by L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly ed. in English, n. 41, 9 October 201
The light we bear in our souls
Interview with Pope Francis as it appeared in ‘La Repubblica’ on 1 October.
By Eugenio Scalfari
Pope Francis said to me: “The most serious evils currently afflicting the world are unemployment among the young and the solitude in which the elderly are left. The elderly need care and companionship; the young need work and hope. However, they have neither the one nor the other, and the trouble is that they are no longer seeking for them. They have been crushed by the present. Tell me: can one live crushed by the present? Without any memory of the past or any desire to look to the future by building a project, a future, a family? Is it possible to continue in this way? This, in my opinion, is the most urgent problem facing the Church”.
Your Holiness, I said, it is primarily a political and economic problem that concerns States, governments, parties and trade union associations.
“Of course you are right, but it also concerns the Church; indeed, it especially concerns the Church because this situation doesn’t wound only the body, it also wounds the soul. The Church should feel responsible for both soul and body”.
Your Holiness, you said that the Church should feel responsible. Am I to deduce from this that the Church is unaware of this problem and that you are encouraging her in this direction?
“The awareness is largely there but it isn’t sufficient. I want there to be more. This is not the only problem that we have to confront but it is the most urgent and the most dramatic”.
My meeting with Pope Francis took place last Tuesday at his residence in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, in a small sparsely furnished room with only a table and five or six chairs and a painting on the wall. It had been preceded by a telephone call that I shall never forget as long as I live.
It was half past two in the afternoon. My telephone rang and the somewhat agitated voice of my secretary said: “I have the Pope on the line. I’ll connect you with him immediately”. I was flabbergasted when I heard the Holy Father’s voice at the other end: “Good morning, this is Pope Francis”. Good morning, Your Holiness — I said, followed by — I’m quite taken aback, I didn’t expect you to telephone me. “Why are taken aback? You wrote me a letter asking if you could meet me in person. I had the same idea and so here I am to arrange an appointment. Let’s have a look at my agenda. Wednesday I can’t, nor Monday. Would Tuesday suit you?”
To which I answered: that would be good.
“The time is a little inconvenient, but is 3 p.m. alright with you? Otherwise we can change the day”. Your Holiness, the time is fine too. “Alright, then, we are agreed: Tuesday the 24th at 3 p.m. at Santa Marta. You have to enter through the Holy Office gate”.
I didn’t know quite how to end this telephone call and so, relaxing a bit, I said to him: may I give you a hug over the phone? “Of course, I'll give you a hug too. Later we can do so in person, goodbye”.
Then I was there. The Pope entered and extended his hand to me, then we sat down. The Pope smiled and said to me: “One of my collaborators who knows you told me that you will try to convert me”.
It was a joke, I replied. My friends think that it will be you who will try convert me.
He smiled again and responded: “Proselytism is downright nonsense; it doesn’t make any sense. We need to learn to understand each other, listen to one another, and increase our knowledge about the world around us. It often happens that after one meeting I want to have another one because new ideas emerge and new needs are discovered. This is what is important: to know one another, to listen to one another, broaden the range of thought. The world is full of streets that converge and diverge; the important thing is that they lead to the Good”.
Your Holiness, is there only one vision of the Good? And who determines what it is?
“Each one of us has his own vision of the Good and also of Evil. We have to urge it [the vision] to move towards what one perceives as the Good”.
Your Holiness, you wrote this in the letter you sent me. Conscience is autonomous, you said, and each person must obey his own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous statements a Pope has ever made.
“And now I repeat it. Everyone has his own idea of Good and Evil and he has to choose to follow the Good and to fight Evil as he understands it. This would be enough to improve the world”.
Is the Church doing this?
“Yes, our missions have this objective: to identify the material and spiritual needs of people and to try to meet them as far as we are able. Do you know what agape is?”.
Yes, I do.
“It is love for others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytism, it is love. Love for one’s neighbour, the leaven which serves the common good”.
Love your neighbour as yourself.
“Exactly, that’s it”.
In his preaching, Jesus said that agape, love for others, is the only way to love God. Please correct me if I’m mistaken.
“You are not mistaken. The Son of God took on flesh in order to pour a spirit of fraternity into the souls of men. All brothers and all the children of God. Abba, as he called the Father. I will show you the way, he said. Follow me and you will find the Father and all of you will be his children and he will be well pleased with you. Agape, our love for one another — from those who are closest to us to those who are furthest away — is in fact the only way that Jesus indicated to us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes”.
