- Created: November 28, 2014
- Written by Henrique Cymerman
The spiritual father of 1.2 billion people lives in a two-room apartment in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican City's guesthouse. With its outdated furniture, a 1970s-style sofa, papers scattered on the floor in a work corner, and piles of books that no one dares to tidy, the small and modest abode is a far cry from splendid residence occupied by his predecessors.
And that's not the only difference. During the course of over 10 hours of face-to-face conversations, Pope Francis reveals himself to be warm and friendly, with a good sense of humor and a liking for stories and anecdotes. He's also an avid soccer fan, and the pocket of his robe is never without a picture of his favorite Argentine team, San Lorenzo.
Pope Francis is considered, according to some polls, the most popular figure in the world today, and he seems bent on retaining this title – even if it means breaching the tight security ring that surrounds him in order to come into contact with the masses. "I know that something could happen to me. It's in God's hands," says the 77-year-old Pope in an exclusive interview – his first with the Israeli media. "But let's be realistic: At my age, I don't have much to lose. Ahead of my visit to Brazil, my hosts arranged a closed 'Popemobile' for me, with armored glass. I told them I wasn't going to bless the faithful and tell them I love them from inside a sardine can, even if it's made of glass. As far as I'm concerned, it's a wall. I understand those who are responsible for my security; so before visiting any country, I sign a (waiver) in which I assume responsibility for anything that might happen." Lately, however, with the head of the Catholic Church in the sights of the radical Islamic organizations, he's been forced to listen to his security personnel. Unlike him, they are not willing to take any chances. "On the way back from a visit to South Korea, I wanted to land in Iraq," the Pope reveals, "but my people wouldn't let me."
"The persecution of Christians is more severe today than during the first centuries of the Church," Pope Francis says, referring to the days when Christians were thrown to the lions in Rome's Coliseum. "More Christians are tortured today than they were back then. Unimaginable barbaric and criminal acts are taking place, for example, in Iraq. Thousands of people, including many Christians, are being brutally expelled from their homes. Children are dying of thirst and hunger. Women are being abducted and people are being brutally murdered. In certain places, the faithful aren't allowed to be in possession of the Holy Scriptures, teach the principles of Christianity or wear a cross." Pope Francis, whose personal secretary is an Egyptian Coptic priest, met last week at the Vatican with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss events in Iraq and Syria, and found an attentive ear. "The cry of the Christians, of the Yazidis and of other minorities in Iraq requires a clear and bold response from the religious leaders, and the Muslims in particular," the Pope says. "But the political leaders and the leaders of the world powers must also act decisively." This is not the only front that keeps the Pope awake at nights. We met three times, including in his private apartment at the Vatican, a gesture that few are afforded. We also spoke on the phone on five occasions, with the last call a few days after the massacre at the synagogue in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood. The Pope was shocked by the attack.
"I harshly condemn any kind of violence in the name of God," he said to me in the wake of the incident. "I've been following the worrying escalation in Jerusalem and other communities in the Holy Land with much concern, and I pray for the victims and all those suffering from the unacceptable violence, which doesn't bypass places of worship and ritual. From the depths of my heart, I am urging all the parties involved to put an end to the hatred and violence and work towards reconciliation and peace. It's hard to build peace; but living without peace is an absolute nightmare."
The issue of Jerusalem is one of the main obstacles to peace. How can this be overcome?
"In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the Vatican, Jerusalem should be the capital of the three religions, the city of peace and faith. But this is a religious perspective. Achieving peace requires political negotiations. It's impossible to know in advance where the talks will lead to. The sides may agree that Jerusalem will be the capital of this or the other country, but these are issues that need to be placed on the negotiating table. It's not my place to be telling the parties how to act, but I think the negotiations need to be approached in good faith and with mutual trust. I pray to God that the two leaders will do everything to keep moving forward. That is the only way to achieve peace."
In May this year, you visited Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. It was your first official trip as the Pope, if you don't count the visit to Brazil, which was scheduled during Benedict's term in office. Why did you choose to come to this sensitive region, which is in the eye of the storm?
