Pope Francis was interviewed by Carlos Herrera on Radio COPE. For the first time, he talks about the July surgery and also discusses Afghanistan, China, euthanasia, and the reform of the Roman Curia.
Well, I must ask you first of all, Holy Father, how are you feeling?
I’m still alive. [Laughs.]
Your recent surgery, which was a major operation, left us with some concern…
Certainly, these things that are formed by the diverticula… and who knows… they become deformed, necrotic… but thank God it was taken in time, and here I am.
I understand, moreover, that it was the action of a nurse that pointed you out, that alerted you in the first place.
He saved my life! He told me: “You have to have surgery”. There were other opinions: “Better with antibiotics…” but the nurse explained it to me very well. He is a nurse from here, from our health service, from the Vatican hospital. He has been here for thirty years, a very experienced man. It is the second time in my life that a nurse has saved my life.
When was the first time?
The first time was in 1957, when they thought it was the flu, one of those flu epidemics in the seminary, and the seminary nurse treated me with aspirin. And for the others it was fine, but with me it didn’t work, so they took me to the hospital, where they took water out of my lungs. The doctor said I should receive… I don’t remember how much, let’s say a million units of penicillin and so many [units of] streptomycin—those were the only antibiotics at the time—and when he left, the nurse said: “Twice as much”.
And that saved you?
Yes, because if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have…
One of the… I won’t say one of the Vatican’s best-kept secrets, but one of the issues that traditionally is of most interest is the Pope’s health.
There were no surprises, it was all planned…
It was all scheduled and it had been arranged… After the Angelus I left immediately. That would be almost one o’clock, and it was announced at 3.30 pm when I was already in the preliminaries.
You have said, Your Holiness, that “weeds never die”.
That’s right, that’s right, and that goes for me too; it goes for everyone.
Has the media [sic] forbidden you to do anything, is there any ultimatum, is there anything that Your Holiness cannot do or that you are not willing to do?
I do not understand what you mean.
Have the doctors prevented you from doing anything?
Oh, the doctors! Sorry, I had understood “the media”.
[Laughs] Well, the media, you know, also have temptations. But in this case, it’s the doctors. [Spanish: “medios” (media) and “médicos” (doctors)]
Now I can eat everything, which was not possible before with the diverticula. I can eat everything. I still have the post-operative medications, because the brain has to register that it has 33 centimetres less intestine. And everything is managed by the brain, the brain manages our whole body, and it takes time for it to register it. But besides that, I have a normal life, I lead a totally normal life.
You eat anything you want…
You walk, you exert yourself…
All morning today in hearings, all morning long.
Now you are going on a trip to Slovakia and Hungary. I understand that it is the 34th trip of the Pontificate.
I don’t remember the times, but it may be so.
Is the program going to be as intense? I think the Popes, Your Holiness, are required to do a real gymkhana. I have always wondered why the Popes don’t go for two more days and spread the work over two more days, because they spend about 18 hours out of 24 doing things. Are you going to have to take care of your strength more after the surgery or not?
Maybe in this first trip I should be more careful, because one has to recover completely, but in the end, it will be the same as the others, you will see. [Laughs.]
Does Your Holiness fear that one of the most insistent things with which the media, essentially Italian, distinguish you, Holy Father, is that when the Pope’s health is questioned, many think or insist on the old argument of resignation, the “I’m going home, I can’t take it anymore…”? It is a permanent theme, I believe, in your life as Pope, isn’t it?
Yes, they even told me that last week that was very popular. Eva [Fernández] told me that; she even said it with a very nice Argentine expression, and I told her that I had no idea because I read only one newspaper here in the morning, the newspaper of Rome. I read it because I like the way of its headline, I read it quickly and that’s it, I don’t get into the game. I don’t watch television. And I do receive the report about some of the news of the day, but I found out much later, a few days later, that there was something about me resigning. Whenever a Pope is ill, there is always a breeze or a hurricane of conclave. [Laughter.]
What was the Pope’s confinement like? The time we have been confined at home. What has the Pope done during the confinement?
First, I have to put up with myself, which is not easy. It is a science that I still have to master. It’s hard to put up with oneself.
You have been in the practice for many years…
Yes, but it is difficult. Sometimes a person is capricious with himself and wants things to come out automatically. Then I started to take things back little by little and, today, I am leading a normal life. This morning, the whole morning of hearings; today is the second hearing in the afternoon (I started at 3.30 p.m.) and I am still going on.
Although the goal of your next trip is to Slovakia, many will be looking forward to your meeting with the Prime Minister of Hungary, Victor Orban, with whom you do not share some points of his government program, especially regarding the closing of borders. What would you like to say to him if you had the opportunity to meet him alone?