Yet Jesus’ exhortation that we just spoke about is that the love for one's neighbour be equal to the love we have for ourselves. Therefore, what many call narcissism is acknowledged as valid, positive, in the same measure as the other. We have discussed this aspect at length.
“I don’t like the word narcissism,” the Pope said, “it indicates an immoderate love for oneself and this isn't good, it can cause serious damage not only in the soul of the one concerned, but also in his relationship with others and with the society in which he lives. Unfortunately those who are most affected, by what in reality is a kind of mental disorder, are individuals who have great power. Often it's the leaders who are narcissists”.
Even many leaders of the Church have been this way.
“Do you know what I think about this point? The leaders of the Church have often been narcissistic, flattered and wrongly incited by their courtiers. The court is the plague of the papacy”.
“The plague of the papacy”, this is exactly what you said. But which court? Are you perhaps alluding to the Curia? I asked.
“No, at times there are courtiers in the Curia, but the Curia as a whole is something else. It's what in the army is called the intendancy; it manages the entities that serve the Holy See. However, it has one defect: it is Vatican-centred. It looks after and cares for the Vatican's interests, which are still to a great extent temporal. This Vatican-centred vision ignores the world around it. I do not share this vision and I will do all I can to change it. The Church is and must become again a community of the People of God and the clergy, parishes, the bishops who are charged with the care of souls, are at the service of the People of God. This is what the Church is. It's not without reason that the word is different from the Holy See. The latter has its own important role but it stands at the service of the Church. I could not have had full faith in God and in his Son had I not been formed in the Church and also had the good fortune in Argentina to be a member of a community without which I would not have come to know myself and my faith”.
Were you aware you had a vocation from the time you were young?
“No, not very young. My family wanted me to choose another profession, to work, to earn a little money. I went to university. There I had a teacher for whom I developed a respect and friendship; she was a fervent communist. Often she would read me texts from the Communist Party or give them to me to read. In this way, I also became acquainted with a very materialistic conception of things. I remember that she also let me read the American communists’ communique defending the Rosenbergs, who had been condemned to death. The woman I am telling you about was subsequently arrested, tortured and killed by the dictatorial regime then governing Argentina”.
Did communism seduce you?
“Its materialism had no hold on me. But it was useful to me to become acquainted with it through a courageous and honest person. I understood some things, such as an aspect of its social teaching which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church”.
Liberation theology, which Pope Wojtyła condemned, was quite widespread in Latin America.
“Yes, many of its exponents were Argentinian”.
Do you think the Pope was right to combat it?
“Certainly they gave a political bent to their theology, but many of them were believers with a high concept of humanity”.
Your Holiness, may I also tell you something about my cultural formation? I was raised by a very Catholic mother. At the age of 12, in fact, I won a catechism contest organized among all the parishes in Rome and I received first prize from the Vicariate. I received Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month; in short, I participated in the liturgy and I believed. But it all changed when I went to secondary school. There, among other philosophical texts we studied Descartes’ Discourse on Method and I was struck by the sentence which by now has become iconic, “I think, therefore I am”. Thus the “I” became the foundation of human existence, the seat autonomous thought.
“And yet Descartes never denied faith in the transcendent God”.
It’s true, but he laid the foundation for a different vision of the whole and I began walking down a path that was then corroborated by further reading which led me to completely different shores.
“However, I gather you are a nonbeliever but you are not anticlerical. These are two very different things”.
It’s true, I am not anticlerical, although I become so when a meet a clericalist.
He smiled and said to me: “It also happens to me. When I have a clericalist in front of me I suddenly become anticlerical. Clericalism shouldn’t have any part in Christianity. St Paul, who was the first to preach to the Gentiles, pagans and believers in other religious was the first to teach us this”.
May I ask you, Your Holiness, who are the saints to whom you feel the closest and on whom you formed your religious experience?
“St Paul is the one who put the hinges on our religion and our creed. You can't be conscious Christians without St Paul. He translated Christ's preaching into a doctrinal structure which, through the contributions made by an immense number of thinkers, theologians and pastors of souls, has withstood and still withstands after two thousand years. And then there's Augustine, Benedict and Thomas and Ignatius. And naturally Francis. Shall I explain why?”
