This translation is a work in progress. The existing English translation of the Italian original has some serious issues, and does not accurately reflect some of the Holy Father’s statements. I am using Father Roderick Vonhögen’s Dutch translation as a basis for a new English translation. Father Roderick made his translation directly from the original. By comparing his work to the current English translation, as well as the original, I will try and weed out some of the errors in the former. Any mistakes in my translation are my own.
“Young people without work, one of the evil of the world”
Pope Francis tells me: “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the worst is that they don’t even look for them any more. They are being crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live when you are being crushed by the present? Without a memory of the past and without the will to go forward into the future to build something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, I think, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”
Your Holiness, people will say that this is largely a political and economic problem for states, governments, political parties and trade unions.
“Of course, you are right, but it also concerns the Church, in fact, particularly the Church because this situation does not hurt only bodies but also souls. The Church must feel responsible for both souls and bodies.”
Your Holiness, you say that the Church must feel responsible. Should I conclude that the Church is not aware of this problem and that you will steer it in this direction?
“To a large extent the awareness is there, but not sufficiently. I want it to be stronger. It is not the only problem that we face, but it is the most urgent and the most dramatic.”
The meeting with Pope Francis took place last Tuesday at his residence in Santa Marta, in a small bare room with a table and five or six chairs and a painting on the wall. It had been preceded by a phone call I will never forget as long as I live.
It was half past two in the afternoon. My phone rings and I hear the somewhat shaky voice of my secretary telling me: “I have the Pope on the line. I’ll put him through immediately.”
I am still stunned when I hear the voice of His Holiness on the other end of the line saying, “Good afternoon, this is Pope Francis.” “Good afternoon, Your Holiness”, I say and continue, “I am shocked, I had never expected you to call me.” “Why so surprised? You did write me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to make an appointment. Let us look at my diary: I can’t do Wednesday, nor Monday, would Tuesday suit you?”
I answer, that’s fine.
“The time is a little awkward, three in the afternoon, is that okay? Otherwise it’ll have to be another day.”
Your Holiness, the time is also fine.
“So we agree: Tuesday the 24th at 3 o’clock. At Santa Marta. You have to come into the door at the Sant’Uffizio.”
I don’t very well know how to end this call and let myself go, saying: “Can I embrace you by phone?” “Of course, I embrace you too. And soon we will do it in person, goodbye.”
And now here I am. The Pope comes in and shakes my hand, and we sit down. The Pope smiles and says: “Some of my collaborators who know you told me that you will try to convert me.”
That is just a joke, I reply. My friends also think that it is you who will want to convert me.
Another smile and he replies: “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and grow in knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and new needs discovered. To get to know each other, to listen to each other, to grow in the search for each other’s thoughts, that is important. The world is crisscrossed by roads that bring people closer together and move them apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.”
Your Holiness, is there is a vision of the One Good? And who decides what that is?
“Each of us has their own vision of Good and also of Evil. We must encourage everyone to move onwards in the direction of what he considers to be Good.”
Your Holiness, you already wrote that in the letter you sent me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his own conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous things said by a Pope.
“And I repeat it here again. Everyone has his own idea of Good and Evil and must choose to follow the Good and fight Evil as he conceives of them. That would be enough to improve the world.”
Is the Church doing that?
“Yes, the purpose of our mission is to identify the material and immaterial needs of man and try to alleviate them as we can. Do you know what agape is?”
Yes, I do.
“It is love of others, as our Lord preached it. It is not proselytizing, it is love. Love for one’s neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good.”
Love your neighbour as yourself.
“Exactly, that’s it.”
In his preaching Jesus says that agape, the love for the neighbour, is the only way to love God. Correct me if I’m wrong.
“You’re not wrong. The Son of God became incarnate to instill a sense of brotherhood in the soul of man. All are brothers, 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 you will all be his children and he will take delight in you. Agape, the love of each one of us for everyone else, from those nearest to us to those furthest away, is precisely the only means that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.”
But Jesus’ appeal is, as we have said, that the love of our neighbour must be equal to the love that we must have for ourselves. That is why what many call narcissism is positively appreciated, to the same extent as the other. We’ve talked much about this aspect.
“I don’t like the word narcissism”, the Pope said, “it indicates an excessive love for oneself and that is not good,. It can cause serious damage, not only to the soul of those affected, but also in the relationship with others, with the society in which one lives. The real problem is that those most affected by what is actually a mental disorder are people with a lot of power. Leaders are often narcissists”.
Many church leaders have also been.
“You know what I think about this? Church leaders have often been narcissists, flattered and encouraged the wrong way by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
The leprosy of the papacy, that is exactly how he said it. But which court does he mean? Perhaps he is alluding to the curia? I asked him.