I don’t know if I am going to meet him. I know that authorities will come to greet me. I am not going to the center of Budapest, but to the place of the [Eucharistic] Congress, and there is a hall where I will meet with the bishops, and there I will receive the authorities who will come. I don’t know who will come. The president I know because he was at the Mass in Transylvania, that part of Romania where they speak Hungarian, a beautiful Mass in Hungarian, and he came with a minister. I think it wasn’t Orban… because at the end of the Mass we formally greet… I don’t know who will come…
And one of my ways is not to go around with a script: When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out. It doesn’t even occur to me to think about what I’m going to say if I’m with him, those potential future situations that don’t help me. I like the concrete; thinking about potential future situations makes you tangled, it is not good for you.
Your Holiness is closely following the new political map Afghanistan is facing. The country has been left to its own devices after many years of military occupation. Can the Vatican pull diplomatic strings to try to prevent reprisals against the population or for so many other things?
Certainly. And, in fact, I am sure that the Secretariat of State is doing so because the diplomatic level of the Secretary of State and his team is very high, also that of Relations with the Nations. Cardinal Parolin is really the best diplomat I have ever met. A diplomat who adds; not one of those who detract. He is someone who always seeks, a man of agreement. I am sure he is helping or at least offering to help. It is a difficult situation. I believe that as a pastor I must call Christians to a special prayer at this time. It is true that we live in a world of wars, (think of Yemen, for example). But this is something very special, it has another meaning. And I am going to try to ask for what the Church always asks for in times of great difficulty and crisis: more prayer and fasting. Prayer, penance, and fasting, which is what is asked for in moments of crisis. And regarding the fact of 20 years of occupation and then leaving, I remembered other historical facts, but I was touched by something that Chancellor Merkel, who is one of the great figures of world politics, said in Moscow, last 20th [of August]. And she said, I hope the translation is correct: “It is necessary to put an end to the irresponsible policy of intervening from outside and building democracy in other countries, ignoring the traditions of the peoples.” Concise and conclusive. I think this says a lot; and everyone can interpret it as they wish. But there I felt a wisdom in hearing this woman say this.
The fact that the West is withdrawing, essentially the coalition headed by the US and the EU itself? Does it discourage the Holy Father, or do you think it is the right way to go? Should we leave them to their fate?
They are three different things. The fact of withdrawing is legitimate. The echo it has in me is something else. And the third thing, you said “leave them to their fate”; I would say the way to withdraw, the way to negotiate a way out, isn’t it? As far as I can see, not all eventualities were taken into account here… or it seems, I don’t want to judge. I don’t know whether there will be a review or not, but certainly there was a lot of deception perhaps on the part of the new authorities. I say deceit or a lot of naiveté, I don’t understand. But I would see the way here. And that from Mrs. Merkel I think emphasizes that.
I guess the Pope can allow himself disappointments like any Christian. As Holy Father, what has been the biggest disappointment you have had, Your Holiness?
I had several. I had several disappointments in life and that’s good because disappointments are like emergency landings. They are like emergency landings in life. And the point is to get up. There is an alpine song that says a lot to me: “In the art of climbing, what matters is not not to fall, but not to stay fallen”. And you, faced with a disappointment, have two ways: either you stay there saying that this is not going to work—as the tango [song] says: “Dale que va, que todo es igual, que allá en el horno nos vamos a encontrar” [Lyrics, in Argentine slang, of a tango song from the 1930’s: “Keep it up, it’s all the same, there in hell we’re gonna reunite”]—or I get up and bet again. And I believe that in the face of a war, in the face of a defeat, even in the face of one’s own disappointment or one’s own failure or one’s own sin, one must get up and not remain fallen.
It is always said that the devil is delighted that people believe he does not exist. Does the devil also run around the Vatican?
[Laughing] The devil runs around everywhere, but I’m most afraid of the polite devils. Those who ring your doorbell, who ask your permission, who enter your house, who make friends… But Jesus never talked about that? Yes, he did! Yes, he did. When he says this: when the unclean spirit comes out of a man, when someone is converted or changes his life, he goes and starts to walk around, in arid places, he gets bored… and after a while, he says “I’m going back to see how it is”, and he sees the house all tidy, all changed. Then he looks for seven people worse than him and enters with a different attitude. That is why I say that the worst are the polite devils, those who ring the doorbell. The naivety of this person lets him in and the end of that man is worse than the beginning, says the Lord. I dread the polite devils. They are the worst, and one is very deceived. One is very deceived.
In March it will be nine years since the beginning of your Pontificate, which has not been that brief pontificate of 4-5 years that Your Holiness said. Are you satisfied with the changes undertaken or is there anything pending that you would like to finish off imminently? That is to say, do you have the feeling that God has given you some extra time for something?
Obviously, the appointment took me by surprise because I came with a small suitcase. Because I had my cassock here. I had been given one as a gift when I became a cardinal and I left it at the home of some nuns so as not to have to… I belonged to five or six congregations here and so I had to travel, so I didn’t have to come with that… I came as usual. And I left the Holy Week homilies prepared there in the bishopric. That is to say, it caught me by surprise. But I didn’t invent anything; what I did from the beginning is to try to put into action what we cardinals said in the pre-conclave meetings for the next Pope: the next Pope has to do this, this, this, this. And this is what I started to do. I think there are several things still to be done, but there is nothing invented by me. I am obeying what was set at the time. Maybe some people did not realize what they were saying or thought it was not so serious, but some topics cause pain, it is true. But there is no originality of mine in the plan. And my working roadmap, Evangelii gaudium, is one thing in which I tried to summarize what we cardinals were saying at the time.
