A Russian soldier patrols near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol A Russian soldier patrols near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol  (AFP or licensors)

Pope: ‘War cannot be reduced to distinction between good guys and bad guys’

Pope Francis grants an interview to the Jesuit review ‘La Civiltà Cattolica’, and shares his thoughts on the war in Ukraine, Germany's synodal path, and signs of fresh life in the Church.

By Vatican News

We publish here an ample excerpt of Pope Francis’ conversation with La Civiltà Cattolica, which was released on Tuesday.

Q: The Society [of Jesus] is present in Ukraine, part of my [i.e. the Polish] Province. We are living a war of aggression. We write about it in our magazines. What is your advice for reporting on the situation we are experiencing? How can we contribute to a peaceful future?

To answer this question, we have to get away from the common mindset of "Little Red Riding Hood": Little Red Riding Hood was good and the wolf was the bad guy. Here there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys, in the abstract. Something global is emerging, with elements that are closely intertwined with each other. A couple of months before the war started, I met with a head of state—a wise man, who speaks very little: very wise indeed. After we discussed the things he wanted to talk about, he told me that he was very concerned about the way NATO was acting. I asked him why, and he said, "They are barking at the gates of Russia. And they don't understand that the Russians are imperial and they will not allow any foreign power to approach them." He concluded, "The situation could lead to war." This was his opinion. On 24 February, the war began. That head of state was able to read the signs of what was happening.

What we are seeing is the brutality and ferocity with which this war is being carried out by the troops, generally mercenaries, used by the Russians. In reality, the Russians prefer to send forward Chechens, Syrians, mercenaries. But the danger is that we only see this, which is monstrous, and miss the whole drama that is unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps somehow either provoked or not-prevented. I also note the interest in testing and selling weapons. It is very sad, but at the end of the day that is what is at stake.

Someone may say to me at this point: but you are pro-Putin! No, I am not. It would be simplistic and erroneous to say such a thing. I am simply against turning a complex situation into a distinction between good guys and bad guys, without considering the roots and self-interests, which are very complex. While we witness the ferocity and cruelty of Russian troops, we should not forget the problems, and seek to solve them.

It is also true that the Russians thought that everything would be over in a week. But they miscalculated. They found a brave people, a people who are struggling to survive and who have a history of conflict.

I must also add that we see what is happening now in Ukraine in a certain way because it is closer to us and pricks our sensibilities more. But there are other countries far away—think of some parts of Africa, northern Nigeria, northern Congo—where war is ongoing and nobody cares. Think of Rwanda 25 years ago. Think of Myanmar and the Rohingya. The world is at war. A few years ago, it occurred to me to say that we are experiencing a third world war fought piecemeal. Today, for me, World War III has been declared. This is something that should give us pause for thought. What is happening to humanity that has had three world wars in a century? I experienced the first war through the memory of my grandfather on the Piave River. Then the second and now the third. And this is bad for humanity, a calamity. You have to think that in a century there have been three world wars, with all the arms trade behind it!

Just four years ago, there was the commemoration of the [70th] anniversary of the Normandy landings. And many heads of state and government celebrated that victory. No one remembered the tens of thousands of young men who died on those beaches on that occasion. When I went to Redipuglia in 2014 for the centenary of the First World War—I'll share something personal—I cried when I saw the ages of the fallen soldiers. When, a few years later, on 2 November—I visit a cemetery every 2 November—I went to Anzio; there too I cried when I saw the ages of these fallen soldiers. Last year I went to the French cemetery, and the graves of the boys—Christian or Muslim, because the French also sent men from North Africa to fight—were also of young men of 20, 22, 24 years old. When I went to Slovakia, I was struck by the number of young and old women. There were very few older men, however. The grandmothers were alone. War had taken their husbands away.

Why do I tell you these things? Because I would like your magazines to address the human side of the war. I would like your reviews to make people understand the human drama of war. It is all very well to offer geopolitical calculations, to study things thoroughly. You have to do that, because it is your job. But you should also try to convey the human drama of war. The human drama of those cemeteries, the human drama of the beaches of Normandy or Anzio, the human drama of a woman whose door is knocked on by the letter carrier and who receives a letter thanking her for having given a son for her country, who is a hero of the motherland... And then, she is left alone. Reflecting on this would greatly help humanity and the Church. Carry out your socio-political reflections, but do not neglect the human dimension of war.

Let's go back to Ukraine. Everyone has opened their hearts to the refugees, the Ukrainian exiles, who are usually women and children. The men are left to fight. At last week's [11 May] Audience, two wives of Ukrainian soldiers who were in the Azovstal steel plant came to ask me to intercede for them to be rescued. We are all very sensitive to these dramatic situations. These are women with children whose husbands are fighting over there. Young, beautiful women. But I wonder, what will happen when the enthusiasm to help passes? Already things are cooling down: who will take care of these women? We need to look beyond the concrete action of the moment, and see how we will support them so that they don't fall into human trafficking or end up being used, because the vultures are already circling.

Ukraine is an expert in being subjected to slavery and war. It is a rich country that has frequently been cut down, torn apart by the will of those who wanted to take possession of her to exploit her. It is as if history has predisposed Ukraine to be a heroic country. Seeing this heroism touches our hearts. It is a heroism that goes hand in hand with tenderness! In fact, when the first young Russian soldiers arrived—then they sent mercenaries—to carry out a "military operation," as they said, without knowing they were going to war, it was the Ukrainian women themselves who took care of them when they surrendered. Great humanity, great tenderness. Brave women. Brave people. A people not afraid to fight. A hardworking people and at the same time proud of their land. Right now, we should recall the Ukrainian identity. This is what moves us: to see such heroism. I really want to emphasize this point: the heroism of the Ukrainian people. What is before our eyes is a situation of world war, global interests, arms sales, and geopolitical appropriation, which is martyring a heroic people.