“No, sometimes there courtiers of that kind in the curia, but the curia as a whole is another thing. It is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has a problem: it is Vatican-centric. It sees and deal with the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it. The Church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls are at the service of the people of God. That is the Church, and in the case of the Holy See it is no different; it has its own important function, but is at the service of the Church. I would never have had complete faith in God and in his Son if I had not been formed in the Church, and if I had not had the good fortune of being part of a community in Argentina, without which I would never have become aware of my identity and of my faith.”
Did you sense your vocation when you were young?
“No, not very young. My family wanted me to have a different profession, to work, earn some money. I went to university. I also had a teacher for whom I had a lot of respect and friendship; was a fervent communist. She would often read Communist Party texts to me, or gave them to me to read. In that way I also got to know that very materialistic opinion. I remember that she also gave me the press release from the American Communists in defense of the Rosenbergs, who had been sentenced to death. The woman I’m talking about was later arrested, tortured and killed by the dictatorship then ruling Argentina.”
Did Communism tempt you?
“Her materialism had no hold over me at all. But the fact that I about it through a courageous and honest person had been very helpful: I understood things because of it; an aspect of the social dimension, which I then found again in the social doctrine of the Church.”
Liberation theology, which was excommunicated by Pope Wojtyla, was quite present in Latin America.
“Yes, many of its proponents came from Argentina.”
Do you consider it justified that the Pope opposed them?
“They certainly added political overtones to their theology, but many of them were believers and had a high concept of humanity.”
Your Holiness, will you allow me to tell you something about my own cultural formation? I was raised by a mother who was a strict Catholic. At the age of 12 I won a catechism contest held by the parishes of Rome and I was awarded a prize by the Vicariate. I received communion on the first Friday of every month: in short, I was a practicing Catholic and a believer. But everything changed when I entered high school. I read, in addition the other philosophical texts that we studied, Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” and I was struck by the phrase, which has now become iconic, “I think, therefore I am.” In this way, the “I” became the basis of human existence, the autonomous seat of thought.
“Yet Descartes hasnever denied faith in a transcendent God.”
That is true, but he laid the foundation for a very different overall vision which led me onto a different path, which later, supported by other things I read, led me to a very different place.
“But you, from what I understand, are a non-believer but you are not anticlerical. These are two very different things.”
That is true, I am not anticlerical, but I become so when I meet a clericalist.
He smiles and says, “That also happens to me. When I have a clericalist in front of me, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clerical behaviour should not occur within Christianity. St. Paul, who was the first to enter into conversation with the Gentiles, with believers of other religions, was the first to teach that.”
Can I ask you, Your Holiness, which saints you feel closest to, and who have shaped you in your religious experience?
“St. Paul is the one who laid down the foundation of our religion and our creed. It is impossible to be a conscious Christian without St. Paul. He translated the preaching of Christ into a doctrinal structure that, even with the additions of a vast number of thinkers, theologians and pastors, has remained and has persisted for two thousand years. And also Augustine, Benedict, Thomas and Ignatius. And of course Francis. Do I need to explain why?”
Francis - I allow myself to call him that now because he seems to suggest it himself by the way he speaks, the way he smiles, with his exclamations of surprise and agreement - looks at me as if to encourage me to ask questions that are even more scandalous and impertinent for those who guide the Church. So I ask him: you have explained the importance of Paul and what role he played, but I would like to know which of those you named feels closer to your soul?
“You’re asking me for a ranking, but classifications can be used for sports or things like that. I could tell you the name of the best footballers in Argentina. But the saints…”
They say they joke with knaves. Do you know the proverb?
“Certainly. But I would not want to avoid your question, because you didn’t ask me for a ranking according to their cultural and religious importance but who is closest to my soul. The I would say: Augustine and Francis.”
Not Ignatius, from whom your order hails?
“Ignatius, for understandable reasons, is the saint I know better than any other. He founded our Order. I’d like to remind you that Carlo Maria Martini, , someone who is very dear to me and also to you, also came from the same order. Jesuits were and still are the leavening - not the only one but perhaps the most effective - of Catholicism: 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 that the mystics have been important for the Church?
“They have been of fundamental importance. A religion without mystics is a philosophy.”
Do you have a mystical vocation?
“What do you think?”
I don’t think so.
“You’re probably right. I admire the mystics; Francis was one in many aspects of his life, but I do not think I have the vocation. Ad it is important to understand the deeper meaning of that word. The mystic succeeds in detaching from actions, facts, objectives and even the pastoral mission, and is raised until he is united with the Beatitudes. Brief moments which can still fill an entire life.”
Have you ever experienced it?
“Rarely. An example: when the conclave elected me Pope. Before accepting I chose to withdraw the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and to relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, including the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I did not have any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light disappeared, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting forme and where the table was with the act of acceptance. I signed it, the Cardinal Camerlengo also signed it and then, on the balcony, there was the ‘”Habemus Papam”.
