The Great Papal Interview: "Benedict XVI Was a Slave"
Pope Francis gave an in-depth interview to AP's Nicole Winfield on current issues.
(Rome) Interviews by popes are only given very rarely. Under Pope Francis, this has changed. He uses the interview as a main means of communication. Recently, he granted one to the Associated Press (AP), one of the Big Three international press agencies. The interview published yesterday was conducted by the AP Vatican scholar Nicole Winfield in Spanish with a potpourri of topics from Benedict XVI. to Cardinal George Pell to papal critics and the wealth of Africa, from the Ukraine conflict to the arms trade to the trivialized People's Republic of China and a ridiculed Cardinal Zen, from homosexuality and the sexual abuse scandal, from the women's diaconate to the Amazon Synod and synodality to the only "so-called synodal way" of the German bishops and from his own resignation, the Rupnik case to a visit to Argentina – with some interesting statements.
Right at the beginning, Winfield tried to attune Pope Francis to an anti-Russian position in the Ukraine conflict with an unusually long introduction and a photo and article she handed him, but Francis did not respond. Then the actual interview began.
Benedict XVI "was a slave"
The first question was addressed to the late Benedict XVI, who "accompanied" the first decade of the current pontificate. Francis said:
"I always visited him, and yes, when there was a consistory, I brought the new cardinals to him. He was glad that I visited him. Lately, the visits have become difficult, because he was already speaking very quietly, very quietly. And it had to be Sister Birgit (Wansing), his 40-year-old secretary, or Monsignor Gaenswein, who knew, listened and repeated what the Pope said. I remember the last visit he talked to me at the beginning of the year, which was almost impossible."
This was followed by the papal interpretation of the ten-year coexistence of the two churchmen in white:
"On the last visit, when he was conscious two days before his death, on a Wednesday, I was called and I went. He looked at my hand because he couldn't speak, and the coexistence [of two popes] was, I would say, heroic. Because it is not easy to invent such coexistence after a thousand years. He was very generous, very open-minded, and it is true that some people wanted to take advantage of him, and he resisted it as best he could. And I don't have the words to describe his kindness, right? He's a gentleman, an old-fashioned gentleman."
Francis praised the person of Benedict, not his position, as a reserved "gentleman"; and if he did interfere, then, one might read, it was because he was "exploited" by others against his will.
He himself, in the event of his resignation, would simply live "in the house of the clergy". Francis made it clear that he would no longer call himself pope and would no longer be dressed in white, because Benedict was "still a slave" of the office, "of a system". A slave "in the good sense of the word," Francis relativized, but a slave who was "not completely free." "Perhaps he would have liked to return to his Germany and continue to study theology from there." Overall, however, it was already "a good compromise, a good solution" that had been found.
In any case, he himself does not think of regulating the (non-existent) office of a "pope emeritus" or of a will or resignation.
Francis described the personal relationship with Benedict XVI. in two sentences in three ways. With Benedict XVI, he had "lost a father", whom he "regarded as a grandfather" and: "I have lost a good friend".
Critics "like beehives that disturb a little"
The criticism of his pontificate, which was voiced after the death of Benedict, specifically also by the new book of Curial Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary of Benedict XVI., is disturbing "for the peace of mind".
"They're like beehives that disturb a little, but I prefer that, because that means you can speak freely."
The opposite would be "a dictatorship of distance" in which no one could say anything to "the emperor". Criticism is useful so that "things grow and go well".
"An example of this, and I take the liberty of mentioning him, is Cardinal Re. Cardinal Re tells me what he thinks. In hindsight, I may be wrong, but he tells me, and that's a great help."
He did not want to associate his pontificate with Benedict XVI and his death. What is becoming apparent are "signs of wear and tear from ten years of government. The government is getting tired."
"One of Africa's treasures is intelligence"
During his visit to Congo and South Sudan, he prepared for the "background" of colonialism that had prevailed there. This a fact to be taken into account. It is about an "exploitative mentality that remains. (...) And this is a problem of our attitude" and the lack of courage for "complete independence on their part". Tribal thinking is also "very strong", which causes problems even with bishop appointments. Many black Africans are aware of this problem.
