The Pope’s Christmas interview to the Italian daily La Stampa shows, if nothing else, that Francis’s habit of allowing himself to be interrogated by the media is going to be a feature of his papacy, setting a precedent which will be hard for his successors to avoid. For the record, this is the fifth interview since July, following the Brazilian TV Globo and the papal plane back from Rio in that month, and the Spadaro (Jesuit publications) and the Scalfari (La Repubblica) interviews in September and October.
In the first part of the interview the Pope speaks in detail of the meaning of Christmas, the mystery of suffering of children and how to feed the hungry. Then he responds, in typically broad fashion, to a series of questions: the US critics who accuse him of Marxism, ecumenical relations with the Orthodox and Christian unity in general, the sacraments, the synod on the family, the council of cardinals and the February consistory, curial reform, the possibility of women cardinals, the clean-up of the Vatican Bank and his surprise at being elected. What follows are a summary and highlights (NB translation from the Italian is mine.)
Christmas, says Francis, is “God’s meeting with his people. It is also a consolation, a mystery of consolation. After the midnight Mass I have very often spent an hour or so alone in the chapel before celebrating the dawn Mass. I always felt a profound feeling of consolation and peace.” He recalls in particular a night he spent in prayer after Mass in the residence belonging to a Jesuit refugee centre in Rome, possibly in 1974. For him Christmas has always been “contemplating God visiting His people”; Christmas, he says, “speaks to us of tenderness and hope”.
God visiting us tells us two things in particular, he adds. “The first is: have hope. God always opens the door, and never shuts it. Second, never be afraid of tenderness.” When Christians forget these, says Francis, the Church becomes cold, disoriented, caught up in ideologies and worldly affairs; whereas the simplicity of God tells us: “go ahead, I am a father who caresses you”. “I am afraid,” he says, “when Christians lose hope and the capacity to embrace and caress”. This is why he often speaks of children and the elderly, for these are the most defenceless. “During my life as a priest, going to parishes, I always sought to communicate that tenderness above all to children and the elderly. It does me good, and makes me think of God’s tenderness towards us.” Quoting the Greek fathers’ word for divine condescension, synkatabasis, he also refers to John Paul II’s remark that God became a child entirely dependent on the care of his mother and father: “That is why Christmas gives us so much joy. We are no longer alone; God has come down to be with us.”
Expanding on that theme, he adds: “Christmas has never been about the denouncing of social injustice, of poverty, but an announcement of joy … religious joy, God’s joy, a joy from within, of light and of peace.” When you are unable to experience that joy, he says, Christmas is lived with a “worldly joy” that is very different from a “profound joy”.
God, he says, “never gives a gift to one who is incapable of receiving it. If we are offered the gift of Christmas is because we all have the capacity to understand it and receive it. Everyone– from the holiest to the most sinful, from the purest to the most corrupt.” In a time of conflict, he goes on, Christmas is “a call from God, who gives us this gift. Do we want to receive it, or do prefer other presents?” Looking out at those conflicts, he says he thinks of God’s patience. “The principal virtue of God explained in the Bible is that He is Love. He waits for us, and he never tires of waiting for us. He gives the gift and then He waits for us.” God, he adds, “is patient, and the peace, the serenity of Christmas night is a reflection of the patience of God.”
THE HOLY LAND
“On Christmas eve, my thoughts are above all with the Christians who live there, with those who are in difficulty, with the many people who have had to leave that land because of various problems,” the Pope adds, referring to the Holy Land. “But Bethlehem continues to be Bethlehem. God came in a specific place, in a particular land, where the tenderness, the grace of God, appeared. We cannot think of Christmas without thinking of the Holy Land.”
He recalled that in January will be the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Jerusalem, which marked the start of what would become a custom of papal journeys abroad. “And I too would like to go there,” he says, “to meet my brother Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, and with him commemorate this fiftieth anniversary, renewing the embrace between Pope Montini and Atenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. We are preparing the ground.”
THE SUFFERING OF CHILDREN
There is no explanation, Francis says, of why children suffer. An image, however, comes into his mind of a child beginning to “wake up” and asking lots of questions — the “why” phase of childhood. Parents unable to provide all the answers instead give their child a look of reassurance. “Faced with the suffering of children, the only prayer that comes to me is the prayer of ‘why': Why, Lord? He explains nothing to me. But I feel that He is looking at me. And that’s why I can say: You know why, I don’t know and You don’t tell me but You look at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust in Your gaze.”
The Pope goes on to talk of the scandal of hunger in the world. If we did not waste so much food, he says, “hunger in the world would be greatly reduced”. He says he was shocked to read that 10,000 children die from hunger every day. “There are so many children crying because they are hungry,” he adds.