We were silent for a moment, then I said: we were talking about the saints who are nearest to your heart and we left off at Augustine. Will you tell me why he is so dear to you?
“Also for my predecessor Augustine was a reference point. That saint went through many a lot in his life and often changed his doctrinal position. He also had harsh words in his confrontation with the Jews, which I never agreed with. He wrote many books and the book that I think is the most revealing of his intellectual and spiritual condition are the “Confessions”, which also contain some mystical experiences., But he is not, as many say, the successor of Paul. Instead, he looks at the Church and the faith in a very different way than Paul, perhaps also because there are four centuries between the one and the other.”
What is that difference, Your Holiness?
“For me it lies in two substantial aspects. Augustine feels powerless in the face of the grandeur of God and the tasks that a Christian and a bishop has to fulfill. But, in fact, he was by no means powerless, but he Always felt inadequate in who he wanted and had to be. And then there is the grace dispensed by the Lord as a basic element of faith. Of life. Of the meaning of life. Someone who is not touched by grace may well be a person without blemish and without fear, as they say, but he will never be like a person who has been touched by grace. That is Augustine’s insight.”
Do you feel touched by grace?
“No one can know that. Grace is not part of consciousness, it is the amount of light in our souls, not the amount of knowledge or reason. Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.”
Without faith? A non-believer?
“Grace regards the soul.”
I do not believe in the soul.
You do not believe in it, but you have one.”
Your Holiness, they said that you had no intention of trying to convert me. I do not think you would succeed.
“We don’t know that, but in any case, I don’t have the intention.”
And St. Francis?
“He’s great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, he wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he was a traveler and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is a mystic, he found evil within himself and escaped from it, he loves nature, the animals, the blades of grass in the field and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women. He is the most shining example of the agape we talked about earlier.”
You are right, Your Holiness, a perfect description. But why did none of your predecessors ever choose that name? And I believe that after you no one else will choose it.
“We do not know that, let’s not speculate about the future. True, no one chose it before me. And here we arrive at the problem of problems. Would you like something to drink?”
Thank you, perhaps a glass of water.
He gets up, opens the door and asks a coworker at the door to bring two glasses of water. He asks me if I would perhaps like want coffee, but I say no. The water arrives. At the end of our conversation, my glass will be empty, but his will remain full. He clears his throat and begins.
“Francis wanted a mendicant order and a traveling one. Missionaries who wanted to meet, listen, talk, help, to spread faith and love. Especially love. And he dreamed of a poor Church that would take care of others, which would receive material aid and use it to support others, with no concern for itself. 800 years have passed and times have changed a lot, but the ideal of a missionary, poor Church is still more than valid. That is still the Church that Jesus and his disciples preached about.”
You Christians are now a minority. Even in Italy, which is often called the Pope’s backyard, practicing Catholics, according to some polls, are between 8 and 15 percent. Those who say they are Catholic but don’t very much practice it, are about 20%. Worldwide, there are a billion Catholics or even more, but the population of the planet is 6 or 7 billion people. There are many of you, especially in Africa and Latin America, but yet a minority.
“We always have been, but that’s not the issue of today. Personally I think that being a minority is actually a strength. We have to be a leavening of life and love and the leavening is infinitely smaller than the amount of fruits, flowers and trees that are born out of it. I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must give hope to young people, help the elderly, open doors to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and proclaim peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope John and Paul VI, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humble ambition to do something about it.”
Also because – I dare to add - modern society throughout the world is going through a deep crisis; not only economically but also socially and spiritually. At the beginning of our conversation you described a generation crushed under the weight of the present. We non-believers also feel this almost anthropological suffering. That is why we want dialogue with believers and those who best represent them.
“I don’t know if I’m their best representative, but providence has placed me at the guide of the Church and the of Diocese of Peter. I will do all I can to fulfill the task that has been entrusted to me.”
Jesus, as you pointed out, said: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Do you think that this has happened?
“Unfortunately not. Selfishness has increased and love towards others declined.”
So this is the goal that we have in common: to at least bring the two kinds of love to the same level. Is your Church ready and equipped to carry out this task?
“What do you think?”
I think love for temporal power is still very strong within the Vatican walls and in the institutional structure of the entire Church. I think that the institution dominates the poor, missionary Church that you would like.
“That is indeed the way things are, and in this area one cannot perform miracles. Let me remind you that also Francis in his time had to negotiate much with the Roman hierarchy and the Pope to have the rules of his order recognized. Eventually he got the approval, but after major changes and compromises.”
Does the same path await you?