"One of Africa's treasures is its intelligence. The young people are very intelligent. They have a future. A future that cannot be realized, however, because there is also the problem of internal wars between different cultures, not to say different tribes."
"Yes, Africa is in turmoil and is also suffering from the invasion of the exploiters, isn't it? It is said that Africa, the African countries, received the independence of the soil, but the mineral resources remained in the hands of the colonizers who came later. It is a whole process, also a cultural process, which must be accompanied. We can't just go to Africa, can we? We need to listen to their culture, have a dialogue, learn and talk. Promote. It's a fascinating culture."
The arms trade
On the next point, Francis condemned the arms trade:
"I say that if you have to defend yourself, you have to have the means to defend yourself. Another thing is that this need to defend oneself is growing and becoming a habit. A very wise man once said to me: 'If the world did not produce weapons for a year, only one year, hunger would stop.'
The arms industry is one of the most powerful, that's how far we've come. In other words, instead of helping us live, we strive to kill ourselves. And that's what I say to myself: 'Please, let's say something to stop this.'
The world is obsessed with owning weapons. Instead of trying the weapon of dialogue, understanding and negotiation, countries today are resorting to the weapon of prepotency, of war."
Francis emphasized, as in the past, that the world is "in the Third World War".
"Three world wars in just over a century. (...) the war... Depopulated. I mean, war is cruel. If we could learn that... I don't know what else to say."
The Ukraine conflict and a "luxury diplomat"
As Winfield invokes the escalation of the Ukraine crisis, which "now takes on a nuclear dimension, a religious dimension, everything," Francis remains very sober:
"I have the impression that everyone wants dialogue, but they are looking for ways to conduct it, so as not to lose ground, a dialogue with conditions. There are attempts at dialogue on the release of prisoners. I have witnessed several trials that have taken place here. The exchange of prisoners from the steelworks, for example, was the result of a very good, well-done mediation. Women, very well done. Women are ideal for this, they can negotiate better than men and there is an unspoken dialogue."
"Yesterday I said goodbye to the Turkish ambassador, who is being transferred, and told him to thank the president and the Turkish authorities for their efforts to engage in dialogue. They were the ones who cleared the sea for the grain. So they are doing a good job in terms of dialogue and releases."
Then Francis takes a discreet side blow in the direction of warring parties, in the direction of Moscow, but also in the direction of Kiev:
"There is a dialogue, but there is also the determination: No, I continue to reclaim what I believe belongs to me, and I continue so that they do not take away from me what I believe it belongs to me."
The Vatican strives to contribute to the dialogue:
"In this room, I have received several emissaries from the Ukrainian government. And in the palace I received a minister, also an envoy. And there is a very good dialogue with the Russian ambassador. He is a man of great humanity. I was also impressed when I received his testimony nearly seven years ago. He is a humanist and a man open to dialogue.
(...) There is a good relationship between the [Vatican] Secretariat of State and the ambassador as well as the foreign minister and the ambassador. Good relationships. And this is mainly due to his diplomatic skills. He is a luxury as a diplomat."
The People's Republic of China and a "nice old man"
After the change of topic, it is about the People's Republic of China. Winfield asked Francis about the meeting with 91-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and gray eminence of the Chinese underground Church. Francis had recently received the vociferous critic of the Vatican's "new Ostpolitik" in audience. The cardinal was arrested in May 2022 and sentenced to a fine in the autumn in a first trial. A far more dramatic trial for violation of "national security", which can even be punished with life imprisonment, still awaits him because he had supported the democracy movement in Hong Kong. This incredible repression and the importance of his critic is presented by Francis as follows:
"He's a nice old man. He is charming. With the Chinese, everyone is charming, if they want to be nice, they are nice. It is in an administrative process or something similar. I didn't quite understand what it was all about, something like a disciplinary procedure when you are caught driving on the road without a licence. And when it's over, you have to pay a fine and that's it."
Cardinal Zen, Francis continued, is now a prison chaplain. "He's in prison all day. He is friends with the communist guards and the prisoners. They all receive him well. He is a man of great compassion." It goes even further:
"The militant part of Zen has disappeared, so to speak. I'm not saying it's not there, it's there, but it's hidden behind this pastoral part."