Francis then recalls how, in one of the recent Wednesday audiences he had seen a young mother with a baby just a few months old who was crying, and the mother was comforting it. “I told her: ‘signora, I think that little one is hungry.’ She said, ‘Yes, it must be time’. I answered: ‘But please, feed him!” The woman, it turned out, did not want to breast-feed in public, while the Pope was passing.
“And I want to say the same to all of humanity: feed the world! That woman had milk for her baby, in the world we have enough food to feed everyone. If we work with humanitarian organisations and we reach an agreement not to waste food, making sure it arrives where it is needed, we will make a great contribution to resolving the tragedy of world hunger.”
THE ‘MARXIST’ POPE
Responding to criticism of Evangelii Gaudium from ultraconservatives in the US who accused him of being a “Marxist” in economics, Francis says: “Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” And he adds: “there is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the Social Doctrine of the Church.”
He goes on: “I was not speaking from a technical point of view. I tried to present a snapshot of what is happening.” He adds that the only specific reference he made was to to the ‘trickle-down theory’, according to which free-market economic growth will eventually lead to greater prosperity and equality for all. “It was the promise that when the glass is full, it would spill over and the poor will benefit. But all that happens is that when it’s full the glass magically gets bigger, and nothing ever spills over for the poor.” This, he says, was the only specific reference he made to a specific economic theory. “I repeat: I was not speaking technically, but according to the Church’s social doctrine. And that does not mean being Marxist.”
REFORM OF PAPAL GOVERNANCE / CHRISTIAN UNITY
Francis refers to Pope John Paul II’s call in Ut Unum Sint (1995) for suggestions on ways to exercise papal primacy, not just, he says, for the improvement of relations with other Churches, but also to improve the relationship between the Curia and the local Church.
He goes on to mention that he has welcomed in his nine months as pope “so many Orthodox brothers” (he goes on to name four) and says he feels “their brother: they have the apostolic succession, I received them as brother bishops. It is painful not yet to be able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but friendship there is. I believe the way forward is this: friendship, working together, and prayer for unity.”
Francis goes on to speak of the priority of ecumenism, referring to the “ecumenism of blood”. In some countries, he says, “Christians are killed for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they are killed they are not asked whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill, we are simply Christians.”
United in blood, he says, we must dare to take the necessary steps towards unity. “Unity is a grace which we must ask for,” he adds, before going on to recall a priest he knew in Hamburg who was promoting the beatification cause of a Catholic priest killed by the Nazis for teaching the faith to children. In the firing line behind him was a Lutheran priest killed for the same reason. The parish priest wanted to promote the beatification of them both together. That, says Francis, “is the ecumenism of blood.”
Asked what he meant in Evangelii Gaudium by calling for “prudent and courageous” pastoral choices in respect of the Sacraments, Francis said that prudence and courage were both virtues of good governance. He says that in the Exhortation he spoke of Communion as medicine, not a prize, which some had taken to refer to remarried divorcees, but his remarks were not specific, he says, but to indicate an important principle, namely, “we must look to facilitate peoples’ faith, not control it.” He recalled how, a year ago, he had deplored the way some priests in Argentina refused baptism to the babies of single mothers: “It’s a sick mentality”.
Regarding the subject remarried divorcees, Francis recalls that their exclusion from communion is “not a sanction. We should remember that. But I didn’t speak of this in the Exhortation.” He says that the consistory of cardinals meeting in February will discuss the theme of marriage in general, and will then be dealt with the in the two synods of 2014 and 2015. This way, “so many things will be deepened and clarified.”
Asked about the council of cardinals, Francis says: “At the last meeting the eight cardinals said that we’re got to the point of being able to make concrete proposals, and at our next meeting in February they will hand over their first suggestions. I am always present at the meetings, except for Wednesday mornings because of the audience. But I don’t speak, I just listen, and that does me good.”
ON WOMEN CARDINALS
“I don’t know where any such an idea came from. Women in the Church must be valued not clericalised. Whoever thought of women cardinals is suffering from a bit of clericalism.”
The Pope says that Moneyval, the international transparency agency, has given a good report. On the future of the IOR in general, he says “let’s see.”
ON EXPECTING TO BE MADE POPE
“Absolutely not,” says Francis. “I never expected it. I was at peace as the votes increased. I remained calm. And that peace is still there; I consider it a gift of the Lord. Once the last vote was counted, I was brought to the centre of the Sistine Chapel and asked if I accepted. I said yes, and I would take the name of Francis. Then they moved me away. They took me into the room at the side to change my vestment. Then, before I showed myself [to the world, on the balcony], I knelt down to pray for a few minutes together with Cardinal Vallini and Cardinal Hummes in the Pauline chapel.”
[Austen Ivereigh is writing a book on Pope Francis]