16-10-2023 19:40 - EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Pope Francis: “War is the great enemy of the universal dialogue that we need”
These are busy days at the Vatican, as they usually have been during the last ten years of a papacy that shook lethargic structures to set them in motion at the pace that our current times demand. His answers and initiatives not only consider the complexity of a world moving with or without a compass, but also the necessary actions to overcome a civilizing crisis that will help improve the present and build a different future.
During the Synod taking place these days -an assembly in which the Church listens and reflects about itself-, Pope Francis appeals “to the blessing and welcoming gaze of Jesus that prevents us from falling into some dangerous temptations: of being a rigid church, which arms itself against the world and looks backward; of being a lukewarm church, which surrenders to the fashions of the world; of being a tired church, turned in on itself”.
”We are living a World War in pieces”.
On this late September afternoon, life offers me once again the chance to interview the most important religious, social and ethical leader of the planet. During our talk in Santa Marta, the Pope unravels alerts, solutions and reflections from his universal, embracing and transforming point of view.
During our talk, Pope Francis says: “I believe dialogue cannot be just nationalist, it must be universal, especially nowadays with the advanced communication systems we have. That is why I speak of universal dialogue, universal harmony, universal encounter. And of course, the enemy of this is war. Since the end of World War II up until today, there have been wars everywhere. That’s what I meant when I said we are living a World War in pieces”.
“Indifference is a kind of cultural apathy”.
His words should appeal to the consciousness of our planet, when the violence between Israel and Palestine has escalated dramatically since the morning of October 7th.
On Sunday 8th, at the end of the Angelus prayer, Pope Francis expressed his sorrow over the escalation of a war that plunges the Holy Land into mourning: “I express my closeness to the victims’ families. I pray for them and for everyone that is living hours of terror and anguish. May the attacks and the weaponry cease, please! And let it be understood that terrorism and war do not lead to any resolutions, but to the death and suffering of so many innocent people”.
Only 72 hours later, in his weekly Wednesday audience of October 11th, the Pope doubled his call for peace: “Terrorism and extremism do not help reach a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but fuel hatred, violence, revenge and cause suffering for both sides”.
And during the Angelus on Sunday 15th, the Pope renewed his call for peace and for the respect of Humanitarian Law, “especially in Gaza where there is an urgent need to guarantee humanitarian corridors and to rescue the entire population.”
“Wars are always a defeat”, insisted the pilgrim Pope, whose face lit up with enthusiasm on that late September afternoon, in Santa Marta, at 86 years old, when he mentioned the expected worldwide destinations in the schedule of this tireless pastor, to walk once more together for a future of hope.
- Pope Francis, do you still have important trips to make?
- Well, yes. To Argentina (laughs).
- Of course.
I’d like to go…
"The only way out from a crisis is upward".
When it comes to more distant countries, I still haven’t visited Papua New Guinea. Somebody said that if I go to Argentina, I should stop at Rio Gallegos, then head to the South Pole, land in Melbourne and visit New Zealand. It would be a rather long journey.
- How do you plan your trips? How do you pick the destinations?
- We receive many invitations. There is a lineup of possible trips and some impose themselves. Mongolia, for example. Others require thorough planning, like traveling across Europe, to Hungary for instance. Each case is different. There is always an invitation and then there is an intuition regarding the timing. It is not an automatic decision. Each trip is unique.
- Your trips usually display purpose, important topics to delve into, and closeness to the people, which is coherent with your idea of transformations demanding the commitment from powerful leaders but also from individualities. When we see far-right forces expanding, a feeling of frustration or disappointment toward politics and people expressing that in the ballot box, do you see these crises as momentary or long-lasting? What can be done to overturn them?
- I like the word “crisis” because it contains inner movement. Yet, the only way out from a crisis is upward, there is no easy way out. The way out is upward and never on our own. Those who intend to emerge alone from a crisis, turn the way out into a labyrinth that goes round and round. A crisis is a labyrinth. Also, a crisis makes you grow. Whether it’s a person, a family, a country or a civilization in crisis, if it is solved well, there is growth.
I’m concerned when problems turn to themselves and there seems to be no way out. We must teach young boys and girls to be able to manage a crisis. To solve a crisis. Because that instills maturity. We were all unexperienced young people once, and sometimes young boys and girls hold onto miracles, to a messiah, to things being solved in a messianic way. There is only one Messiah who saved us all. The rest are all clowns of messianism. None of them can promise a solution to conflicts, unless it’s emerging upward from the crisis. And never on our own. Let’s think of any kind of political crisis, in a country that doesn’t know what to do, there are many in Europe. What can be done? Shall we look for a messiah to come save us? No. We must find where the conflict is and solve it. There is wisdom is the management of a crisis. But you can’t move forward without a conflict.