Francis — at this point I took the liberty to call the Pope by his name because he himself suggested it by the way he spoke, the way he smiled, his exclamations of surprise or common ideas — is looking at me as if to encourage me to put even the most awkward and embarrassing questions to the man who guides the Church. So I asked him: you explained the importance of Paul and the role he carried out, but I would like to know to whom among those you named you feel closest?
“You’re asking me for a ranking, but you can only make rankings in sports and other similar things. I could tell you the names of the best soccer players in Argentina. But the saints...”.
There is a saying in Italian: “scherza coi fanti [e lascia stare i santi — don’t mix the sacred with the profane], do you know it?
“Exactly. And yet I don't want to evade your question since you didn't ask me for a ranking of their cultural and religious importance but rather about the ones to whom I feel the greatest affinity. So I will tell you: Augustine and Francis”.
Not Ignatius, to whose Order you belong?
“Ignatius, for quite understandable reasons, is the one I know better than the others. He founded our Order. Remember that Carlo Maria Martini, who was very dear to you and to me, belonged to the Order. The Jesuits were and still are a leaven — not the only one but perhaps the most effective — of catholicity: through culture, teaching, missionary witness, loyalty to the Pope. But Ignatius, who founded the Society, was also a reformer and a mystic, especially a mystic”.
And do you think the mystics were important for the Church?
“They were fundamental. Religion without mystics is philosophy”.
Do you have a vocation to be a mystic?
“What do you think?”
I would think not.
“You are probably right. I cherish the mystics. Francis, too, was a mystic in many respects, but I don't think I have that vocation, and then one needs to understand the deep meaning of the word. The mystic succeeds in stripping himself of actions, of events, of goals and even of missionary work and rises to communion with the Beatitudes. These are brief moments that fill a lifetime”.
Has this ever happened to you?
“Rarely. For example, when the Conclave elected me as Pope. Before accepting, I asked to be allowed to retire for a few moments into the room just next to the one with the balcony which looks over the square. My mind was completely blank and a great anxiety came over me. In order to make it pass, and to relax, I closed my eyes and every thought vanished from my mind, including the thought of refusing to accept the office, as indeed the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and no longer had any anxiety or emotion. Then a great light flooded me; it lasted only a moment but it seemed so long. Then the light dissolved; I sprang up and headed to the room where the cardinals and the table on which the act of acceptance was placed were waiting for me. I signed it, the Cardinal Camerlengo countersigned it and then, on the balcony followed the “Habemus Papam”.
We remained in silence for a time, and then I said: we were talking about the saints to whom you feel closest and we were speaking of Augustine. Would you like to tell me why you feel that he is very close to you?
“Augustine was also a point of reference for my Predecessor. That saint went through many events in his life and changed his doctrinal position several times. He also had very harsh things to say about the Jews; these I have never shared. He wrote many books, and the book which seems to best reveal his intellectual and spiritual inner life is theConfessions. They too contain some evidence of mysticism. However, he is not, as many would argue, the successor of Paul. In fact, he saw the Church and the faith in a profoundly different way from Paul, perhaps in part because four centuries had passed between the one and the other”.
What difference is there between them, Your Holiness?
“It seems to me there are two essential aspects. First, Augustine felt powerless before the immensity of God and the tasks which a Christian and a bishop has to fulfil. He was by no means powerless, and yet his soul always felt it fell short of what he should and would have liked. Secondly, the grace bestowed by the Lord is a basic element of faith, of life and of the meaning of life. Whoever is not touched by grace may be a blameless and fearless person, as they say, but he will never be like a person who has been touched by grace. This was Augustine's intuition”.
Do you feel that you have been touched by grace?
“This is something that no one can know. Grace does not belong to consciousness. It is how much light there is in the soul, not in knowledge or reason. You, too, completely unknowingly, could be touched by grace”
Without faith? As an unbeliever?
“Grace concerns the soul”.
I don’t believe in the soul.
“You don't believe in it, but you have one”.
Your Holiness, you said that you had no intention of converting me and I don’t think that you would succeed.
“One never knows, in any case, I have no intention of doing so”.
“He is so great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to act, who wants to build, he founded an Order and gave it its rules. He is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is a mystic. He experienced evil in himself and he left it behind. He loved nature, animals, a blade of grass in the field and the birds that fly in the air, but he especially loved people, children, the elderly and women. He is the most shining example of that agape about which we were speaking earlier”.
