For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
On March 9, the left-leaning German newspaper Die Zeit published the first ever interview of Pope Francis by a German publication. The discussion, in Italian with the journalist, Giovanni di Lorenzo, was wide-ranging and included the pontiff’s reflections on clerical celibacy, the crisis in the Knights of Malta, upcoming travels and his own spiritual life. Please take a look at Edward Pentin’s detailed post on what Francis had to say about celibacy. The pope’s other comments are notable, especially when he expresses repeatedly the challenges of the spiritual life and the crises that most encounter in their faith journeys.
As is always the case with interviews by Pope Francis, the media focuses on its favorite issues, and the discussion with Die Zeit is no exception. Understandably, attention has been given to the question of clerical celibacy, but two other headlines that have emerged since the publication of the interview on March 9 have been that the pope made a veiled attack on Donald Trump in his concerns about populism and that he was somehow trying to connect Raymond Cardinal Burke, the Patron of the Knights of Malta, with “fundamentalist Catholics.” Neither claim is justified by a reading of the text.
What is apparent? Beyond the pope’s worry about vocations and finding a solution to the priest shortage, the interview can be split into two key themes: the pope and the global situation and the pontiff’s counsel for the spiritually suffering and for the Church.
“It is urgent to fight for Europe”
With Die Zeit, Francis makes no allusion to Trump, but he does speak to the global phenomenon of populism, with the warning that “behind the increasing populism is a messianism: Always.” And he warns further, “populism is bad, and eventually ends badly, as we know from the last century.”
Looking at this century, the pope reiterates his conviction that we are already facing a third world war, citing Africa, Ukraine, Iraq and elsewhere and likening it to the situation the globe faced in 1933 with the rise of Hitler and Nazism. From that perspective, the pope speaks again as a dedicated proponent of a Europe united behind a common purpose, including the current crisis of migrants and refugees, adding, “the values of Europe are put in doubt, it is urgent to fight for Europe.”
As a committed peacemaker and bridge builder, Francis sees his apostolic journeys as important moments to connect directly with people across the globe. He has been invited to many countries, but he details to Die Zeit several that are confirmed for 2017: India and Bangladesh, Colombia and possibly a visit to Egypt, a country where there have been recent developments between the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar University, one of the most influential centers of Islamic learning. And the pope also confirms again his intention to go to Fatima, Portugal, to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Marian apparitions. But, his visit there will be only for one day.
Notably, when asked about a trip to Russia, he replies that he cannot go yet because he should also visit Ukraine, a reference to the immense complexities both religious and political that any visit to Moscow will entail. Similarly, he wants to travel to South Sudan, a country founded only in 2011 but that has been ravaged by civil war and political instability. More than 300,000 people have been killed in the struggle, and three million have been displaced, with most forced to live in neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. As with his visit in 2015 to the Central African Republic, the pope sees a trip to South Sudan as essential to promoting peace and humanity.
“I also know the empty moments…”
Looking at the internal needs of the Church and the spiritual life, Francis is typically forthright in declaring himself a sinner, someone who is not very “exceptional” and who grapples with his own spiritual crises and frailty.
Speaking of the spiritual crises that everyone has in their lives, he sees such moments as part of growing and maturing in the faith. “A faith that does not fall into crisis remains childish…I have spoken of the dark moments... and the empty moments. I also know the empty moments.” And he offers some good spiritual advice on dealing with them: “You cannot grow without crises in human life.”
Here is a pope comfortable telling the world that he is a sinner, that he says to the Father, “Lord, I do not understand this” and who grapples with anger and with sadness over bad situations that he has caused “because of me, of my sin: I am a sinner, and I get angry.”
The antidote is to remember, “The Lord is the Lord of sinners, not the righteous; Also, yes, of the righteous, but He loves you more as sinners. And...no, the crisis is to increase our faith. It [faith] cannot grow without the crisis...and life puts you to the test.”
He adds, “Faith is a gift…Faith is not a purchase.”
And he does also grow angry when the members of the Church fail to live as they should. “I get angry,” he said when the Church, the Holy Mother Church, my mother, my bride, does not give a testimony of fidelity to the Gospel: that hurts me.”
Addressing also briefly the ongoing controversy with the internal affairs of the Knight of Malta — the pope states flatly that has not fired Cardinal Burke and that he will remain in his post as Patron. “I do not consider Burke to be an adversary,” he says, and answers the question as to why the American Cardinal was recently sent to Guam this way: “Cardinal Burke went there because of a terrible incident. I am very grateful to him for that; there was a bad abuse case, and he is an excellent lawyer, but I believe that this mission is already nearly accomplished.”
This is also the first public statement on the situation with the Knights of Malta since the start of the surprising events over the last few months that have witnessed Francis’ requested resignation of the Order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, and the appointment of the Secretary of State’s Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu as his personal delegate to guide the process of reform for the 1,000 year old chivalric institution.
In considering his own role as pope, Francis downplays himself and continues the theme of trying to reduce what he sees is the excessive idealization and idolization of the papacy. “I do not feel like an exceptional man,” he contends. “I feel that I do not do justice to the expectations, that exaggerate…And I'm a sinner and am limited. But do not forget that the idealization of a person is a subtle form of aggression, it is a way to attack a person. And when they idealize me, I feel attacked.”
And speaking of attacks, Die Zeit asks Pope Francis about the recent appearance of posters in the Eternal City accusing him of not being merciful toward his perceived enemies. The pope laughs in response and notes that the posters were in the Roman dialect, the romanaccio that he describes ruefully as “beautiful.” He then admits that he prays every day for the ability to laugh, including a special prayer by St. Thomas More to be granted sense of humor. The pope says the prayer every day and has recommended it to the members of the Roman Curia:
Prayer for Good Humor
by St. Thomas More
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.
As always, Francis ends the interview with the same three words that he customarily uses: “Preghi per me” (“Pray for me”).
We should do so.