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Pope Francis in a unique conversation

On Monday Pope Francis will arrive in Sweden to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Today DN is publishing a unique conversation with Pope Francis, conducted in his private flat in the Vatican by Ulf Jonsson, Jesuit priest and editor-in-chief at the Swedish magazine Signum.

The Vatican. An enclave in the midst of one of Europes most bustling capitals, established in 1928 to ensure that the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church is independent from the rest of the world. Around 800 people live here. One of them is the Jesuit priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio, born in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, now better known as Pope Francis, by far the most famous inhabitant of this tiny country.

I have come to visit him ahead of his trip to Sweden. The aim of his visit is to strengthen the unity between Lutherans and Catholics.

– What first comes to my mind can be very simply expressed: I want us to come closer to our brothers and sisters, Pope Francis says.

He has only given a major interview once before at his home in Domus Sanctae Marthae, the unassuming guest house close to St Peter´s Basilica, which he, to the amazement of many, preferred to the grandiose Apostolic Palace when he took office in the spring of 2013. Antonio Spadaro was the first to interview the Pope in August 2013. He is my link to the leader of the Catholic Church as editor of the magazine Signum, and since we both are Jesuit priests, just like Pope Francis, I have had many contacts with Spadaro through the years. He is the editor of our sister paper La Civiltà Cattolica. When the Pope announced his visit to Sweden I found the courage to ask if there was any chance of interviewing him ahead of the trip. Antonio Spadaro forwarded the questionand Pope Francis said yes.

On our way into the Vatican we pass two sets of guardsmen. It is a Saturday evening in late September and here we are, Spandaro and I, looking at the yellow plastered façade of Domus Sanctae Marthae. The air is warm and filled with expectation and nervousness and we pass more guards before we reach the lobby. Domus Sanctae Martae acts as a hotel for priests, cardinals and bishops. The woman in the reception points us to the lifts. The Pope lives on the second floor. He meets us in the corridor and greets us kindly then shows us around his apartment. The spacehe will be coming back to that later in our conversationdoes not interest him at all. However, for the curious: he lives in a flat consisting of three small rooms. The study is Spartan and the living room cosy. A Torah scroll, the Jewish Holy Scripture, lies on a small table. The walls are covered with religious art. The document on the canonization of the Jesuit priest Peter Favre hangs on a wall. Favre is Pope Francis favourite saint.

In March 2013 when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope the Vatican was shaken by scandals of corruption and paedophilia. Bergoglio was chosen to deal with these scandals and other problems within the Church. Since then he has been pushing through reforms and at the same time making the Church turn a new and more humane face to the world outside.

But who is he? How does he view his mission and what does he hope to gain from his visit to Sweden?

The living room is 15 square metres at the most. We sit down on a group of gilded settees covered in green velvet. The Pope sits in the sofa and I in the easy chair. I lean forward over the marble table and start the interview.

What hopes and expectations do you have ahead of your visit to Sweden?

We all feel better when we are close to one another. When we distance ourselves from each other it harms us. When we distance ourselves from others we lock ourselves within ourselves. We become isolated monads incapable of meeting one another. Thats when we start living in fear. Instead we need to learn to transcend our limitations in order to meet others. If we dont do this, we Christians will be harmed by our splits and divisions. My hope is that I will be able to take steps to bring us closer to one another, to come closer to my brothers and sisters living in Sweden.

In Argentina the Lutherans are a small minority, represented e.g. by the Nordic churches. I ask Pope Francis about his early contacts with Lutherans.

The Pope replies extensively and with enthusiasm. He wants to tell us about his acquaintance with the Swedish vicar Anders Ruuth, born 1926, who lived and worked in Buenos Aires for many years in the 1950s and 1960s.

– Yes, I had quite a few contacts. We Jesuits have a theological college in San Miguel, where I taught. The Lutheran theological college is close by. I was professor and chair of spiritual theology. I invited the professor of practical theology at the Lutheran college to visit us so that he and I could give joint lectures. He was a Swede by the name of Anders Ruuth.

