“We do not come out from a crisis on our own: we need to take risks and take each other’s hand”
By Bernarda Llorente
Outside, the blazing sun does not seem to discourage the thousands of tourists who, in full sunshine, share endless lines to enter the Vatican City. Just a few feet away, at Casa Santa Marta, his busy schedule moves forward step by step. Some odd movements announce his arrival. Francis, his Holiness, the Argentine Pope, one of the leaders who set the social and political agenda of the world, walks toward me with a beaming smile on his face. He looks fully recovered. Aware of all the transformations put in place during his nine years of Papacy and with a long-term view regarding the future of humanity, faith, and the need for new answers. As we walk together into the hall where the exclusive interview with Télam (Argentina’s national news agency) will take place during an hour and a half, I know that this 20 June is an exceptional and unique day for me.
Télam: Francis, you have been one of the most important voices in a moment of extreme loneliness and fear in the world, during the pandemic. You defined it as the limitations of a world in economic, social, and political crisis. And then you said, “We do not come out from a crisis the same as before. We either come out better or worse”. In which way do you think we are coming out of this crisis? Where are we headed?
Pope Francis: I’m not particularly liking it. We have grown in some aspects, but, in general, I don’t like it because it has become selective.
Look, the mere fact of Africa not having many vaccines or having a minimum amount of doses means that salvation from the disease has been rationed by other interests. The fact that Africa is in need of vaccines indicates that something has not worked well. When I say we never come out of a crisis the same as before, it is because the crisis necessarily changes us.
Even more, crises are moments in life in which we take a step forward. There is the adolescence crisis, the coming-of-age crisis, the midlife crisis. A crisis gets you moving, makes you dance. We must learn to take responsibility, because if we don’t, they become a conflict. And conflict is a closed thing, conflict seeks the answer within itself, it destroys itself. On the contrary, a crisis is necessarily open, it makes you grow.
One of the most serious things in life is knowing how to go through a crisis, not with bitterness. Well, how did we experience this crisis? Each person did what they could. There were heroes. I can speak of what was closest to me: doctors, nurses, priests, nuns, secular people who gave their lives. Some of them died. I believe over sixty of them died in Italy. One of the things we saw during this crisis was people giving their lives. Priests also did a great job, in general, because churches were closed, but they would call people over the phone. Young priests would ask elderly people what they needed from the market or they would buy groceries for them.
I mean, crises make you show solidarity, because everyone is going through the same crisis. And we grow from that.
Many people thought that the pandemic was setting some limits: to extreme inequality, to the disregard for global warming, to exacerbated individualism, to the malfunction of political and representation systems. However, some sectors insist on reconstructing the conditions previous to the pandemic...
We cannot go back to the false security of the political and economic structures that we had before. Just as I say we don’t come out from a crisis the same as before, we come out either better or worse, I also say we don’t come out from a crisis on our own. It is either all of us or none of us.
Expecting just one group to come out from the crisis alone, it may be a salvation but it is a partial, economic, political salvation, for certain sectors of power. But that is not leaving the crisis behind entirely. You will be gripped by the choice of power that you made. You have turned it into a business, for example, or you have grown stronger culturally from the crisis. Using the crisis for one’s own profit is coming out of the crisis in a wrong way and, above all, it is coming out from it on one’s own. We don’t come out from a crisis on our own, we need to take risks and take each other’s hand. If we don’t do that, we can’t come out of the crisis. So, that is the social aspect of the crisis. This is a civilization crisis.
And it just happens that nature is also in a crisis. I remember a few years ago I received several Heads of State from countries in Polynesia. And one of them said: “Our country is considering buying land in Samoa, because we may not exist in 25 years' time, since the sea level is rising”.
We may not be aware, but there is a Spanish saying that could make us ponder: God always forgives. You can rest assured that God always forgives, and we, men, forgive every now and then. But nature never forgives. It pays us back. If we use nature for our profit, it will bear down on us. A warmed-up world prevents the construction of a fraternal and just society.