That is to say, when you left Buenos Aires, did you at any time contemplate the possibility that you were not going to return?
No, not at all. Not at all. I even had to delay essential things. Because of my age, it didn’t occur to me. It did not occur to me. But the only thing I did was to try to summarize everything; I asked for the minutes of those meetings—in which I had been present, but in order not to forget—and to set that up.
One of the latest earthquakes in the Vatican, at least in the media, is the macro-process for corruption in which Cardinal Becciu is accused. He insists that his innocence will be proven. From the outside, one gets the impression that the reform of Vatican finances is like that snail that climbs up the well, and every time it advances one meter it goes back two. Is there hope? How do you think this affair will end? Corruption is an inherent, unavoidable sin in all organizations, but in what way can it be avoided within the Vatican?
We have to do everything we can to avoid it, but it is an old story. Looking back, we have the story of Marcinkus, which we remember well; the story of Danzi, the story of Szoka… It is a disease that we relapse into. I believe that today progress has been made in the consolidation of justice in the Vatican State. During the last three years, progress has been made in such a way that justice has become more independent, with the technical means, even with recorded witness statements, the current technical things, appointments of new judges, of the new public prosecutor’s office… and this has been moving things forward. And it helped. The structure helped to face this situation that seemed that it would never exist. And it all started with two reports from people who work in the Vatican and who saw an irregularity in their functions. They made a complaint and asked me what to do. I told them: if you want to go ahead, you have to present it to the prosecutor. It was a bit challenging, but they were two good people, they were a bit cowed and then, as if to encourage them, I put my signature under theirs, to say: this is the way, I am not afraid of transparency or the truth. Sometimes it hurts, and a lot, but the truth is what sets us free. So this was simply it. Now, if a few years from now another one appears… Let’s hope that these steps we are taking in Vatican justice will help to make these events happen less and less…. Yes, you used the word corruption and, in this case, obviously, at least at first sight, it seems that there is corruption.
What do you fear more? Whether [Becciu] will be found guilty or not guilty, given that you yourself gave permission to bring him to trial?
He goes to trial according to Vatican law. At one time, the judges of the cardinals were not the judges of state as they are today, but the Chief of State. I hope with all my heart that he is innocent. Besides, he was a collaborator of mine and helped me a lot. He is a person whom I have a certain esteem as a person, that is to say that my wish is that he turns out well. But it is an affective form of the presumption of innocence. In addition to the presumption of innocence, I want everything to turn out well. In any case, justice will decide.
I don’t know if Pope Francis is a man who likes to bang his fist on the table. Would it be possible that the last blow on the table has been the pontifical document limiting the celebration of the ‘Tridentine Masses’? And I also ask you to explain to my audience what the ‘Tridentine Mass’ is, what is it about the Tridentine Mass that is not mandatory.
I’m not one to bang on the table, I don’t get it. I’m rather shy. The history of Traditionis custodes is long. When first St. John Paul II—and later Benedict, more clearly with Summorum Pontificum—, gave this possibility of celebrating with the Missal of John XXIII (prior to that of Paul VI, which is post-conciliar) for those who did not feel good with the current liturgy, who had a certain nostalgia… it seemed to me one of the most beautiful and human pastoral things of Benedict XVI, who is a man of exquisite humanity. And so it began. That was the reason. After three years he said that an evaluation had to be made. An evaluation was made, and it seemed that everything was going well. And it was fine. Ten years passed from that evaluation to the present (that is, thirteen years since the promulgation [of Summorum Pontificum]) and last year we saw with those responsible for Worship and for the Doctrine of the Faith that it was appropriate to make another evaluation of all the bishops of the world. And it was done. It lasted the whole year. Then the subject was studied and based on that, the concern that appeared the most was that something that was done to help pastorally those who have lived a previous experience was being transformed into ideology. That is, from a pastoral thing to ideology. So, we had to react with clear norms. Clear norms that put a limit to those who had not lived that experience. Because it seemed to be fashionable in some places that young priests would say, “Oh, no, I want…” and maybe they don’t know Latin, they don’t know what it means. And on the other hand, to support and consolidate Summorum Pontificum. I did more or less the outline, I had it studied and I worked, and I worked a lot, with traditionalist people of good sense. And the result was that pastoral care that must be taken, with some good limits. For example, that the proclamation of the Word be in a language that everyone understands; otherwise it would be like laughing at the Word of God. Little things. But yes, the limit is very clear. After this motu proprio, a priest who wants to celebrate that is not in the same condition as before—that it was for nostalgia, for desire, &c.— and so he has to ask permission from Rome. A kind of permission for bi-ritualism, which is given only by Rome. [Like] a priest who celebrates in the Eastern Rite and the Latin Rite, he is bi-ritual but with the permission of Rome. That is to say, until today, the previous ones continue but a little bit organized. Moreover, asking that there be a priest who is in charge not only of the liturgy but also of the spiritual life of that community. If you read the letter well and read the Decree well, you will see that it is simply a constructive reordering, with pastoral care and avoiding an excess by those who are not…
Does His Holiness have sleepless nights due to the synodal path that the German Catholic Church has begun?