"Sometimes young boys and girls hold onto miracles, to a messiah, to things being solved in a messianic way".
- What is humanity lacking and what is there in excess?
- Humanity is lacking protagonists of humanity, who can display their human prominence. Sometimes I notice that inability to manage a crisis and to make their own culture come to the surface. We should not be afraid to show the true values of a country. A crisis is like a voice telling us where to act. On the contrary, problems that are put away are like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. You hear flute playing, you follow the music and everybody gets drowned. I am very much afraid of Pipers of Hamelin, because they are entrancing. If they were charming snakes, I would let them (laughs), but they are charming people…people who end up drowned, people who believe they can emerge from a crisis dancing to the sound of the flute, with redeemers who appeared out of nowhere. No. A crisis must be accepted and overcome, but always emerging upward.
- Is there an excess of individualism or indifference?
- I am much more afraid of indifference, because it is a kind of cultural apathy. Let this or that happen, while the piper keeps playing the flute and people drown. The great dictatorships were born from flute playing, from an illusion, a momentary charm. And then we say “that’s a shame: we were all drowned”. I insist: I like the image of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
- What is the danger of a single identity, a single mindset?
- It destroys human richness. A single mindset banishes human richness. And human richness must consider three realities, three languages: the language of our mind, our heart and our hands. In such a way that we think what we feel and what we do, feel what we think and what we do, and do what we think and feel. That is human harmony. If a person is lacking one of those three languages, there is an imbalance that leads to a single feeling, a single pragmatism or a single mindset. These are treacheries to humanity.
- Austerity is a common practice in your life. It is a conviction. Is it also a message?
- Well, austerity itself does not exist. There are austere men and women. And what does that mean? A person who lives off of their work, who has a culture and knows how to express it, and who knows how to walk ahead transmitting that austerity. Within the culture of easiness, of bribery, of so many escapisms, it very difficult to talk about austerity. Austerity is taught through work. An austere person doesn’t live without working. What defines an austere person is their work, their commitment, earning their bread by the sweat of their brow, whether it’s physical or intellectual sweat. It’s important to understand work as something inherent to a human being. Laziness is a social sickness. There are even rich lazy people who live off the work of others without thinking of the common good. Sloth and laziness are treacherous because they feed that malice of taking advantage of others, of living on the backs of others. That is why a person who works, no matter what they do, gains dignity.
Another problem is the lack of dignity when the culture of squandering is imposed. The culture of having a good time, of exploitation, of not working. That’s when a person loses their dignity. A person has dignity when they earn their living and they take care of other people.
- You extend the culture of work to other realms. What does work mean today in an unequal world that offers no opportunities for many people?
- I insist: works provides dignity to a person. The greatest treachery to that road to dignity is exploitation. I don’t mean exploiting the soil so it produces more, but exploiting the worker. Exploiting people is one the most serious sins. And to exploit them for one’s own benefit. I have data regarding exploitation of labor in the world and they are huge. And that is very hard. Work provides dignity, and therefore the worker has specific rights. When a worker is hired, they must be provided with social services, which are part of their rights. Work should come with rights, otherwise it is slavery.
- Some people think that labor laws are the main obstacle when trying to create new jobs and increase productivity. Some political leaders in different countries base their electoral promises on putting an end to workers’ acquired rights.
- When workers have no rights or they are hired for very little time to be replaced later and to avoid paying social security contributions, they are turned into slaves and the hiring person becomes an executioner.
“I am very much afraid of Pipers of Hamelin, because they are entrancing. If they were charming snakes, I would let them, but they are charming people”.
An executioner is not just the person who kills others, but also the person who exploits others. We must be aware of that. When I say the things I wrote in the Social Encyclicals, some people say “the Pope is a communist”. I am not. The Pope reads the Gospel and speaks what is in the Gospel. In the Old Testament, Hebrew law required that the widow, the orphan and the foreigner be taken care of. If society takes care of these three situations, things will go well. Because those are extreme circumstances. If society takes care of extreme circumstances, it will do the same with other circumstances.
When workers are hired informally to avoid social security contributions and the workers’ future is negotiated toward slavery, that’s when work becomes a sickness. Instead of providing dignity, work becomes slavery. We must pay close attention to this. And I want to make clear that I am not a communist as some people say (laughs). The Pope follows the Gospel.
- What do you think of this accelerated technological development, such as Artificial Intelligence, and in which way do you think it could be addressed from a more human point of view?
I like the word “accelerated”. When something is accelerated, it worries me, because there is no time for it to settle. When we look back at the industrial revolution up until the 1950s, we see non-accelerated development. There were control and helping mechanisms. When change is accelerated, there is not enough time for assimilation mechanisms, and we end up becoming slaves. It is equally dangerous to be a slave to a person or to a job, as it is to be a slave to a culture.