"Actually, Rio de Janeiro was in the eye of the storm, because of the great excitement ahead of the visit of the head of the Catholic Church. But as you mentioned, it was a visit that was arranged before my time. The visit to Israel was born in June last year, at the initiative of then-president Shimon Peres. I didn't come up with the idea of the trip. But I knew he was coming to the end of his term in office as president at around that time; and as soon as he invited me, I felt an obligation to visit before the end of his term. So I said, 'Yes, I'm going.' It was simple."
And how was the visit?
"Excellent. Yes, it was exhausting, because of the tight schedule – or as my Italian friends would say: Massacrante (murderous). But the trip was good for me. I saw things I never knew existed – like in the Jordanian Kingdom, for example, the new projects they are building there now where Jesus was baptized. But I'm also talking about things deep within me. "When I experience powerful emotions, I become introverted; and it slowly grows until it is evident on the outside. Towards the end of the visit, the spiritual feeling began to express itself. But I protect myself from such feelings because… I don't know … chauvinist modesty."
I was there, and I saw you were very moved.
It must have been very moving for you to be in the land where Jesus was born, lived and died.
"Certainly. It was very emotional."
And what was the most unexpected part of the experience?
"I don't know how to explain it. Everything was new to me. If you had asked me what I was expecting, I wouldn't have known what to say either. I simply went."
You may want to take this opportunity to explain why it is so important for Christians to visit Israel, and Jerusalem in particular.
"Because everything started there, in the Holy Land – the promise made to our Patriarch Abraham, what Moses saw from Mount Nevo, Joshua's entrance into Israel, the Prophets; and then the Baptists, Jesus, His death, the resurrection. It's like a glimpse of what awaits us in the afterlife – Heaven on earth."
And there's terrible violence in this Heaven on earth, violence in the name of God too – a phenomenon you strongly condemn.
"Yes, it's a contradiction. It's as if someone would say to me: 'This man is a good son; he beats his mother only three times a day.' But violence in the name of God is not a new phenomenon. It has existed since the dawn of history. The essence of religious fundamentalism is violence the name of God. It existed among us, the Christians, too, and there are still extremist groups in Christianity today. The Thirty Years' War, for example, was violence in the name of God. There are extremists in all three religions; but thankfully they are a minority."
An embrace at the Western Wall
After visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, you organized communal prayers for the three religions at the Vatican. I think you are the first Pope to have made such a gesture. Do you have more plans of this kind for the future?
"You once said to me that I like to surprise. So God, too, likes to surprise, and now we are waiting to see how he will surprise us. I spoke with Rabbi Skorka just today. By the way, this time we didn't talk about soccer because his team, River Plate, beat my team, San Lorenzo, so I didn't say a word. Why rub salt in my wounds myself? Anyway, we agreed in our conversation that God will show us the way. He will guide us on how to proceed from here to bring the religions closer together."
And there's much work to do. A recently published comprehensive survey indicates a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe. How do we deal with that?
"We must make it absolutely clear that anti-Semitism is a sin. One of the reasons I'm here is to remind the Christian world that our roots are in Judaism. In every Christian, there is a Jew; and you can't be a true Christian if you don't recognize your Jewish roots. I don't mean Judaism in the ethnic, origin, sense, but from the religious aspect. And I think interfaith dialogue must place an emphasis on the inseparable connection between the religions, on the fact that Christianity grew from within Judaism. That is our challenge." Pope Francis, as is his custom, conveys this message through a story. In conversations with other religious figures, he likes to tell a tale about a group of anti-Semitic priests who were sitting together in a room and badmouthing the Jews, with a picture of Jesus and Mary hanging on the wall above their heads. "And then, suddenly," Pope Francis says, "Jesus steps out of the picture and says, 'Mom, let's go, they don’t like us here either."
How do you explain the anti-Semitism that still exists among Christians?
"Well, you are more familiar with the interpretations that justify anti-Semitism than I am – the dark myths, the theory of the 'lone Jew.'"
"Christ's murderers – that's one of the most difficult things. The Second Vatican Council, which convened in the 1960s, unequivocally rejected the claim that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. But anti-Semitism is a very complex problem, far beyond the religious dimension. It also has a political dimension. After all, anti-Semitism is more prevalent on the right than on the left. And it doesn't stop there. There are people who deny the Holocaust – still today. It's madness, but it happens. And it's incomprehensible."