About that, I allowed myself to send a letter. A letter that I wrote myself in Spanish. It took me a month to do that, between praying and thinking. And I sent it at the right time: the original in Spanish and a translation in German. And there I express everything I feel about the German synod. It is all there.
The German synod’s protest is not a new one… History repeats itself…
Yes, but I wouldn’t get too tragic either. There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke. It is a pastoral desire, but one that perhaps does not take into account some things that I explain in the letter that need to be taken into account.
There are things that are firmly established in the popular imagination. One of them, the most talked about, is the crisis of the theatre. Your Holiness knows that the theatre has been in crisis since Your Holiness and I were born. Another is the reform of the curia. It is constantly said “the curia must be reformed”, but the curia seems unreformable. It is like a thorny jungle into which it is impossible to enter, or so it is said from the outside. Does the Pope still dream of a Church very different from the one you see now?
Well, if you see that from the beginning, what the cardinals said in the pre-conclave has been put into action up to the present moment; the reform is proceeding step by step and well. The first document that marks the line, trying to resume what the cardinals said, is Evangelii gaudium. And there is a problem in Evangelii gaudium that I would like to point out, which is the problem of preaching. Subjecting the Christian faithful to long classes of theology, philosophy or moralism is not Christian preaching. In Evangelii gaudium I ask for a serious reform of preaching. Some do, others don’t understand… To make a point, right? But Evangelii gaudium tries to summarize in general the attitudes of the cardinals in the pre-conclave. And regarding the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, this is already being worked on, and the last step is for me to read it —and I must read it because I have to sign it and I have to read it word for word—and it is not going to have anything new in terms of what is being seen now. Perhaps some detail, some change of dicasteries that are joining together, two or three more dicasteries, but it has already been announced: for example, Education is going to join with Culture. Propaganda Fide is going to join with the New Evangelization dicastery. It has been announced. There is not going to be anything new with respect to what was promised to be done. Some people say to me, “When is the apostolic constitution on the reform of the Church coming out, to see what’s new?” No. There is not going to be anything new. If there is anything new, it’s little things of tweaking. It’s nearly finished, but it got delayed with this thing about my illness. It is simmering, so take all this into account. Be clear that the reform will be nothing other than to put in place what we asked for in the pre-conclave, and that is being seen. It is already being seen.
On the first visit to the Vatican’s communications department, the Holy Father expressed his concern that the message was not reaching where it should. Audience numbers were poor. Was that a serious reprimand?
I was amused by the reaction. I said two things. First, a question: how many people read L’Osservatore Romano? I did not say whether many or few read it. It was a question. I think it is licit to ask, don’t you? And the second question, which was more of a theme, [I asked] when after having seen all the new work of union, the new organization chart, the functionalization, I spoke of the sickness of the organization charts, which gives a reality [that has] a more functional rather than a real value. And I said: with all this functionality, which is necessary for it to work well, we must not fall into functionalism. Functionalism is the cult of organization charts without taking reality into account. It seems that someone did not understand these two things I said, or maybe someone did not like it, or I don’t know what, and interpreted it as a criticism. But it was just a question and a warning. Yes… Maybe someone felt offside. I think the dicastery has a lot of promise, it is the dicastery with the largest budget in the Curia at the moment, headed by a layman—I hope that soon there will be others headed by a layman or a laywoman—and that it is taking off with new reforms. L’Osservatore Romano, which I call “the newspaper of the Party,” has made great progress and it is marvelous how it is making the cultural efforts it is making.
Years ago I was impressed by something you recounted, Your Holiness, when years ago in the streets of Buenos Aires some parents shouted to their son not to approach you because you were dressed as a priest and could be a paedophile.
This is how it was.
There still seems to be doubts about all the priests, who during this pandemic, for example, have shown that they are working their fingers to the bone with those who are least. Are the bishops of all countries doing the assignments you sent them when you summoned them to Rome so that paedophiles would no longer exist among their ranks?