The key to cultural progress, such as Artificial Intelligence, is the ability of men and women to handle it, assimilate it and control it. That is, men and women are masters of Creation, and we must not give that up. A person’s control over anything. Serious scientific change is progress. We must be open to that.
- Francis, in the face of wars and conflicts, you appeal to a new concept: integral security. What does that global idea mean?
- A country cannot have partial security unless there is integral security for everybody. It is impossible to speak of social security unless it is a universal security, or in the process of becoming universal. I believe dialogue cannot be just nationalist, it must be universal, especially nowadays with the advanced communication systems we have. That is why I speak of universal dialogue, universal harmony, universal encounter. And of course, the enemy of this is war. Since the end of World War II up until today, there have been wars everywhere. That’s what I meant when I said we are living a World War in pieces. Now we see it because that World War is close.
- What circumstances foster or favor war?
- Exploitation is one of the causes of war. Another cause is geopolitical: territory control. Some wars that seem endless are caused by cultural conflicts but in reality they are about territory control. Myanmar, for instance, has been at war for years and years, and the Rohingya people, who follow Islam, have been persecuted for years and years because of an elitist power who thinks they are superior as human beings.
“It is equally dangerous to be a slave to a person or to a job, as it is to be a slave to a culture.”
I also believe that war is fostered by dictatorships. Some dictatorships are declared, we can find many examples in the world, but others are not declared, but they hold power as a dictatorship.
- Do you believe that uniting our consciousness, beyond our religious or political differences, is a way to begin the construction of peace and common good?
- Yes, absolutely yes, but with one condition: being aware of one’s own identity. You cannot dialogue with others if you are not aware of where you come from. When two aware identities get together, they can have a conversation and take steps toward an agreement, toward progress, walk together. But if one is not aware of one’s own identity, one assumes things as one’s own and betrays one’s people, country or family. Being aware of one’s identity is very important for dialogue. If I, as a Catholic, have to talk to someone from other religion, I must be fully aware of being a Catholic and that the other person has the right to their religion. But if I’m not aware of my own identity, I can’t have a conversation, I’m going to laugh at everything, I’m going to sell everything, to fake everything. I wouldn’t be truly consistent.
- The Synod 2023 is taking place, within a context that you defined, fundamentally, as the end of an era. In which way does the Church adapt to this reality? What kind of Church is needed these days?
- Since the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII had a very clear perception: the Church has to change. Paul VI agreed, just like the succeeding Popes. It’s not just changing ways, it’s about a change of growth, in favor of the dignity of people. That’s theological progression, of moral theology and all the ecclesiastical sciences, even in the interpretation of Scriptures that have progressed according to the feelings of the Church. Always in harmony. Rupture is not good. We either progress through development or things don’t turn out right. Rupture leaves you out of the sap of development. I like the image of a tree and its roots. The roots receive the humidity of the soil and take it upward, through the trunk. When you separate yourself from that, you end up dry, without traditions. Tradition in the good sense of the word. We all have traditions, a family, we were all born within the culture of a country, a political culture. We all have a tradition for which to take responsibility.
“Rupture is not good. We either progress through development or things don’t turn out right.”
- You speak of tradition and progress as complements.
- Progress is necessary and the Church has to incorporate these novelties with a serious conversation from a human point of view. The Greek thinker Publius Terentius Afer says “Nothing human is alien to me”. The Church holds what’s human in its hand. God became a man, not a philosophical theory. Humanity is something consecrated by God. That is, everything human must be assumed and progress must be human, in harmony with humanity.
In the 1960s, Dutch people came up with the word “rapidity”, which is much more than acceleration. Well, in the context of the rapidity of scientific knowledge, the Church has to pay close attention and have its thinkers be ready to dialogue. And I emphasize this: we must dialogue with scientific knowledge. The Church must dialogue with everybody, but being aware of its identity. Not from a borrowed identity.
- How can the tension between changing and not losing its essence be solved?
- The Church, through dialogue and taking up new challenges, has changed in many ways. Even regarding cultural matters. A theologist from the 4th Century said that changes in the Church must comply to three conditions to be real: consolidating, growing and ennoble themselves along the years. It is a very inspiring definition by Vincent of Lérins. The Church has to change. Let’s think of the ways it has changed since the Council until now and the way it must continue changing its ways, in the way to propose an unchanging truth. That is, the revelation of Jesus Christ does not change, the dogmas of the Church do not change, they grow and ennoble themselves like the sap of a tree. The person who does not follow this path, follows a path that takes steps backward, a path that closes on itself. Changes in the Church take place within this identity flow of the Church. And it has to keep changing along the way, as challenges are met. That is why the core of change is fundamentally pastoral, without recanting the essence of the Church.
- Is it hard being the representative of God on Earth, and at this time?