The cardinal had seen a statue of Our Lady of Sheshan in the Pope's reception room:
"Zen saw it and began to cry like a child. He is a tender soul, the brave Zen."
After this assessment, in which Francis may have confused a lot, the Pope gave abon motin allusion to the old age of the cardinal:
"And since the Chinese are eternal, we will probably have to wait a few years for him to leave, but I cannot appoint a cardinal there because there are already three cardinals there. One follows the other. The current Archbishop of Hong Kong is very good. He is a very good Jesuit, very good."
On the next steps to the People's Republic of China, Francis said: "We are taking steps. Each case is viewed with a magnifying glass. There is a dialogue... And that is the main thing, that the dialogue is not broken off."
In addition, China consists of very different provinces and each provincial government acts differently. "I'm not saying they're fighting each other, but they're arguing with each other. (...) In China, patience must be exercised. I admire the Chinese people."
Not a word on human rights, no criticism of the totalitarian communist regime.
No state clergy
In the context of Latin America, Francis reiterated his statement that priests must be "servants of the people of God" and not a "state clergy." Francis himself has so far been uncritical of the state-church behavior of most bishops' conferences towards the government measures in the corona crisis.
In general, priests could already comment on "general or more political or economic problems", "but without becoming entangled in partisanship":
"And not to be afraid of persecution when there is persecution, or of coming into conflict with a government because it is not praised enough."
In view of the tense situation in some Latin American countries, also in the relationship between Church and State, it cannot be said exactly which country Francis had in mind with this statement.
As a concrete example, he cites that the Church "did not wash its hands of it" when it came to the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest. "We must also fight for good environmental policy." The Church "interferes with these borderline things", but usually does it "wrong". In such "borderline situations" one must distinguish "constantly, constantly", and this distinction "is difficult". But in Latin America there are "great examples of great shepherds, great shepherds of the people."
The "hot border" between Mexico and the US
On the migration issue at the Mexican-US border, a "hot border" of several, Francis did not want to go into more detail. At the beginning of 2016, Francis had denied his Christianity in order to torpedo the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate, because of his demand for a border fence. The construction of the border fence had already begun before Trump. Now Joe Biden, a Democrat, governs in the White House and Francis gives the impression that the issue is an instrument against Republicans for him.
His native Argentina currently has "no politics". In 1955, the year he graduated from high school, Argentina had a poverty rate of five percent. Today it is 52 percent. "What happened? What happened? Bad administration, bad politics."
Francis has never visited his homeland as pope. Even now, when asked about a visit to Argentina, he replied:
"No, not at the moment."
The Church has lost synodality, as Paul VI was already aware at the end of the Council, which is why he had created the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, Francis said. Since then, "much progress has been made". He had written a "theological document" on the subject: Now "there is the teaching of the synod".
Of course, women could vote in a synod, Francis said:
"Can women vote or not vote? Please, let's stop that. As if women were a different species. No, this is not stupidity, but it has uptightened everything. When the Amazon Synod came to an end, there were a lot of women, and I said they could vote, but then I said, no, no, let's not mess up, because otherwise we're creating a disciplinary problem with what we have to do. And out of caution, we stopped this vote. It was a question of prudence, which the women understood very well, and there we saw the need to hold a synod on the synod."
The local bishops of the world have been asked which topics are particularly important to them for a synod:
"And the first preference was for priests. The second preference was the synod and the third preference was a social problem, I don't remember which. (...) That is why we have decided to hold a synod on synodality. (...) The Eastern Church is used to it, it has kept it. The Orthodox Catholics [meaning the Greek Catholics united with Rome] have kept it and have the Roman synod. We don't have it."
On the significance, Francis says:
"Is this a step forward, a step that democratizes the Church? No, this is not the word, but that every Christian assumes his responsibility and not only expresses his opinion, but professes his opinion. That's more or less all. And I want it to go well. I pray that it will go well, because it is about the maturity of the Church. And does this abolish the authority of the Pope? No, not at all, not at all. On the contrary, it will enrich them even more."
And the women's diaconate and birth control?
Winfield interjects that "people want women to be ordained deacons, or for the Church to change its teaching on birth control..."