Before answering your question, I would like to pay tribute to a man who began to speak about this with courage, even though he was a thorn in the side of the organization, long before the organization was created on this subject, and that is Cardinal O’Malley. It fell to him to settle the matter in Boston and it was not easy. There have been very clear steps taken on this, haven’t there? The Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was Cardinal O’Malley’s invention, is now functioning. Now I have to renew half of its staff because every three years half of its staff is renewed. Top-notch people from several different countries with these problems. And I think they are doing well. I think the statistics I gave to the journalists at the meeting of the presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences, on the one hand, and then the final speech I gave at the end of the Mass at that meeting, were key in this. Someone said: “At the end of the day, the Pope said that it is everyone’s problem, he blamed the devil and washed his hands of it.” That was a media comment; that I blamed the devil, yes. As an inciter of this. But I blamed him when I talked about paedo-pornography. I said that abusing a boy to film a paedo-pornographic act is demonic. It cannot be explained without the presence of the devil. I did say that. Well, there in that speech I talked about everything, along with the statistics. I think things are being done well. In fact, progress has been made and more and more progress is being made. However, it is a global and serious problem. I sometimes wonder how certain governments allow the production of paedo-pornography. Let them not say they don’t know. Nowadays, with the intelligence services, everything is known. A government knows who in its country produces paedo-pornography. For me, this is one of the most monstrous things I have ever seen.
Some time ago, Your Holiness, you admitted that a few years ago ecological issues were of no interest to you. Now Your Holiness has changed, for you are one of the world leaders who speak out most on this issue, on the abuses committed against the Earth. Has the ecological choice made you enemies? Will you be in Glasgow for COP26? Two questions in one.
I am going to make history: [The V General Conference of CELAM in] Aparecida was in 2007 if I am not mistaken. I’m a little lost for dates. In Aparecida I heard the Brazilian bishops talk about preserving nature, the ecological problem, the Amazon…. They insisted, insisted, insisted, and I wondered what this had to do with evangelization. That’s what I felt. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I’m talking about 2007. That shocked me. When I returned to Buenos Aires, I became interested, and slowly I began to understand something. Already being here, huh? I am a convert in this. And then I understood more. And somehow, I realized that I had to do something and then I had the idea of writing something as a magisterium because the Church in front of this… just as I was a “salami” as we say in Argentina, a fool who did not understand any of this, there are so many people of good will who do not understand… So, to give some catechesis on this. I summoned a group of scientists to explain to me the real problems; not the hypotheses, but the real thing. They made me a nice catalogue and rightly so. I passed it on to theologians who reflected on it. And that is how Laudato sí came about.
A nice anecdote: when I went to Strasbourg, President Hollande sent the Minister of the Environment, who at that time was Mrs. Ségolène Royal, to receive me and see me off. And in the conversation I had with her, she said to me, “Is it true that you are writing something?” The Minister of the Environment understood. And I said, “Yes, I’m on this.” “Please publish it before [the] Paris [summit] because we need endorsements.” I came back from Strasbourg and sped up. And it came out before the Paris meeting. For me, the Paris meeting was the summum in becoming globally aware. Then what happened? Fear set in. And slowly, in the subsequent meetings, they went backward. I hope that Glasgow will now raise its sights a bit and bring us more in line.
But will Your Holiness be there?
Yes, in principle the program is that I go. It all depends on how I feel at the time. But in fact, my speech is already being prepared, and the plan is to be there.
Let’s talk about China if you would, Your Holiness… Within your own ranks, there are those who insist that you should not renew the agreement that the Vatican has signed with that country because it jeopardizes your moral authority. Do you have the feeling that there are many people who want to set the Pope’s path?
Even when I was a layman and priest, I loved to show the way to the bishop; it is a temptation that I would even say is licit if it is done with good will. China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue. You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that… but it is the way. Closed-mindedness is never the way. What has been achieved so far in China was at least dialogue… some concrete things like the appointment of new bishops, slowly… But these are also steps that can be questionable and the results on one side or the other. For me, the key figure in all this and who helps me and inspires me is Cardinal Casaroli. Casaroli was the man John XXIII commissioned to build bridges with Central Europe. There is a very nice book, The Martyrdom of Patience where he tells a bit about his experiences there. Or his experiences are recounted by the one who compiled everything. And it was small step after small step, creating bridges. Sometimes having to talk in the open air or with the faucet open in difficult moments. Slowly, slowly, slowly, he was achieving reserves of diplomatic relations which in the end meant appointing new bishops and taking care of God’s faithful people. Today, somehow, we have to follow these paths of dialogue step by step in the most conflictive situations. My experience in dialogue with Islam, for example, with the Grand Imam al-Tayyeb was very positive in this, and I am very grateful to him. It was like the germ of Fratelli tutti afterward. But dialogue, always dialogue, or to be willing to dialogue. There is a very nice thing. The last time St. John Paul II met with Casaroli, he went to inform him where things were going… (Casaroli went every weekend to a juvenile prison. I think it was Casal del Marmo, I am not sure. And he was with the boys and wore a cassock like a priest. Nobody knew… Some didn’t know who he was). And when they said goodbye and Casaroli was already at the door, St. John Paul II called him and said, “Eminence, do you still go to those boys?” “Yes, yes.” “Never leave them.” The testament of a saintly pope to a very capable diplomat: continue on this path of diplomacy, but don’t forget that you are a priest, as you are doing. This for me is inspiring.