When you visited Yad Vashem, you kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors. You wrote in your book about the possibility of opening the Vatican archives from the period of the Holocaust. Are you still planning to do so?
"There is an agreement between the Vatican and Italy from 1929 that prevents us from opening the archives to researchers at this point in time. But because of the time that has passed since World War II, I see no problem with opening the archives the moment we sort out the legal and bureaucratic matters. One thing worries me, and I'll be honest with you – the image of Pope Pius XII (the Pope at the time of World War II). "Ever since Rolf Hochhuth wrote the play, The Deputy, in 1963, poor Pope Pius XII has been accused of all sorts of things (including having been aware of the extermination of the Jews and doing nothing). I'm not saying he didn't make mistakes. He made a few. I get things wrong often too. But prior to the release of the play, he was considered a big defender of the Jews. During the Holocaust, Pius gave refuge to many Jews in monasteries in Italy. In the Pope's bed at Castel Gandolfo, 42 small children were born to couples who found refuge there from the Nazis. These are things that people don't know. When Pius XII died, Golda Meir sent a letter that read: 'We share in the pain of humanity. When the Holocaust befell our people, the Pope spoke out for the victims.' But then along came this theater performance, and everyone turned their backs on Pius XII. "And again, I'm not saying that he didn't make mistakes. But when you interpret history, you need to do so from the way of thinking of the time in question. I can't judge historical events in modern-day terms. It doesn't work. I'll never get to the truth like that. Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once gave me a copy of the book he wrote about the Inquisition. I read it studiously. I'm not saying we should justify the actions of the Inquisition, but we need to investigate this period with the right tools and only then pass judgment. "Did Pius XII remain silent in the face of the extermination of the Jews? Did he say all he should have said? We will have to open the archives to know exactly what happened. But to judge the actions, we will also need to understand the circumstances under which he was acting: Perhaps it was better for him to remain silent because had he spoken, more Jews would have been murdered? Or maybe the other way around? I don't want to sound petty, but it really gets my goat when I see that everyone is against the Church, against Pius XII – all those detractors. And what about the Allies during the war? After all, they were well aware of what was going on in the death camps and they were very familiar with the railroad tracks that led Jews to Auschwitz. They had aerial photographs. And they didn't bomb those tracks. I'll leave that question hanging in the air, and say only that one needs to be very fair in these things."
Pope for just 18 months, Francis has already been dubbed by many "the revolutionary." Others argue that he's actually going back to the roots. Francis doesn't see a contradiction between the two. "For me, the real revolution is to go back to the roots, to recognize them and to understand their significance in relation to the present and the future," he says. "I don't know if I'm a revolutionary, but I like to go back to the roots – the roots of our Christian identity, and also our Jewish roots, which I spoke of earlier. The vessel for affecting real changes is identity; and in order to discover my identity, I need to know where I come from, and what my cultural and religious surname is."
You still sign letters to friends and acquaintances as Pastor Jorge. When we were here a year ago, you said to us, "I have to give you something to eat," and explained that this is the "habit of priests."
"And all I gave you was a sandwich?"
No, we ate very well – at your table if I may add. My question is: Do you still sometimes feel like a simple priest, or have you become accustomed by now to the fact that you hold the highest position in the Catholic Church?
"The role of priest best reflects my aspirations. Serving people comes naturally to me. Turning off the light to avoid wasting electricity. These are the habits of a priest. But I definitely feel like the Pope, and it helps me to take things seriously. My assistants are very serious, thorough and professional; my secretary prepares everything I need, so I can fulfill my obligations. I'm not trying to play the role of the-Pope-the-priest. That would be childish of me. A priest's approach is first and foremost something internal, and sometimes it is expressed in gestures you make. Ultimately, however, I have responsibilities as the Pope, and there are commitments I need to fulfill. When the president of a country comes on a visit to the Vatican, I have to welcome him in keeping with protocol. Perhaps I have reservations about the protocol, but I need to respect it. Do you know what the difference is between terrorism and protocol? You can negotiate with terrorism."
