell them that they are going to kill their parents. There are Albanians, Nigerians, even Italians. One very good thing this association does is that they walk down the streets, approach the women and, instead of asking how much do you charge, how much do you cost, they ask: How much do you suffer? And they take them to a safe community so that they may recover. Last year, I visited one of those communities with recovering girls, and there were two men there, two volunteers. And one of the women said to me: I found him. She had married the man who had rescued her and they were eager to have a child. The use of women for profit is one of the worst things that are happening today, also in Rome. It is female slavery.
Q. Don’t you think that, after the failed attempt of Liberation Theology in Latin America, the Catholic Church has lost a lot of ground to other denominations and even sects? What is the reason for it?
A. Liberation Theology was very positive for Latin America. The Vatican condemned the part that adopted a Marxist analysis of reality. Cardinal Ratzinger conducted two inquiries when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One about the Marxist analysis of reality. And a second one that recovered some positive aspects. Liberation Theology had positive aspects and also deviations, mainly as concerns of the Marxist analysis of reality.
Q. Regarding your relationship with Argentina, in the last three years the Vatican has become a pilgrimage destination for politicians of all colors. Have you felt used?
A. Ah, yes. Some say: let us have our picture taken together, just as a souvenir, and I promise it will be for my personal use, I will not publish it. And before they walk out out the door it is already published. [He smiles]. Well, if that makes him happy, that is his problem. His quality as a person diminishes. What can I do? It’s his problem, not mine. In Argentina there always was a lot of travel, but nowadays, coming to a general audience with the Pope is almost mandatory. [Laughs]. There are also those who come who are my friends —I lived in Argentina for 76 years — sometimes family, nephews and nieces. But I have felt used, yes. There are people who have used me, my pictures, my words, as if I had said things to them, and whenever someone asks me, I always respond: it’s not my problem, I didn’t say anything to them. But to each with their own conscience.
Q. A frequent subject is the role of laymen and, most of all, the role of women in the Church. Your wish is for them to have a bigger influence and even a role in decision-making. How far do you think that you will be able to get?
A. We must not look at the role of women from a functional point of view, because that way, in the end, the women, or the women’s movement in the Church, will be some sort of chauvinism in skirts. The functional aspect is all right. The deputy director of the Press room at the Vatican is a woman, the director of the Vatican Museums is a woman. But what I want is for women to give us their thinking, because the Church is female, the Church is Jesus Christ’s wife, and that is the theological foundation of women. What was more important on Pentecost, the Virgin or the apostles? The Virgin. There is a long way ahead yet, and we must work so that women may give to the Church the freshness of their being and their thinking.
Q. On some trips, you have addressed the churchmen, both from the Roman Curia and from the local hierarchies or even common priests and nuns, to ask them for more commitment, more proximity, even a better mood. How do you think they receive that advice, that rebuke?
A. My focus is always on proximity, closeness. And it is well received in general. There are always more fundamentalist groups in every country, also in Argentina. They are small groups and I respect them, they are good people that prefer to live their faith that way. I preach what I feel that the Lord asks me to preach.
Q. In Europe there is an increasing number of priests and nuns originating from the so-called Third World. What is the reason for this?
A. A hundred and fifty years ago, in Latin America, there were growing numbers of European priests and nuns, same as in Africa and Asia. Young churches expanded. In Europe today there are no births. Italy has a rate below zero. I think that France is leading the way now, thanks to all the natality laws. But there are no births. The Italian welfare of years ago cut down births. We’d rather go on vacation, we have a dog, a cat, we don’t have children and, if there are no births, there are no callings.
Q. In your consistories you have created cardinals from all over the world. How would you like the next conclave to be, the one that will elect your successor? Your Holiness, do you think that you will witness the next conclave?
A. I want it to be Catholic. A Catholic conclave that chooses my successor.
Q. And will you see it?
A. I don’t know. That is for God to decide. When I feel that I cannot go on, my great teacher Benedict taught me how to do it. And if God carries me away before that, I will see it from the afterlife. I hope it will not be from Hell… But I want it to be a Catholic consistory.
Q. You seem very happy to be a Pope.
A. The Lord is good and hasn’t taken away my good humor.