“I’m certainly no Francis of Assisi, and I do not have his strength and his holiness. But I am the Bishop of Rome and the Pope of the Catholic world. The first thing I decided was to appoint a group of eight cardinals to be my advisers. Not courtiers but wise people who are driven by the same feelings that I share with them. This is the beginning of a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal. When Cardinal Martini talked about more focus on the Councils and Synods he knew very well how long and difficult the road in that direction would be. Carefully, but firmly and tenaciously.”
“Why do you ask me that? I have already said that the Church will not occupy itself with politics.”
But just a few days ago you appealed to Catholics to engage in society and politics.
“I was not addressing only Catholics, but all men of good will. I said that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of faith. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different emphases. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, and have the full awareness and competence to implement them. The Church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here.”
But the Church has not always been that way.
“It has almost never been like that. Often the Church as an institution has been dominated by the temporary and many members and senior Catholic leaders still think that way.
But now let me ask you a question: you, as a secular person who does not believe in God, what do you believe in? You are a writer and a thinker. So you believe in something, you must have a dominant value. Don’t answer me with words like honesty, study, the vision of the common good: all important principles and values but that is not what I am asking. I am asking what you think about the essence of the world, of the universe. You must certainly ask yourself, like everyone else, who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Even children ask themselves these questions. And you?”
I am grateful for this question. This is my answer: I believe in Being, that is the tissue from which forms and creatures arise.
“And I believe in God. Not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is Go. And I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my master and my shepherd, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Do you think that we differ a lot?”
We are different in our thought, but similar as human beings, unconsciously driven by our instincts that turn into impulses, feelings will, thought and reason. In this we are the same.
“But can you in your way define the one who you call Being?”
Being is a fabric of energy. Chaotic energy, but indestructible and eternally chaotic. Forms proceed from that energy when it reaches the point of exploding. The forms have their own laws, their magnetic fields, their chemical composition, which combine, evolve, and eventually disappear randomly but their energy is not lost. Man is probably the only animal endowed with thought, at least on our planet and in our solar system. I said that he is driven by instinct and desires but I would add that he also contains within himself a resonance, an echo, a vocation of chaos.
“All right. I did not need to give me a summary of your philosophy, and what you have told me is enough for me. From my position I see that God is the light that illuminates the darkness, even if it does not dissolve it, and a spark of that divine light is within each of us. You will remember that in the letter I wrote to you, I said that our species will end, but that the light of God will know no end and that at that moment it will fulfill all souls and it will be all in all.”
I remember it well. You said, “All the light will be in all souls” which – if I may say so - is more of an image of immanence than of transcendence.
“Transcendence remains because that light, all in all, transcends the universe and the species that inhabit it at that stage. But back to the present. We have proceeded a step in our dialogue. We have established that in society and the world in which we live selfishness has increased more than love for others, and that men of good will must work, each according to their his own strengths and expertise, to ensure that love for others increases until it is equal to and possibly even stronger than the love for oneself.”
Once again, politics comes into the picture.
“Certainly. Personally I think so-called unrestrained liberalism only makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker and excludes the most excluded even more. We need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and a lot of love. We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, intervention from the state to correct the most intolerable inequality.”
Your Holiness, you are certainly a person of great faith, touched by grace, animated by the desire to launch a pastoral, missionary church that is truly renewed and not focused on the temporal. But from the way you talk and from what I understand, I conclude that you will be a revolutionary pope. Half Jesuit, half a man of Francis, a combination that perhaps has never been seen before. And then you like “The Betrothed” by Manzoni, Holderlin, Leopardi and especially Dostoevsky, the film “La Strada” and “Prova d’orchestra” by Fellini, “Rome, Open City” by Rossellini and also the films of Aldo Fabrizi .
“I like those films because I watched them with my parents when I was a child.”
There you are. May I recommend two recently released films? “Viva la libertà” and the film on Fellini by Ettore Scola. I’m sure you’ll like them.
Regarding power, I will tell you: Did you know that when I was 20 I spent a month and a half in a spiritual retreat with the Jesuits? The Nazis were in Rome and I had refused military service. That was punishable by the death sentence. The Jesuits hid us on condition that we did the spiritual exercises as long as we were there.
“But is it impossible to resist a month and a half of spiritual exercises?” he asks, amazed and amused. I will tell him the rest of the story next time.
We embrace. We climb the short staircase to the door. I tell the Pope there is no need to accompany me but he waves that aside with a gesture.
“We will also discuss the role of women in the Church. Remember that the Church (la chiesa) is a feminine word.”
And if you like, we will also talk about Pascal. I’d like to know what you think of that great soul.
“Give all your family my blessings and ask them to pray for me. Think of me, think of me often.”
We shake hands and he stands with his two fingers raised in a blessing. I wave to him from the window. That is Pope Francis. If the Church becomes like he has in mind and as he wants it to be, it will be a revolution of an era.