– It was a difficult period in my life, spiritually. I trusted him, opened my heart to him. He was of great help to me in that situation. He was then sent to Brazilhe spoke Portuguesewelland after that he returned to Sweden. He also wrote a thesis on the Brazilian community The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. He wrote in Swedish and started working on it in Brazil in the 1970s, however, there was also a chapter in English. I happened to come across it and read the English chapter. It was a delight to discover it.

The years went by and I became assistant bishop in Buenos Aires. One day the Archbishop of Uppsala came to visit us. He invited us to a service in the Nordic Church of Buenos Aires, previously called The Swedish Church. I talked to him about Anders Ruuth, who later visited Argentina once more to perform a wedding. That was the last time we saw each other.

Anders Ruuth passed away in November 2011. Pope Francis remembers how his son brought him the news.

– One day there was a call from one of his sonsthe one who is a musician, the other one is a doctor. He told me his father had died. I think of Anders Ruuth with much affection and gratitude.

When Antje Jackelén, Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, came to visit me in the Vatican in May 2015 I mentioned this friendship between the two of us. I have fond memories of her visit and the nice speech she gave. I met her again in connection with the canonization of Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad which also gave me the opportunity to meet her husband. They are both really wonderful people.

What can the Catholic Church learn from Lutheran traditions?

– Two words spring to mind: reform and The Bible. I shall try to explain what I mean.

– The first word is reform. Luthers intention from the beginning was to implement a reform as the Church was in a difficult situation. Luther wanted to apply remedies in dire circumstances. But it led to a split, not a process of reform for the whole Church. This was due to political factors cementing the split. For example, I am thinking of the principle cuius regio eius religio (the people shall have the same religion as the ruler). But reforms are of fundamental importance, because the Church is semper reformanda (she needs constant reforming).

– The second word is The Bible, which is the word of God. Luther took a decisive step in putting Gods words in the hands of the people. The importance of reforms and The Bible are the two fundamental elements we can have a deepened appreciation of when considering the Lutheran tradition.

On September 20th the Pope visited a large inter-religious meeting in Assisi, central Italy. One of the major issues at the meeting was that terrorism is often justified in religious terms. I ask Pope Francis to tell us his view of the meeting.

– The participants came from all the different religions that the Catholic Sant Egidio movement is in contact with. They had invited the participants and I met those they had chosen to invite. There were many respectful participants at the meeting and no signs of syncretism. We talked about peace and how we all long for it. Together we wrote a powerful statement on peace, which is what all religions want. You cannot use violence in the name of religion, in the name of God. To act that way is heresy, it is something devilish.

On the same day as this interview took place Pope Francis met several hundred people who were wounded or lost loved ones in the terror attack in Nice on July 14th that took the lives of 86 people.

– The madman who carried out this massacre claimed that he was acting in the name of God. Poor soul, so completely confused. With all due love, one has to say that he who tries to justify such an event in the name of God has a totally twisted mind. But since these things actually happen, meetings such as the one in Assisi are important.

The media often report conflicts between religious groups around the world. Some feel that the world would be a more peaceful place without religion. What is your answer to that criticism?

– I would say that religion is not the cause of violence, but that violence has its roots in a form of idolatry that attaches itself to religion. It happens when you make money, enemies or space your God only, when one allows oneself be led by the desire to control a territory, letting space be more important than time. It is a form of idolatry of space, a will to rule, and it can attach itself to the religion like a malign virus.

– Idolatry is a twisted form of religion, a religion gone wrong.

Lately Pope Francis has also been talking about the terrorism of slander. The comments have mainly been directed at the Italian press, often accused of populism and for stoking up bad feelings between different groups in society.

What do you mean by the expression terrorism of slander? And how does one conquer it?

– Well, it is a more mental and intangible form of terrorism, a vice that is hard to eradicate. I describe slander and the spreading of false rumours as an aspect of terrorism because it is a form of severe violence against others.

– We all have in us the capacity to smear other peoples character. It is a vice that can only be eradicated through a deep change of mind, a conversion.