We have the crisis, the pandemic, the notorious Covid. Back when I was a student, the “corona” viruses would give you a cold, at most. But then they began to mutate and we have seen what happens. It is so curious this thing about the viruses’ mutations, because we are facing a viral crisis, but also a world crisis. A world crisis in terms of our relationship with the universe. We are not living in harmony with the creation, with the universe. We slap it every so often. We use our strength in a wrong way. Some people can’t imagine the danger in which humanity is right now with this global warming and this abuse of nature.
I will tell you a personal experience: in 2007 I was part of the committee that would draft the Aparecida Document, and Brazilians would bring proposals regarding the protection of nature. “What are these Brazilians thinking?”, I wondered back then, as I didn’t understand anything about these matters. But I have woken up, little by little, and then I felt I had to write something.
Years later, when I traveled to Strasbourg, President François Hollande sent his Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development, who was Ségolène Royale, to welcome me. And she asked me: “Is it true that you are writing something on the environment?” When I said yes, she said: “Please, have it published before the Paris Climate Conference”. So, I got together with scientists again, and they gave me a draft. Then I got together with theologians and they gave another draft. And so I wrote Laudato si'. It was a demand to make the world aware that we are slapping nature. And nature will pay us back…It is paying us back.
The encyclical Laudato si' warns that we often speak of ecology, but separate it from the social and development conditions. What would those new rules be, in economic, social, and political terms, in the middle of what you have defined as a civilization crisis and with an Earth that, on top of everything, says, “I’m done”?
-Everything is connected, it is harmonious. It is impossible to think of humankind without nature and it is impossible to think of nature without humankind. Just like that passage in Genesis: “Grow, multiply and fill the Earth”. Filling the Earth is being in harmony with it, to make it fruitful. We must have that vocation.
The indigenous people from the Amazon rainforest use an expression that I love: “living well”. They have a philosophy of living well, which has nothing to do with our Argentine concept of “having a good time” or with the Italian dolce vita. To them, living well is living in harmony with nature. We need an inner option for people and counties. A conversation, let’s say.
When people told me that Laudato si' was a nice environmental encyclical, I replied, “No, it is a social encyclical”. We cannot separate the social and the environmental aspects. The lives of men and women take place in an environment.
I think of a Spanish saying, I hope it is not too vulgar: “He who spits toward the sky is spitting on his own face”. This is what abusing nature is about. Nature will pay us back.
Again: nature never forgives, not because it is vengeful, but because we set in motion processes of degeneration that are not in harmony with our being.
A few years ago, I was stunned to see a photograph of a ship sailing over the North Pole for the first time. A navigable North Pole! What does this mean? The ice is melting because of global warming. When we see these things, it means we need to stop. And young people perceive it the most. We elderly people have worse habits. We say “it’s not just a big deal”, or we simply don’t understand.
Young people, politics, and hate speech
Young people, as you point out, seem to have greater ecological awareness, but it also seems to be segmented. We observe less political commitment and voter turnout is very low among people under 35. What would you say to these young people? How can we help rebuild their hope?
-You brought up a difficult issue: the lack of political commitment in young people. Why don’t they get involved in politics? Why don’t they take a chance? Because they are disheartened. They have seen—I don’t mean all of them, of course—mafia deals, corruption. When young people see that in their countries, as the saying goes, “even one’s mother is up for sale” for the sake of business, then political culture is in decay. And that is why they do not want to get involved in politics.
Nevertheless, we need them because they are the ones who have to lay out the salvation for universal politics. Why salvation? Because if we do not change our approach to the environment, we are done for.
Last December, we had a scientific and theological encounter about this environmental situation. And I remember that the head of the Italian Academy of Sciences said, “If this doesn’t change, my granddaughter who was just born yesterday will live in an uninhabitable world in 30 years' time”. That is why I say to young people that protesting is not enough. They need to find a way to take responsibility for the processes that can help us survive.
Do you believe that this frustration in young people is, in part, what leads them to be seduced by political extremism and hate speech?
The process of a country, its process of social, economic, and political development, needs continuous reassessment and continuous clashing with others. The world of politics is that clash of ideas and positions that purifies us and makes us move forward together. Young people must understand the science of politics, of coexistence, but also of the political struggle that cleanses us of selfishness and carries us forward. It is important to help young people in that social and political commitment, and also to protect them from being duped.