Your Holiness, in Spain, euthanasia has been legalized, on the basis of what they call the “right to a dignified death.” But that is a fallacious syllogism, because the Church does not defend incarnate suffering, but dignity to the end. How far does man have real power over his life? What does the Pope believe?
Let us situate ourselves. We are living in a throwaway culture. What is useless is discarded. Old people are disposable material: they are a nuisance. Not all of them, but in the collective unconscious of the throwaway culture, the old… the most terminally ill, too; the unwanted children, too, and they are sent to the sender before they are born… In other words, there is this kind of culture.
Then, let us look at the peripheries, let us think of the great Asian peripheries, for example, to go far away and not think that we are just talking about things here. The discarding of entire peoples. Think of the Rohingyas, discarded, nomads around the world. Poor things. In other words, they are discarded. They are no good, they don’t fit, they are no good.
This throwaway culture has marked us. And it marks the young and the old. It has a strong influence on one of the dramas of today’s European culture. In Italy, the average age is 47 years old. In Spain, I think it is older. That is to say, the pyramid has been inverted. It is the demographic winter at birth, in which there are more cases of abortion. The demographic culture is in loss because we look at the profit. It looks to the one in front… and sometimes using the idea of compassion: “that this person may not suffer in the case of…” What the Church asks is to help people to die with dignity. This has always been done.
And with regard to the case of abortion, I do not like to enter into discussions on whether it is possible up to here, or whether it is not possible up to there, but I say this: any embryology manual given to a medical student in medical school says that by the third week of conception, sometimes before the mother realizes [that she is pregnant], all the organs in the embryo are already outlined, even the DNA. It is a life. A human life. Some say, “It’s not a person.” It is a human life! So, faced with a human life I ask myself two questions: Is it licit to eliminate a human life to solve a problem, is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? Second question: Is it fair to hire a hired killer to solve a problem? And with these two questions, what about the cases of elimination of people—on one side or the other—because they are a burden for society?
I would like to remember something they used to tell us at home. About a very good family with several children and the grandfather who lived with them, but the grandfather was getting old and he began to drool at the table. Then, the father could not invite people because he was ashamed of his father. So he thought to set a nice table in the kitchen and he explained to the family that beginning the next day, Grandpa would eat in the kitchen so they could invite people. And so it was. A week later, he comes home and finds his little son, 8 or 9-years-old, one of the children, playing with wood, nails, hammers, and he says, “What are you doing?” “I’m making a little table, Dad.” “For what?” “For you, for when you’re old.” In other words, what is sown in discarding, is going to be harvested later.
Holiness, let us move on to another scenario. In Spanish society, you know that there have been some fractions and some concrete fractures. The referendum in Catalonia led to a particularly delicate situation. And you have said that “sovereignism” [Sp. “soberanismo”] is an exaggeration that always ends badly. What attitude do you think we should adopt in the face of an approach of rupture?
I would suggest looking at history. In history, there have been cases of independence. They are countries in Europe that today are even in the process of independence. Look at Kosovo and that whole area that is being remade. These are historical events that are characterized by a series of particularities. In the case of Spain, it is you, the Spaniards, who have to judge, looking at your attitude. But for me, the most important thing at this moment in any country that has this type of problems, is to ask myself if they have reconciled with their own history. I don’t know if Spain is totally reconciled with its own history, especially the history of the last century. And if it is not, I think it has to make a step of reconciliation with its own history, which does not mean giving up its own positions, but entering into a process of dialogue and reconciliation; and, above all, fleeing from ideologies, which are the ones that prevent any process of reconciliation. Moreover, ideologies destroy. “National unity” is a fascinating expression, it is true, that of national unity, but it will never be valued without the basic reconciliation of the peoples. And I believe that in this any government, whatever the sign it may be, has to take charge of reconciliation and see how they carry out history as brothers and not as enemies or at least with that dishonest unconscious that makes me judge the other as a historical enemy.
Well, Spain underwent a very intense and admirable reconciliation process for the whole world in the seventies of the last century. The problem is that historical revisionism has tried to render useless that admirable reconciliation in the world that was the Spanish Transition, which I imagine you knew in Argentina and it will not be strange for the Pope. Nationalism and sovereignism have sown Europe with deaths and immigrants. And this leads me to ask you: in the face of the immigration caused by various phenomena in which we are immersed right now, what position do we take? What happens when the number of those who ask for shelter exceeds the possibilities of reception of a country? Should there be no borders? Everyone anywhere, wherever we want, and however we want? Do the states have the right to set their rigid or less rigid rules?
