Tuesday, October 01, 2013

"I Am the Pope" – In Fresh Interview, Francis On Church's New "Beginning"

2.35am ET – In the latest proof of his desire to reach out from behind the walls – and along the way, (again) remind the Establishment he inherited who's Boss – today's cover of Italy's largest-circulation daily indeed blared the second major interview in 12 days with the Pope, this time given to one of the country's most prominent atheists.

As Eugenio Scalfari tells the story, the pontiff called the La Repubblica founder out of the blue to arrange a meeting as a follow-up to their public exchange of letters over the summer. With Francis looking over his calendar to find a workable time – "I can't on Wednesday, Monday either; would Tuesday work for you?" – the Pope booked the Domus sit-down himself.

Saying he had no idea how to end a call with the Pope, when Scalfari asked if he could "hug [Francis] through the phone," Papa Bergoglio replied, "Sure, I'm hugging you too. Then we'll do it in person. See you soon." Of course, the stealth strategy ensured again that, as with Antonio Spadaro SJ in August, the interview would not leak in advance nor be sabotaged from within.

Once they came together – with jokes about trying to convert each other as they first met – the 4,600-word extravaganza that ensued touched on everything from the journalist's non-belief to movie picks, politics and a "court" mentality in the church which Francis termed "the leprosy of the papacy," admitting that church leaders were "often... narcissistic, flattered and badly excited by their courtiers."

(SVILUPPO: After this report was published, La Repubblica produced a full English translation of the interview, rendering its headline "How the church will change.")

Even as the first meeting of his new "Council of Cardinals" begins this morning – and this Tuesday likewise brings the report of an unprecedented external audit on the Vatican Bank – the pontiff's first focus lay distinctly elsewhere. 

"The gravest of the evils that afflict the world in our time are the unemployment of the young and the loneliness in which the elderly are left," Francis said, reprising a theme he's frequently addressed in other contexts. "The old need care and company; the young need work and hope, but they don't have each other, and the problem is that they don't seek each other out anymore.

The young are "shackled in the present," the Pope said. "But tell me: can one live shackled in the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to throw oneself into the future: to build a project, an adventure, a family? Is it possible to continue like this? This, for me, is the most urgent problem that the church has in front of it.... It's not the only problem, but it is the most urgent and the most dramatic."

Asked about secular politics, the pontiff turned stronger still: "Why are you asking me about that? I have already said that the church will not occupy itself with politics."

Explaining that he was obliged to address himself "not just to Catholics, but all people of goodwill," Francis – who reportedly never voted in Argentinian elections as a bishop – explained thus: "I've said that politics is the first among civil activities and has its own arena of action which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular [laiche – lay] by definition and work in an independent sphere. All of my predecessors have said this, at least for many years, albeit with different accents. I believe that Catholics tasked with political life must keep the values of their religion before them, but with a mature conscience and competence to realize them. The church will never go beyond its task of expressing and publicizing its values, at least for as long as I'm here."

Accordingly, it was on the internals of church life where the Jesuit Pope struck his most determined notes – or, as he described his governing style, his utmost "firmness and tenacity." Francis said that the formation of his unprecedented "Gang of Eight" – which he termed "my council" – marked "the beginning of a church with an organization that's not only vertical but also horizontal." While that's yet another indication of the concept of synodality as the core of the impending Curial reform, in this instance Francis conspicuously stretched its reach even further.

Saying that the "defect" of the Roman Curia is an excessive tendency to be "Vatican-centric" and "car[ing] for [its own] interests which are also, in large part, worldly interests," Francis declared that "I don't share this vision and will do everything to change it.

"The church is, or must return to being, a community of the People of God," the Pope said, "and the priests, pastors, bishops with the care of souls, are at the service of the People of God.

"This is the church, a word that's a different case from the Holy See, which has an important function but is at the service of the church."

Referring to his late confrere, the progressive Milanese Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Pope said that when the prelate spoke of "the accent of Councils and Synods, he knew well that it'd be a long, difficult path to proceed in this direction." Stacking himself against the saint whose name he took – whose tomb he'll visit on Friday – Francis preceded the comment by saying that he "certainly [isn't] not Francis of Assisi and I don't have his strength or his holiness, but I am the Bishop of Rome and the Pope of Catholicism." Eight hundred years since the original Francis, however, Bergoglio returned to one of his pontificate's first expressed thread, noting that the Poverello's "ideal of a missionary and poor church remains more than valid.

"This is consistently the church that Jesus and his disciples preached," Francis said. And one thing that has no place in it for the Pope is clericalism – which, he said, "has nothing to do with Christianity." When Scalfari said that, despite being a nonbeliever, he only became anticlerical "when I meet a clericalist," Francis apparently "smiled" in response and said that he, too, "become[s] an anticlericalist in a flash" when he's faced with an officious priest.

As for the church's role in the modern world, the pontiff – the first bishop of Rome to be ordained a priest after Vatican II – underscored his adherence to the path charted out by the Council, but only after "personally" embracing his predecessor's controversial thought that "to be a minority [church] could even be a strength."

"We must be a leaven of life and of love," Francis said, "and the leaven is infinitely smaller than the mass of fruit, of flowers and trees that grow thanks to it.... [O]ur objective isn't proselytism but listening to [people's] needs, desires, disappointments, desperations and hopes. We must restore hope to the young, aid the old, open ourselves to the future, spread love. [We must be] the poor among the poor. We must include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope John and Paul VI, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to open [the church] to modern culture. The Council fathers knew that opening to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non believers. After then very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do it."

While walking his visitor to the door of the Vatican guesthouse, in a sudden aside the Pope told Scalfari that his reforms "will also discuss the role of women in the church," reminding the interviewer that "the church is feminine."

The host didn't specify his intended result, but Scalfari closed his piece with a rather bold assessment: "This is Pope Francis. If the church becomes as he thinks and wants, it will be an epochal change."

More to come.