– The problem with this vice is that all of us, every human being, are capable of turning into a terrorist simply by just abusing language. You see, I am not speaking here about fighting a battle as in a war. I am speaking of a deceitful and hidden form of terrorism that uses words as bombs that explode causing devastation in peoples lives. It is a sort of criminality and the root of it is original sin. It is a way of creating space for yourself by destroying others.

– It needs a profound transformation of the heart to defeat this temptation. One must search ones soul thoroughly in this matter. The sword kills many people, but the tongue kills many more. In the third chapter of the letter from the apostle James it says: The tongue is a small organ able to set fire to an entire forest. It can be a fire of evil that burns down our life. The tongue can be full of lethal poison. It is a form of terrorism that is hard to curb.

You have expressed yourself very clearly about the terrible situation for Christians in some parts of the Middle East. Is there any hope of a peaceful and humane development for Christians in these countries?

– I do not believe that the Lord will abandon His people. When we read in the Bible about the suffering that befell the people of Israel or when we remember the suffering of the Martyrs we find that the Lord has always come to help His people. Yes, the Middle East is todays territory of the Martyrs. Without a doubt we can speak of Syria as a land of Martyrs.

– I want to tell you about a memory that has stayed in my heart. When I visited the island of Lesbos I met a father with two children. He told me how much he loved his wife. He was a Muslim and she a Christian. When the terrorists came they wanted her to take off the cross she wore, but she refused. They then cut her head off in front of her husband and children. And the man went on and said to me: I love her so much, so much. Yes, she is a Martyr. And a Christian knows that there is still hope. The blood of Martyrs is the seed of Christianity. Christians have always known this.

You are the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years and you have often focussed on peripheral churches. Where will the Catholic Church flourish in 20 years from now?

– Your question is worded in spatial terms and I am allergic to spatial thinking. The vitality of a community does not depend on space and geography, but on the spirit. It is true that there is a fresh breeze in young churches. There are older churches that are sleepy and mainly interested in maintaining their position and a particular territory. I would not say that they lack the Spirit of God, but that they are locked in a rigid organisation that fears to lose its place in the world. One can see that churches in some countries lack vitality and that therefore the vitality of the periphery gives the Spirit a wider scope.

– The churches must avoid the risk of becoming old in a negative way. Sometimes churches are trapped by their plans and organisations. Of course I accept that those are also necessary but I find it hard to see how organisational solutions could bring us new hope. The Spirit wants to give us a push so that we can move forwards. And the Spirit manifests itself in our capacity to dream and to prophesise.

– In my view this is a challenge for the entire Church. The relationship between the old and the young is one of the great challenges of our time for the Church, for her ability to renew herself. The Church becomes young again when the young talk to the old and when the old can dream of great things that make the young prophesise. If the young do not prophesise the Church gets no air.

Sweden is one of the worlds most secularised countries. The majority does not believe in God and the role of religion is insignificant. What is lacking in a person who does not believe in God?

– It is not about something lacking in that person. Instead it is about such a person not having developed his/her capacity of transcendence in a genuine way. It is our capacity of transcendence, to surpass ourselves, that makes room for God in our lives. And here, even small steps along the way can be important. They can decide if we become atheists or agnostics.

– I find that problems arise when people lock themselves into themselves and think that their lives are complete and perfect. The individual then loses the need for radical transcendence. In order to reveal the transcendental to others you dont need many words or discussions because he/she is ready when he/she becomes a living testimony.A young person asked me: What shall I say to my friend who does not believe in God? How can I convert him? I answered: The last thing you should do is talk. Simply live your life. The testimony you give with your life may one day make him ask why you live the way you do.

– I am convinced that the person who does not believe in God or who is not seeking God, has not so far not been affected by inner anxiety and longing which is awakened when meeting a true testimony. This experience is hard to find when ones life is smooth and easy. That is why I say that the answer to atheism, i.e. the inability of an individual to open up to transcendence, is truly in prayer and testimony.

The Catholics in Sweden are a small minority, largely consisting of immigrants from all corners of the world. How do you view the role of Catholics in our culture?