My answer would be this: first, with regard to migrants, four attitudes: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. And as for the last one: if you welcome them and leave them loose at home and do not integrate them, they are a danger, because they feel like strangers. Think of the Zaventem tragedy. Those who committed that act of terrorism were Belgians, the children of immigrants who were not integrated, turned into a ghetto. I have to get the migrant to integrate and for this, I have to take this step of not only welcoming them, but protecting them and promoting them, educating them, etc. The second thing, more to your question: the countries have to be very honest with themselves and see how many they can accept and up to what number, and here the dialogue between nations is important. Today, the migratory problem cannot be solved by one country alone and it is important to dialogue and see “I can go this far…”, “I have more possibilities” or not; “integration structures are valid or not valid”, etcetera. I am thinking of a country where a few days after arriving, a migrant already received a salary to go to school to learn the language, and then he/she got a job and was integrated. This was during the time of the integration of immigration by the military dictatorships in South America: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay. I am talking about Sweden. Sweden was an example in these four steps of welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating.
And then there is also a reality in the face of migrants, I have already referred to it, but I repeat it: the reality of the demographic winter. Italy has almost empty villages.
“Well, we’re getting ready.” What are you waiting for, to be left with no one? It is a reality. In other words, migration is a help as long as our integration steps are fulfilled. That is my position. But of course, a country has to be very honest and say: “This is as far as I can go”.
Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s speech on European identity. I would like to ask you about the places where the Pope can go as long as your health allows you to do so. Might be Haiti, or it may be your country, might be Santiago [de Compostela]. [It was there] that St. John Paul II said: “Find yourself again, be yourself, discover your origins. It would be a magnificent memory to remember this with you, taking advantage of the Jacobean Holy Year…
I told the president of the Xunta de Galicia that I would think about the matter. That is, I did not take it out of an eventual schedule. For me the unity of Europe at this moment is a challenge. Either Europe continues to perfect and improve in the European Union, or it disintegrates. The EU is a vision of great men—Schumann, Adenauer—who saw it. I think I gave six speeches on the unity of Europe. Two in Strasbourg, one when I was awarded the Charlemagne Prize. And there, I recommend the speech given by the mayor of Aachen, because it is a marvellous critique of the EU problem. But we cannot give up. One of the happiest moments I had was in one of the speeches, when all—or heads of state or heads of government—from the EU came. No one was missing and we had our picture taken in the Sistine Chapel. I’ll never forget that. We cannot go backward. It was a time of crisis and the EU reacted well to the crisis. Despite the discussions, it reacted well. We have to do what we can to save that heritage. It is a legacy and it is a duty.
Your Holiness, if I do not ask you when the Pope will come to Spain, they will claim to me “how come you have not asked the Holy Father…” I dare to suggest to you that Your Holiness will not know the Holy Week until he comes on a Holy Tuesday to Seville to see the Virgin of the Candelaria. Are you not even curious?
Very much. Very much. But my choice so far of travel to Europe is the small countries. First it was Albania and then all the countries that were small. Now Slovakia is on the program, then Cyprus, Greece, and Malta. I wanted to take that option: first to the smaller countries. I went to Strasbourg but I did not go to France. I went to Strasbourg because of the EU. And if I go to Santiago, I go to Santiago but not to Spain, let’s be clear.
Along the Journey of Europe [Sp.: al Camino de Europa].
Along the Journey of Europe. One Europe. But that is yet to be decided.
Is there anything the Pope has cried about in the last year, other than the pandemic, or does not the Pope cry easily?
I am not a person who cries easily, but from time to time I feel that sadness in the face of some things, and I am very careful not to confuse it with a Paul Verlaine-like melancholy: “Les sanglots longs, de l’automne, blessent mon coeur” [The long sobs / Of violins / Of autumn / Wound my heart…] No, no. I don’t want it to be confused with that. At times, seeing certain things, they touch my heart and… and that happens to me sometimes….
You have been called “the pop Pope” or “the Superman Pope,” which I know you don’t like. Who is Francis really? How would you like to be remembered?
For what I am: a sinner trying to do good.
Well, then we are two sinners at this table …
There are two of us.
But you have more of a hand up there. [Laughs] I have always been struck by your relationship with the writer Jorge Luis Borges. Why did he pay so much attention to that young Jesuit?
I don’t know why. I approached him because I was very close to his secretary. And then a friendliness… I was not a priest when I met him. I was 25 or 26 years old when I met him, and I was teaching in Santa Fe as a Jesuit, in those three years that we Jesuits taught at school, and I invited him to come and speak to my students of Literature. And he came, and he had his course… I don’t know why. But he was a very good man. A very good man.