I would like to add one more element. I had a 40-minute conversation with Patriarch Kirill. In the first part, he read me a statement in which he gave reasons to justify the war. When he finished, I intervened and told him, "Brother, we are not state clerics; we are shepherds of the people." I was supposed to meet him on 14 June in Jerusalem to talk about our affairs. But due to the war, by mutual agreement, we decided to postpone the meeting to a later date, so that our dialogue would not be misunderstood. I hope to meet him at a general assembly in Kazakhstan in September. I hope to be able to greet him and talk a bit with him as a pastor.

Listen to our report

Q: What signs of spiritual renewal do you see in the Church? Do you see any? Are there signs of new, fresh life?

It is very difficult to see spiritual renewal using old-fashioned outlooks. We need to renew our way of seeing reality, of evaluating it. In the European Church, I see more renewal in the spontaneous things that are emerging: movements, groups, new bishops who remember that there is a recent Church Council. Because the Council that some pastors remember best is the Council of Trent. And what I am saying is not an absurdity.

Restorationism has come on the scene to gag the Council. The number of "restorationist" groups—for example, there are many in the United States—is staggering. An Argentine bishop told me that he had been asked to administer a diocese that had fallen into the hands of these "restorers." They had never accepted the Council. There are ideas, behaviors that arise from a restorationism that basically did not accept the Council. The problem is precisely this: that in some contexts the Council has not yet been accepted. It is also true that it takes a century for a Council to take root. We still have forty years to make it take root, then!

Other signs of renewal include the groups that give a fresh face to the Church through social or pastoral care. The French are very creative in this regard.

You were not yet born, but in 1974 I witnessed the ordeal of Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe in the 22nd General Congregation. At that time there was a conservative reaction to block Arrupe's prophetic voice! Today for us that General is a saint, but he had to suffer many attacks. He was courageous because he dared to take the step. Arrupe was a man of great obedience to the Pope. A great obedience. And Paul VI understood that. The best address ever written by a Pope to the Society of Jesus is the one Paul VI gave on 3 December 1974. And he wrote it by hand. The original is still extant. The prophet Paul VI had the freedom to write it. On the other hand, people connected to the Curia somehow fueled a group of Spanish Jesuits who considered themselves the true "orthodox", and opposed Arrupe. Paul VI never fell into this game. Arrupe had the ability to see God's will, combined with a childlike simplicity in adhering to the Pope. I remember one day when we were having coffee in a small group, he walked by and said, "Let's go, let's go! The Pope is about to pass by; let's greet him!" He was like a boy! Such spontaneous love!

A Jesuit from the Province of Loyola had particularly turned on Fr. Arrupe, let's remember. He was sent to various places and even to Argentina, and he always made trouble. He once said, "You are someone who doesn't understand anything. But the real culprits are Fr. Arrupe and Fr. Calvez. The happiest day of my life will be when I see them hanging from the gallows in St. Peter's Square." Why do I tell you this story? To give you a sense of what the post-conciliar period was like. And this is happening again, especially with the traditionalists. That is why it is important to save these figures who defended the Council and loyalty to the Pope. We have to go back to Arrupe: he is a light from that moment that illuminates all of us. And it was he who rediscovered the Spiritual Exercises as a source, freeing himself from the rigid formulations of the Epitome Instituti, the expression of a closed, rigid thinking, more instructive-ascetical than mystical.

Q: There is a synodal journey in Germany that some think is heretical, but is actually very close to real life. Many are leaving the Church because they no longer trust it. A particular case is the diocese of Cologne. What do you think about it?

To the president of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Bätzing, I said, "There is a very good evangelical church in Germany. We don't need two." The problem arises when the synodal path arises from intellectual, theological elites and is greatly influenced by external pressures. There are some dioceses where the synodal path is being done with the faithful, with the people, slowly.

I wanted to write a letter about your synodal journey. I wrote it by myself, and it took me a month to write it. I did not want to involve the Curia. I just did it by myself. The original is in Spanish, and the German version is a translation. I wrote what I think in that letter.

Next, the issue of the Cologne diocese. When the situation was very turbulent, I asked the archbishop to go away for six months so that things would calm down and I could see clearly. Because when the waters are rough, you cannot see clearly. When he came back, I asked him to write a letter of resignation. He did and he gave it to me. And he wrote a letter of apology to the diocese. I left him in his position to see what would happen, but I have his resignation in hand.

What is happening is that there are a lot of pressure groups, and we cannot discern when under pressure. Then, there is an economic problem for which I am thinking of sending a financial visitation. I am waiting to discern until there is no pressure. The fact that there are different points of view is fine. The problem is when there is pressure. That doesn't help. I don't think Cologne is the only diocese in the world where there are conflicts, however. And I treat it like any other diocese in the world that experiences conflicts. I can think of one, which has not yet ended the conflict: Arecibo in Puerto Rico. It has been ongoing for years. There are many dioceses like that.

Q: Holy Father, we are a digital magazine and we also speak to young people who are on the margins of the Church. Young people want quick and immediate opinions and information. How can we introduce them to the process of discernment?

One must not stand still. When working with young people, we must always give a moving perspective, not a static one. We must ask the Lord to have the grace and wisdom to help us take the right steps. In my time, work with young people consisted of study meetings. Now it doesn't work that way anymore. We have to move them forward with concrete ideals, actions, and paths. Young people find their raison d'etre along the way, never while standing still. Some may hesitate because they see young people without faith; they say they are not in God's grace. But let God take care of that! Let your task be to set them on the path. I think that is the best thing we can do.

14 June 2022, 10:25