These were "previous agendas," Francis said. This had already been discussed at the Amazon Synod. Other problems had arisen that proved to be more important, such as "the problem of catechists" came into focus. In Africa, pastoral care is carried out above all by catechists. Second, "there are few priests from the country" [Brazil] itself, which is strongly Masonic "who want to go" [to the Amazon]. Thirdly, a seminary for the natives. "There has been one before, but it has been closed." And then a fourth problem, "but I don't remember which one. There were four problems that unconsciously suppressed the problem of viri probati."
"This is the value of a synod, because the protagonist of a synod is the Holy Spirit. Whether we like it or not. And the Holy Spirit does two things: he creates chaos, he creates confusion, as he did on Pentecost morning through the charisms, and then he creates harmony."
"The Holy Spirit does not create unity, he does not create conformities: he creates harmony that is always superior. Saint Basil, who wrote a very beautiful study of the Holy Spirit, defines the Holy Spirit as 'Ipse harmonia est'. He is harmony, he is the one who creates the harmony of the Church in the midst of diversity. A Church entirely focused on discipline... This is a Gestapo, this is not a Church. The Church is the richness of unity in diversity. And the Master who does this is the Holy Spirit.
The synodal idea goes in this direction. We haven't thought much about the Holy Spirit in our Western theology, but people in the East have. This is the time when we say to the Holy Spirit, 'Help us.' That's the factor, that's the confusion, yes, but then it's unity, harmony, not equality."
And the German synodal way?
These processes, according to Winfield, would "make some people very nervous," as shown by the German synodal path, which is for "gay blessings."
Here Francis becomes clearer:
"The German experience does not help, because it is not a synod, not a serious synodal path, it is only a so-called synodal path, but not of the whole people of God, but made by elites. And I'm careful not to say too much about it, but I've already written a letter that took me a month. I did it on my own."
On the German synodal path
"There is a danger that something very, very ideological will seep in. And when ideology enters the ecclesiastical processes, the Holy Spirit goes home because the ideology defeats the Holy Spirit. In any case, where I have dialogues, they have good will and no ill will. This is perhaps a very efficient method. That's funny.
You have mentioned some problems that you want to solve, but what criteria do you use to solve them? On the basis of your ecclesial experience, starting from the tradition of the Apostles and transferring it to the present day, or on the basis of sociological data? That is the problem, the fundamental problem. But we must be patient, lead dialogue and accompany these people on their actual synodal path and contribute to the fact that this rather elitist path somehow does not end badly, but is also integrated into the Church. Always try to unite."
When Winfield raises the issue of homosexuality, which she reduces to the criminalization of homosexuality in some states, but ignores the problem of aggressive homosexualization in the West, Francis says in a barrage of words, then flashing up some of what he has failed to say in the past decade:
"Being gay is not a crime. It is not a crime. Yes, but it is a sin. First, let us distinguish between sin and crime. But lack of charity is also a sin."
In sum, however, Francis then demands as the only concrete guide to action only that the bishops in the countries where homosexuality is punishable, for a change in the law.
What Francis does not say is that the commandment of personal charity and state laws are different levels.
"God is generous in His mercy," teaches the example of the prodigal son. "If we preached more about it and not nonsense, we'd be better off."
"Abuse has always existed, always in history, be it colonial abuse, be it family abuse, be it sexual abuse. There are two letters of St. Francis Xavier, which he wrote to some monks of that time, I do not know which Eastern religion they belonged to. And he says to them, 'Send these young men away from your monastery.' In other words, there was also this sexual service, which is an old thing outside of Christianity and within Christianity."
The Greek example of the teacher-student relationship also often consisted in a love relationship. "But isn't that abuse?" In the Church, the problem was often concealed. They had sought a "pastoral solution" and hoped that the guilty party would change "with an admonition, with some penance. But he doesn't change because it's something that comes from within: it's a personality disorder that makes him do that."
Amazingly, Francis said in this context what he does not say in connection with homosexuality, which is the basis of 80 percent of all sexual abuse cases by clerics, and never contextualizes.
In any case, Francis said, "more and more work is being done" in the Church today to combat abuse. "The Church woke up and began to act. (...) But we are still at the very beginning and must go further with consciousness. Above all, in the awareness that what happens in the Church we also pass on to society."