We have heard you talk a lot about your paternal grandmother, grandmother Rosa, but we have heard you talk less about your mother, or perhaps we simply have not heard you talk about your mother…
There are two factors at work here. We are five siblings, all very close to our grandparents. God has preserved our grandparents until we grew up. I lost my first grandfather, the most distant of all, when I was 16 years old, and my last grandmother when I was a Jesuit provincial. So the grandparents remained with us always. There was also a tradition at home; the four older ones, because the youngest came six years later, spent the vacations with the grandparents, so that mom and dad could rest a little. It was fun. There is a lot of that grandparents’ thing. About grandma Rosa what I tell are the same anecdotes as always, some of them are very funny. From the other grandmother, I also tell anecdotes, like the lesson she gave me the day of Prokofiev’s death, about the effort in life. When I asked her how that man must have made it so far. I was a teenager. And yes, I also remember many things about my mother that I also recount… But perhaps it is more striking about grandma because I keep repeating some curious things about her, some unrepeatable things by letter, by radio programs… some sayings that taught us a lot. But, apart from the fact that we were very fond of our grandparents, well, in fact on Sundays we would go to our grandparents’ house and then to the stadium to watch San Lorenzo. But grandparents had a great influence on our life.
You have not watched San Lorenzo because you haven’t wanted to watch television for years…
That’s right. I made a promise on July 16, 1990. I felt that the Lord was asking me to do so, because we were in community watching something that ended up tawdry, unpleasant, bad. I felt bad. It was the night of July 15. And the next day, in prayer, I promised the Lord not to watch it. Of course, when a president takes office I watch it, when there is a plane crash, I watch it, those things… but I am not addicted to it.
You didn’t watch the Copa America, for example.
No, not at all.
There is an old legend that says that some Pope has escaped from the Vatican. Has Francis made any escapade that no one has known about so far?
No. The one who used to go skiing was St. John Paul II. An hour and a bit away there was a ski slope, and he had it in his soul. And he was right to escape, he was covered. But one day while he was in line to go up and a boy said, “The Pope!” I don’t know how he found out. And he went back right away, and he tried to take more precautions. The houses of families where I have gone to visit, as far as I remember, are three: a half convent of the Teresian Sisters where I wanted to visit Professor Mara, already 90 years old, a great woman who taught at the University of La Sapienza and then taught at the Augustinianum, and I wanted to go to celebrate Mass for her. Then, to pay my condolences to probably my best friend, an Italian journalist, at his home. And the third house I visited was that of Edith Bruck, the lady, 90 years old now, who was in the concentration camp. She was Hungarian. Jewish. This was this year at the beginning, or last year, I can’t remember. These are the only three houses I went to in secret, and then it came out. I would love to walk down the street, I would love to, but I have to deprive myself, because I couldn’t walk ten meters.
Have you ever been tempted to wear civilian clothes?
No, absolutely not. No.
…with a hat and glasses?
[Laughs] No, no, not at all.
How does Pope Francis fight nostalgia, who cooks him los palitos de anis [aniseed sticks], or what he always had for breakfast in La Puerto Rico?
I try not to make my nostalgia melancholic, autumnal, although one nice thing about the Argentine autumn, in Buenos Aires, was the cloudy, foggy days, where you couldn’t see ten meters from the window, and I was listening to Piazzola. I do miss that a bit, but Rome has its foggy days too. Not nostalgia, no. The desire to walk from one parish to another, yes; but not nostalgia.
Are the days of headaches over words or attributed words that went too far and had consequences that you didn’t count on over?
The danger is always there. A word can be interpreted one way or the other, can’t it? These are things that happen. And what do I know… I don’t know where they got it from last week that I was going to resign! What word did they understand in my country? That’s where the news came from. And they say it was a commotion, when it didn’t even cross my mind. When there are interpretations that are a little distorted about some of my words, I keep quiet, because trying to clarify them is worse.
Do people talk a lot about soccer here in Santa Marta?
Yes, Italian soccer. I’m getting to know things a little bit. There is a lot of talk about soccer, yes.
What kind of soccer player were you, Your Holiness?
I was a stick. They called me ‘el pata dura,’ that’s why they always put me in the goal, that’s where I defended myself more or less well.
In our [sports] program Tiempo de juego, our colleagues, when I told them that I was coming to see the Pope, [said] “Please, get the Pope to tell you what he thinks about Messi’s signing, he has gone to France.” What do you like about the whole soccer world, do you follow it closely?
I wrote a pastoral letter on sports. A pastoral letter that was not a pastoral letter. In two steps. First there was the article published in the Gazzetta dello Sport on January 2 of this year and based on that—I corrected it—the pastoral letter. An interview article. I only say this: to be a good soccer player you have to have two things: to know how to work in a team and not to be, as we say in Buenos Aires in our slang, one who ‘bites’ the ball, but always in a team. And secondly, not to lose the amateur spirit. When sport loses that amateur spirit, it starts to become too commercialized. And there are men who have known how not to let themselves be stained by this and to give their earnings and everything to good works and foundations. But above all, working as a team, which is a school of team sports, and not losing the amateur spirit.
Your Holiness, I thank you very much for this unforgettable hour that you have offered to the listeners of COPE.
A big greeting to those who are listening and I ask you all to pray for me, that the Lord will continue to protect me and take care of me, because if He leaves me on my own, I am a mess.
Normally it is you who would say this to us, but today it is we [who say it to you]: God bless you.
And to you all, God bless you. Thank you.
With thanks to Vatican News and Carlos Herrera, where this article originally appeared.