- I’m going to do a heresy. We are all representatives of God. Every person who believes must testify to what they believe and, in this sense, we are all representatives of God. It is true that the Pope is a privileged representative of God (laughs), and I must testify to an inner coherence, to the truth of the Church and the pastorality of the Church. That is, a Church that keeps its doors open for everybody.
- Francis, what’s your relationship with God?
- Ask Him (looks up and smiles). I believe it’s an image, but there’s truth in it: I maintain the piety I had as a child. My grandmother taught me how to pray and I maintain that simple piety of praying, as we say in Argentina “the faith of a coal miner”. I’m not complicated when I pray. One might even say I have an old-fashioned spirituality. Maybe. In this sense, there is a unifying thread from my childhood to this day. My religious consciousness has grown a lot, that’s different, it has matured, but the way I express myself to God has always been simple. Being complicated is not in me. Sometimes I say (looks up) “you fix this, because I can’t”. And I ask the Virgen and the Saints to intercede, to help me. And when I have to make a decision, I always pray…to the light above. But the Lord is a good friend, He has been good to me. He takes care of me, as He takes care of all. We must pay attention to the way He takes care of each of us, He has a different style with each of us. That is beautiful.
“I’m not complicated when I pray. One might even say I have an old-fashioned spirituality. Maybe… but the way I express myself to God has always been simple.”
- Can one ever be angry at God?
- No, I get angry with other people. I might complain now and then, but I know He is waiting for me, always. When I make a mistake or when I was unjustly angry with someone. Yet, He never reproaches me. In my dialogue with the Lord, a reproach is always a caress. Today, I was reading Hosea Chapter 11, where he speaks of that caress, that love of God to each of us as if we were the image of that lamb he carries on his shoulders. The three qualities of God, the most forceful ones, are closeness, mercy and tenderness. God is close. God is merciful, He forgives everything and has impressive patience with us. And He is tender. That delicate touch of God, even in our trials. That’s the way I experience Him.
- You smile, you laugh, you show a great sense of humor. What kind of things amuse you?
- A sense of humor is a certificate of good health (laughs).
For over 40 years, every day I have prayed St Thomas More’s prayer for a sense of humor. He was great. I included that prayer in the 101 note of “Gaudete et exsultate” (Editor’s note: exhortation “on the call to holiness in our present world”, from March 2018), in case somebody would like to see it. The prayer asks the Lord for the ability to laugh, to see the funny side of things, to see life with a smile, always. The prayer begins in a beautiful way: “Give me, Lord, a good digestion and, naturally, give me something to digest.” (Laughs) He begins with a sense of humor from the start. And I like that, because a sense of humor humanizes. People who don’t have a sense of humor are boring.
- Very boring.
- Even boring to themselves. In my sacerdotal work, I sometimes would advise people to look at themselves in the mirror and laugh at themselves. It’s horribly difficult for some people, because they lack a sense of humor. Well, those things are not very dogmatic. That is a bit of life wisdom I was taught and I try to use it to help others.
“A sense of humor is a certificate of good health”.
- Fears are inherent to the human being. However, you as Pontiff, usually convey a sense of embracing peace. Are you ever afraid?
- Yes, because I know that if I make a mistake, a lot of people might be hurt by my mistake. That is why I let some decisions rest, so time makes them ripe. Other decisions, I bring them to a synod so the whole Church can express itself about the matter.
- Did you ever think we would have an Argentine Pope?
- Back in the day, the name of Pironio was often mentioned (Editor’s note: Eduardo Francisco Pironio, Catholic Cardinal-Bishop). I remember that a sector of the Argentine episcopate that was close-minded and traditionalist, portrayed him as disagreeable. They thought his appointment could really hurt the Church. He helped created the World Youth Day, which has been so good for the Church. And his name was mentioned as a possible Pope. So, the idea of an Argentine Pope was born with Pironio. Then, that didn’t happen because he died of cancer. And now we are about to receive the study about a miracle he did and, God willing, he will be beatified by the end of the year.
“Hope is the humble virtue, the everyday virtue”.
- As a prophet of hope, what can you tell us to nourish it?
Hope is the humble virtue, the everyday virtue, the one we think least important. We always talk about faith, charity and love. And hope is in the kitchen, but that’s precisely why it’s our everyday virtue. We must not only keep our hope, but also nourish it. We must have a hopeful heart, a heart with hope. Hope is so fecund! A poet used to call it the humble virtue. We cannot live without hope. If we erased our little daily hopes, we would lose our identity. We don’t realize that we live by hope. And theological hope is very humble but it seasons our daily condiments. It’s not escapism to think tomorrow might be better. It’s different.
- I really liked some words about you that I read recently in Argentina: “Pope Francis, the prophet of human dignity”. Thank you, as always.
- Pray for me, please. But pray in my favor, not against me (laughs).