You are right, Your Holiness. The description is perfect. But why didn't any of your Predecessors ever choose the name? And it seems to me that, after you, no one else will ever choose it?
“We don't know this; let's not speculate about the future. It is true that no one before me ever chose it. Here we face the problem of problems. Would you like something to drink?
Thank you, perhaps a glass of water.
He got up, opened the door and asked a collaborator who was at the entrance to bring two glasses of water. He asked me if I would like a coffee, which I declined. The water came. At the end of our conversation my glass was empty and his still full. He cleared his throat and began to speak again.
“Francis wanted a mendicant and itinerant Order. He wanted missionaries in search of an encounter, seeking to listen, to dialogue, to help, to spread faith and love. Especially love. And he longed for a poor Church that took care of others, that received material help and used it in order to support others, with no thought for herself. Eight hundred years have passed and times have greatly changed, but the ideal of a poor and missionary Church still holds. This is, in any case, the Church that Jesus and his disciples preached”.
Christians are now a minority. Even in Italy, which is called the Pope’s garden, according to some polls practicing Catholics number only between 8 and 15 percent. Catholics who profess to be Catholic but who in fact are hardly so, number 20 percent. There are a billion or more Catholics in the world; with the other Christian churches you surpass 1.5 billion, and there are 6-7 billion people on the planet. You are certainly numerous, especially in Africa and Latin America, but you are still a minority.
“We always have been, but this is not our topic today. Personally I think that being a minority is actually a strength. We must be a leaven of life and love, and leaven is of an infinitely smaller quantity than the mass of fruit, flowers and trees that are born from that leaven. I think I said before that our objective is not to proselytise but to listen to needs, aspirations, disappointments, desperation and hopes. We must restore hope to the young, help the elderly, open up to the future and spread love. To be poor among the poor. We must include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by John XXIII and Paul VI, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to open up to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that opening up to modern culture would mean religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. Subsequently, however, little was done in that regard. I have the humility and ambition to want to do it”.
Also allow me to add, it is because all over the planet modern society is going through a profound crisis, not only economic crisis but a social and spiritual one as well. At the beginning of our meeting, you described this generation as crushed by the present. We who are non-believers also feel this quasi anthropological unease. This is why we want to dialogue with believers and with those who represent them best.
“I don't know if I am their best representative, but Providence has placed me at the helm of the Church and the Diocese of Peter. I will do all in my power to fulfil the mandate that has been entrusted to me”.
You recalled what Jesus said: love your neighbour as yourself. Does it seem to you that this has happened?
“Unfortunately not. Egoism has increased and love for others has lessened”.
This, then, is the goal we share in common: at least to balance the intensity of these two types of love. Is your Church ready and equipped to carry out this task?
“What do you think?”
I think that love for temporal power is still very strong inside the walls of the Vatican and throughout the institutional structure of the Church. I think that the institution predominates over the poor and missionary Church you would like.
“That's in fact the way things are, and you can't expect miracles. Remember that even in his own time Francis had to negotiate at length with the Roman hierarchy and with the Pope in order to have the Rule of his Order approved. He eventually received the approval but only along with profound changes and compromises”.
Will you have to follow the same path?
“I certainly am not Francis of Assisi and I have neither his strength nor his sanctity. But I am the Bishop of Rome and the Pope of the Catholic world. I decided that the first thing to do was to appoint a group of eight cardinals to be my advisors. They are not courtiers but rather wise men who share my intentions. This is the beginning of a Church whose organization is not only vertical but also horizontal. When Cardinal Martini spoke about this and emphasized the role of the Councils and Synods, he knew only too well how long and difficult the road ahead in that direction would be. It must be taken with prudence, but also firmness and tenacity”.
“Why do you ask me this? I already said that the Church doesn't get involved in politics”.
But just the other day you made an appeal to Catholics to get involved civilly and politically.
“I didn't address myself only to Catholics but to all men of good will. I said that politics has pride of place among civil activities and that it has its own field of action which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and they operate in independent spheres. This is what all of my Predecessors have said, at least for many years now, albeit with varying emphases. I think that Catholics involved in politics hold religious values but exercise their mature conscience and expertise to implement them. The Church will never go beyond the task of expressing and spreading her values, at least as long as I'm here”.
But hasn't the Church always been this way.