The protocol may be difficult to change, but you've already managed to change a few things in the Vatican, in the atmosphere at least, and there seems to be more to come. What are your plans for the future?
"It's important for me to clarify at this point that I am not some kind of a prodigy. I didn't come to the job with a list of personal plans and projects, if only because I never thought I'd find myself here. I came to the selection process of the Conclave with a small suitcase in order to return immediately to Argentina. Every morning, before the secret gathering to select the Pope, and sometimes in the afternoon, we'd meet to discuss the problems of the Church, what things need to be fixed, what should be focused on. Various proposals were raised, and I said: 'It must be done like so; that has to be done differently; and we'll have to say so to the new Pope.' These discussions gave rise to a series of recommendations for the new Pope; and since I was the one elected in the end, I am implementing these recommendations."
"For example, for the Pope to have an external advisor, someone who doesn't live in the Vatican; so we formally established an advisory council comprising eight cardinals – one from each continent, an additional cardinal to coordinate among them, and the Pope himself – who meet once every two or three months for four days to slowly and gradually put into practice the changes the cardinals have asked us to make. My plan is to implement these recommendations. Yes, I could ignore them and promote other things, but that wouldn't be wise. You need to listen to the voices of those who know."
You've mentioned in the past that you are very concerned about the gap between rich and poor in the world. What can you as the Pope, and the Catholic Church in general, do to shrink this divide?
"It's already been proven that with the amount of surplus food in the world, we could feed everyone who suffers from hunger. I don't recall the figures by heart, but there are so many children who are starving to death. When you see pictures of children suffering from malnutrition in numerous parts of the world, it's shocking. It's incomprehensible. I think that the problem lies with the global economic system. The individual should be focal point of every economic system – the man and the woman, the boy and the girl. Unfortunately, however, money is the focal point. Money is the god and we are guilty of worshiping idols, the idols of wealth, and we provide them with human sacrifices: On the one hand, young people who are dumped into the cycle of unemployment – 75 million in Europe alone according to figures I've been shown; and on the other hand, the elderly who are tossed aside because they're no longer useful, aren't productive."
Do you share the dark predictions about the future of Europe?
"I'm definitely concerned. Look at what is happening in Europe: The birth rates are very low – 1, 1.2 children per family. No one can survive with a birth rate like that."
A Pope is elected for life. When Benedict XVI announced his retirement and became the first Pope Emeritus in 600 years, the world was stunned. Will his successor, the first Pope to come from the Americas, make a similar move? Francis certainly doesn't rule out the possibility. "I think Pope Benedict made a great gesture," Francis says. "He set a precedent and opened a door for those who follow him. Perhaps it's the beginning of a new institution – retired Popes. Life expectancy today is much higher than before, and a person reaches an age where he can no longer go on. I will act in the same way my predecessor did: I will ask God to light my way when the time comes and tell me what to do. And I'm sure He will tell me." If, as he puts it, God instructs him to retire, he may replace his modest room at the Vatican with another modest room in Buenos Aires, in a home for retired priests. "At the age of 75, I decided to quit my position as archbishop of Buenos Aires (the head of the Catholic Church in Argentina) and work as a regular priest, help the communities," he says. "That was my future. I submitted my resignation to Pope Benedict, and they had already set aside a room for me in that hostel for priests." The bombshell Pope Benedict dropped when he announced his retirement did nothing to alter the plans of Francis either. "On February 26, 2013," he says, "when I went to the Vatican to participate in the election of the next Pope, I told the Pope's diplomatic representative in Argentina: 'When I return here on Easter Sunday, we'll begin the process of finding a replacement for me, so I can end my role as archbishop and become a rank-and-file priest."
The rest is history. Francis was elected the 266th Pope, and the papal throne has replaced the priests' hostel in Buenos Aires. "They've probably given the room to someone else by now," he says. "But there are still many more rooms there…"
And one day, how would you like history to remember you?
"I haven't thought about it," he says. "But I'd be happy if people were to say of me: 'He was a good guy. He did his best. And he wasn't that bad.'"