He is in contact with a Jewish Catholic group in Brazil that deals extensively with the issue of abuse.
According to their studies, "42-46 percent of abuse cases occur in the family, 18 percent in sports clubs, then in schools and three percent in the clergy. We're few, aren't we? No, even a single case is catastrophic, the three percent is misleading. That's a lot. And we must not give in, and we must do so relentlessly, because sometimes these are cases of perversion."
He himself had to be "converted" in this question. Specifically, Francis means his visit to Chile at the beginning of 2018, where he had to intervene:
"I had to intervene, that was my conversion to it, and there I was converted, on the journey to Chile. I couldn't believe it. (...) The bombshell exploded when I saw the corruption of many bishops in this area. (...) You witnessed that I had to wake up even in cases that were covered up, didn't you? You have to uncover more and more every day. (...) It's a great shame, but it's a great grace, the grace of truth, and it's non-negotiable."
The same applies, according to Francis, also to vulnerable adults. He himself currently has to assess such a case in the Vatican.
"This world is very people in need. There are cases of abuse of those in need that are currently being tried in court."
The Rupnik case
Asked about the case of the Slovenian Jesuit artist Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik, Francis emphasizes the difference between a sin and a crime. "Sins are always forgiven. We are all sinners. But crime, yes, I forgive that, but you pay for it, you make amends for the crime. And we have to be very clear about that. (...) And some have to leave the clerical state because they cannot continue in a pastoral situation of this kind."
In the Rupnik case, however, he did not want to interfere in internal proceedings. He himself had "nothing" to do with it. It remains to be seen whether Father Rupnik will appeal, but so far he has not done so. Then the matter would go to the Vatican. Previously, Francis said several times that he could not remember something. At this point at the latest, however, it is almost amnesia.
Both the presumption of innocence and the limitation period are legal instruments of great importance. If you go beyond that, the judiciary becomes "very manipulable". "However, I do not tolerate the statute of limitations if it is a minor." In the Rupnik case, "this is not the case, but that does not mean that the person should not be prosecuted. But apart from this accusation, which is already statute-barred. The limitation period is a guarantee.' Listening to the Rupnik case "came as a surprise to me, to be honest. That, a person, an artist of this level, was a very big surprise and a pain for me because these things hurt."
In cases of abuse, there is now "total transparency":
"That's what I want. That's what I want, isn't it? And with transparency comes something very beautiful, namely shame. Shame is a grace. I don't know if it's used in English, but in Spanish it means that a person who doesn't know rules, who walks around and does what he wants, is shameless and has no sense of shame. And shame is a grace. I prefer a Church that is ashamed because it discovers its sins that God forgives. No Pharisaic Church that hides its sins, that God does not forgive."
How is Pope Francis doing physically and emotionally?
"Emotionally, I'm a bit crazy ("loco"). I am good. The knee is thanks to the good therapy and the magnetic therapy, the laser... of the bones. The operation was not necessary. I'm already running, I'm helping myself with the rollator, but I'm running. (...) I am in good health. For the age I'm at, I'm normal. I can die tomorrow, but come on, it's all under control. My health is fine. And I always ask for mercy that the Lord will give me a sense of humor. For more than 40 years, every morning I have prayed the prayer of St. Thomas More: 'Give me, Lord, a good digestion and also something to digest'. This prayer is found in footnote 101 of Gaudete et exsultate, my exhortation to holiness. I ask for a good mood, for a sense of humor, because I have to help so many people and everyone, and if I am bitter, I cannot help anyone. Being able to laugh at yourself too, that's good. It's good for me to relativize my own importance, isn't it?"
"The one who helped me a lot was Pell, although it is said that he criticized me in the end. Well, he has the right to do so, because criticism is a human right. But Pell helped me so much because he was the one who told me, 'The economic problem is here, here and here.' And he took it in his hand. Then he had a problem where he bore so much good testimony of patience. Then he came back. But he helped me a lot. Pell was the right hand in the economic part. A great guy. Great."
As far as the balance of his pontificate is concerned, he is "calm":
"I sleep well".
Text/Translation: Giuseppe Nardi Image: AP/Youtube (Screenshot)