– I find that a good way of living together means, that everyone can live by his/her own faith and give testimony about it to others in a spirit of ecumenical openness. You cannot be both Catholic and sectarian, they are two incompatible attitudes. For that reason I had initially not intended to celebrate mass on this journey. I wanted to emphasise the ecumenical testimony.

– But then I thought more deeply about my role as a shepherd for Catholics who will travel to Malmö as well as from neighbouring countries such as Denmark and Norway. So I decided to prolong the trip by one day to celebrate mass, to fulfil a strong demand from Catholics. But I did not want the mass to be held on the same day and not in the same place as the ecumenical gathering in order to keep the two events separate. The ecumenical meeting must keep its vital importance in a spirit of unity. That is also my spirit.

– I am aware that this has also created administrative problems here in Rome since I will be in Sweden on All Saints Day, which is an important day in Rome. But I decided to do it like this and I hope that it will not cause misunderstandings.

What are your hopes for your visit to Sweden?

– This is what I spontaneously hope: Let us go forward together! Dont let us get locked into rigid plans for the future, let us be open to reforms.

The interview is over. Pope Francis calls for the Swiss Guardsman by the door, asks him to take a picture and accompanies us out into the corridor. I step into the elevator, reiterate my thanks and push the button. As the elevator doors close the Pope waves goodbye. It is dark outside as Spandaro and I leave Domus Sanctae Martae. I look up at the enormous, floodlit dome of St Peters rising up right in front of us and I think that I will probably never see it again from this angle.

Translation: Lars Ryding

Facts. Three controversial issues concerning the Catholic Church

Paedophilia.
Pope Francis has declared a zero tolerance against paedophilia and sexual abuse. In an interview in La Repubblica he said that child abuse infects the church as ”leprosy” and promised to ”confront the problem with the seriousness it demands”. It is thought that two per cent of the priests in the Catholic Church are paedophiles, which means around 8000 of the church’s 414 000 priests.

The Pope started by strengthening the legislation against paedophilia. The Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski was arrested and charged with buying sex from minors in the slums of Santo Domingo. His computer, which contained around 100 000 files with child pornographic material, was confiscated. The archbishop himself died before the trial started in the autumn of 2015, but the arrest and trial sent a strong message to all bishops.

Corruption.

In the autumn of 2014 the Vatican wrote a 45-page document on stopping corruption and money laundering in the church’s financial system, and making the system more transparent. The handbook gives a clear framework of accountability for those entrusted with managing the church’s resources.

Several financial scandals have shaken the Holy See and two of the Vatican bank’s former chiefs have been charged with money laundering.

In 2012 the European council criticized the bank for flaws in their legislation. Leaked documents showed that the Vatican bank lacked financial competence and was a centre of corruption. The mafia has used the Vatican Bank for money laundering.

Sexual policy.

In the middle of the 20th century the second Vatican council was held in Rome. A will to open up to the world was seen there, which inspired a global reformation movement. The movement ”We are church” seeks to liberalise the church.

They want to see concrete reform: the Vatican opening up for female priests, allowing contraceptives and endorsing same-sex love.

As part of their activism hundreds of Catholic women were secretly ordained– leading to them, and the bishops who ordained them, being excluded from the church.
Although Pope Francis has a new and more open way of communicating around these issues – nothing has changed in substance.

2 questions for DN:s editor in chief Peter Wolodarski

1. Editors of other newspapers do not usually do interviews in DN. Why did you choose to let another editor do so in this case?

– Here we gained access to world exclusive material, thanks to our cooperation with the magazine Signum. The Pope hardly ever gives interviews, and this meeting in his home is historical. DN has tried several times to get an interview with the Pope in connection to his visit to Sweden – but the attempts have failed. Signum’s editor in chief managed to gain access to the Pope and offered us the material. We are of the opinion that this interview is of great public interest.

2. How does this interview differ from the usual ones seen in DN?

– Signum is a Catholic magazine. The tone and questions are different from those of traditional news journalism. DN would have brought up several of the more controversial issues, which we now present in connection to the interview. But this discussion between two Jesuit priests gave several answers that a news journalist would probably never have got.

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