“It has almost never been this way. Very often, the Church as an institution was dominated by temporalism and many members and high-ranking Catholic leaders still hold these sentiments. But now allow me ask you a question: you, as a secular layman who doesn't believe in God, what do you believe in? You are a writer and a man of thought. Surely you believe in something; you must have some overarching value. Don't answer me with words like honesty, searching, or the vision of the common good; these are all important principles and values, but this is not what I am asking you. I am asking you what you think about the essence of the world, and indeed of the universe. Surely you ask yourself, as everyone does, who are we, where do we come from, where are we going. Even a child asks himself these questions. And you?”.
I thank you for this question. The answer is: I believe in Being, i.e. in the fabric from which the forms, Beings, emerge.
“And I believe in God. Not in a Catholic God; a Catholic God doesn't exist. God exists. And
I believe in Jesus Christ, in his Incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my shepherd, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Does it seem to you that we are so far apart?”.
We are far apart in our thinking but similar as human beings, who are unconsciously animated by our instincts which are then transformed into impulses, feelings, desires, thought and reason. In this we are similar.
“But would you like to explain what you mean by what you call Being?”
Being is the fabric of energy. Energy is chaotic but indestructible and in eternal chaos. From that energy forms emerge when energy reaches the point of explosion. Forms have their laws, magnetic fields and chemical elements which randomly combine, evolve and finally are dissolve, but their energy is not destroyed. Man is probably the only animal endowed with reason, at least on our planet and in this solar system. I said that he is animated by instincts and desires but I would add that he also holds within himself a resonance, an echo, a vocation to chaos.
“Alright. I didn't want you to give me a compendium of your philosophy and what you've told me suffices. For my part, I would observe that God is the light that illumines the darkness even if he does not dispel it, and that a spark of that divine light is within each one of us. In the letter I wrote to you I recall having said that our species, too, will end but that the light of God will never end. At that point, this light will flood all souls and all will be in all”.
Yes, I remember it well, you said, “all the light will be in all souls” which — if I may say so, it gives me more the impression of imminence than of transcendence.
“Transcendence remains because that light, the all in all, transcends the universe and the species that will then inhabit it. But let's return to the present. We’ve taken a step forward in our dialogue. We have noted that in the society and the world in which we live selfishness has increased far more than love for others has and that people of good will must work, each according to his own strength and expertise, to make love for others increase until it equals and possibly surpasses love of self.
Here, too, politics is called into question.
“Of course. Personally I think that the so-called unbridled liberalism does nothing but make the strong stronger, the weak weaker and the excluded more excluded. What's needed is great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and much love. We need rules of conduct and even, if necessary, direct intervention by the State to correct the most intolerable inequalities”.
Your Holiness, you are certainly a person of great faith, touched by grace, animated by the desire to restore a pastoral, missionary, regenerated and unwordly Church. Yet from everything you have said and from what I have understood, you are and will be a revolutionary Pope. Half Jesuit, half Franciscan, perhaps a union never seen before. And you like Manzoni’s “The Betrothed”, Holderlin, Leopardi and especially Dostoevsky, as well as the films “The Road” and “Orchestra Rehearsal” by Fellini, “Roma, Open City” by Rossellini and the films produced by Aldo Fabrizi.
“I like them because I saw them with my parents as a boy”.
I see. May I suggest you go to see two recently released films? “Viva la libertà” and the film on Fellini by Ettore Scola. I'm sure you will like them. Regarding power I would say: did you know that at the age of twenty I spent a month and a half on retreat with the Jesuits? Nazis were occupying Rome at the time and I had deserted military service. We could have been sentenced to death. The Jesuits hosted us on the condition that we spend the entire time we were in hiding doing the Spiritual Exercises, and that’s just what happened.
“But it’s impossible to withstand a month and a half of doing the Spiritual Exercises”, he said, both astonished and amused. I will tell him the rest the next time we meet.
We embraced. We went up the short flight of stairs to the main door. I asked the Pope not to accompany me but he waved that aside. “We will also talk about the role of women in the Church. Remember the Church is feminine. And if you like we shall speak of Pascal. I should like to know what you think of that great soul”.
“Take my blessing to your family and loved ones, and ask them to pray for me. Think of me, think of me often”.
We shook hands and he remained there with two fingers raised in a sign of blessing. I said goodbye from the car window.
This is Pope Francis. If the Church becomes what he imagines and desires, it will mean the changing of an era.