But nowadays, I do believe the youth are sharper. Back in my days, we were so easily duped. They are more awake, they are brighter. I have a lot of faith in the youth. “Sure, but they don’t show up to Mass”, a priest may say. And I reply that we must help them grow and be by their side. Then, God will speak to each of them. But we need to let them grow.
If young people are not the protagonists of History, we are done for. Because they are the present and the future.
A few days ago, you spoke of the importance of intergenerational dialogue.
Regarding that, I would like to underline something that I always say: we need to reinstate the dialogue between the youth and the elderly. Young people need to dialogue with their roots and the elderly need to feel that they are leaving a legacy behind. When young people spend time with their grandparents, they receive sap, they receive things to carry forward. And when the elderly spend time with their grandchildren, they get hope.
There is a line in one of Bernárdez’s poems, I forget which one, that says: “What the tree has in bloom is nourished by that which is buried”. He does not say “flowers come from the underground”. No, flowers are up there. But the dialogue between them, what we take from our roots and carry forward, that is the true meaning of tradition.
There is a quote by composer Gustav Mahler that had an impact on me: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future”. It is not a museum piece. It is what gives us life, as long as it makes you grow.
Going backward is something different: that is unhealthy conservatism. “It has always been done this way, so I won’t take a step forward”, they say. This topic may need further explanation, but I am sticking to the essential: the dialogue between young people and the elderly being the true meaning of tradition. It is not traditionalism. It is tradition that makes you grow, that is the guarantee of the future.
Evils of our times
Francis, you usually describe three evils of our times: narcissism, despondency, and pessimism. How can we fight them?
Those three things you mentioned—narcissism, despondency, and pessimism—are within what is called “mirror psychology”. Narcissus, obviously, looked at himself in the mirror. And that way of looking is not looking forward, but turning in on oneself and licking your own wounds. Actually, what makes one grow is the philosophy of otherness. One cannot grow in life without confrontation.
Those three things you mentioned are related to the mirror: I look in the mirror to see myself and feel sorry for myself. I remember a nun who was always complaining. People at the convent called her “Sister Lament”. Well, some people are constantly complaining about the evils of our times.
But there is one thing that really helps to fight narcissism, despondency, and pessimism: a sense of humor. It is so humanizing. There is a beautiful prayer by Saint Thomas More that I have prayed every day for over 40 years, that begins this way: “Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant me a sense of good humor. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke…” A sense of humor puts things in perspective and is very good for us. It goes against that pessimistic, lamenting spirit. That was Narcissus, wasn’t it? Going back to the mirror. Typical narcissism.
Back in 2014, you already maintained that the world was entering a Third World War. Today, reality seems to confirm your prediction. Is the lack of dialogue and listening an aggravating factor for the current situation?
The expression I used back then was “a World War in pieces”. The conflict in Ukraine is very close, so we are alarmed, but let’s think of Rwanda 25 years ago, or Syria the last 10 years, or Lebanon with their infighting, or Myanmar at this moment. What we are seeing today has actually been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, war is daily cruelty. War is not about dancing the minuet, it is about killing. And there is an entire structure for the sale of arms that favors it. A person who knew a lot about statistics once told me, I can’t remember the right numbers, that if arms were not produced for a year, we could end world hunger.
I believe it is time to rethink the concept of a “just war”. A war may be just, there is the right to defend oneself. But we need to rethink the way that concept is used nowadays. I have said that the use and possession of nuclear weapons are immoral. Resolving conflicts through war is saying no to verbal reasoning, to being constructive. Verbal reasoning is very important. Now I am referring to our daily behavior. When you are talking to some people, they interrupt you before you have finished. We don’t know how to listen to one another. We don’t let people finish what they are saying. We must listen. Receive what they have to say. We declare war in advance, that is, we stop dialoguing. War is essentially a lack of dialogue.
When I visited Redipuglia in 2014, a World War I Memorial, I saw the age of the dead and I cried. That day I cried. Some years later, on 2nd November, I visited the Anzio War Cemetery and when I saw the age of those dead boys, I cried as well. I’m not embarrassed to say it. Such cruelty! And during the commemoration of the Normandy landings, I thought of the 30,000 boys who died on those beaches. Troops were ordered to storm the beaches, as the Nazis were waiting for them. Is that justified? Visiting the military cemeteries in Europe helps it dawn on you.
A crisis of institutions
Are multilateral organizations failing in regard to these wars? Is it possible to achieve peace through them? Is it feasible to seek joint solutions?
After World War II, trust was placed in the United Nations. It is not my intention to offend anybody, I know there are very good people working there, but at this point, the UN has no power to assert its authority. It does help to prevent wars, and I’m thinking of Cyprus, where Argentine troops are collaborating. But in order to stop a war, to resolve a conflict like the one we are seeing in Europe right now or like others around the world, it has no power. I don’t mean to offend. It is just that its constitution does not give the organization that kind of power.
Have the powers in the world changed? Has the weight of some institutions been modified?
I don’t want to universalize. I’ll put it this way: some distinguished institutions are in crisis or, even worse, they are in a conflict. Those in crisis give me hope for possible progress. But the ones in a conflict are busy resolving internal problems. At the moment, we need courage and creativity. Without those two things, we won’t have international institutions that can help overcome these very serious conflicts, these death situations.
Time to take stock
2023 will mark the 10th anniversary of your election as Pope, an ideal time to take stock. Were you able to achieve all your objectives? What projects are still pending?
Everything I have done was neither my invention nor a dream I had after a night of indigestion. I picked up everything that we the Cardinals had said at the pre-Conclave meetings, the things we believed the new Pope should do. Then, we spoke of the things that needed to be changed, the issues to tackle. I carried out the things that were asked then. I do not think there was anything original of mine. I set in motion what we all had requested.
For example, the Curia reform concluded with the new Apostolic Constitution Praedicate evangelium, which—after eight-and-a-half years of work and inquiries—managed to include what the Cardinals had asked, changes that were already in motion.
Nowadays, it is a missionary-style experience. “Praedicate evangelium”, that is, “be a missionary”. Preach the word of God. It means that the essential thing is going out.
Something curious: at those meetings, one of the Cardinals said that in the text of Revelation, Jesus says “I am at the door and call; if someone opens the door, I will enter”. So the Cardinal said: “Jesus is calling, but this time He wants us to let Him out, because we are imprisoning Him”. That is what was asked at those meetings with the Cardinals.
When I was chosen, I set things in motion. A few months later, inquiries took place and we published the new Constitution. Meanwhile, changes were being made. I mean, these were not ideas of my own. I want that to be clear. These were ideas born from the requests of the entire College of Cardinals.
But you are leaving your mark. We can see the stamp of the Latin American church…
That is true.
How did this perspective make the changes we are seeing possible?
The Latin American Church has a long history of being close to the people. If we go over the episcopal conferences—the first one at Medellín, then Puebla, Santo Domingo, and Aparecida—they were always in dialogue with the people of God. And that really helped. It is a popular Church, in the real sense of the word. It is a Church of the People of God.
That was altered when people could not express themselves, and it ended up becoming a Church of trail bosses, with pastoral agents in command. People began to express themselves more and more about their religion and they ended up becoming protagonists of their own story.
Rodolfo Kusch, an Argentine philosopher, is the one that best understands what a people is. I highly recommend reading Kusch. He is one of the greatest Argentine brains. He wrote books on the philosophy of the people.
In a way, this is the experience of the Latin American Church, although there have been attempts of ideologization, such as the use of Marxist concepts in the analysis of reality by Liberation Theology. That was an ideological exploitation, a path of liberation, let’s say, of the Latin American popular church. But there is a difference between the people and populisms....
This provisional translation of the first part of the Pope's interview has been provided by Télam. You can find a complete transcript of the interview, in the original Spanish, along with the full hour-long video, here.
Thank you for reading our article. You can keep up-to-date by subscribing to our daily newsletter. Just click here