Full Text: Pope Francis’ In-Flight Press Conference From Greece

Pope Francis spoke about the trip to Greece and Cyprus, synodality, and accepting the resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit.

Pope Francis speaks during an in-flight press conference on the journey from Athens to Rome, Dec. 6, 2021
Pope Francis speaks during an in-flight press conference on the journey from Athens to Rome, Dec. 6, 2021 (photo: Vatican Media. / Vatican Media)

Pope Francis returned to Rome on Monday after a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece. During the Dec. 2-6 visit, he met with migrants and refugees, Catholics, Orthodox leaders, and politicians. 

Please find a full transcript of Pope Francis’ press conference on the flight from Greece to Italy below. 

Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office: Good morning, Your Holiness, good morning and thank you for guiding us during these intense days, even to touch with our own hands that which you called [inaudible]. And thank you also for this space to be able to speak together.

Pope Francis: Good morning and thank you. I was afraid that this would not work out, because of the delay, but it seems that it works. Thank you so much, I will listen to your questions.

Bruni: Thank you, Holiness, the first question is from Constandinos Tsindas of the Cypriot television.

Constandinos Tsindas, Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation: Your Holiness, thank you for the opportunity. [...] And thank you for the opportunity and for your visit to Cyprus and Greece. Your Eminence, your strong remarks on inter-religious dialogue in both Cyprus and Greece have reverberated strongly internationally and have caused quite challenging expectations. They say apologizing is the hardest thing to do. Well, you have done it in a spectacular fashion in Athens. But what is the Vatican planning to do in practical terms in bringing together Catholic and Orthodox Christianity? Is a synod perhaps in the cards? [...] Christianity after all, stemming from the Trinity, that results in the common voice of the Church in the world. As is now proven, [...] a united Church in a globalized and dehumanized environment can actually be effective. John Chrysostom, who like you said, is an example of the osmosis of Greek thinking within Christianity, said that by human terms, the Church is clergy and lay people, while for God we are all his flock. Along with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, you called all Christians to celebrate in 2025 the 17 centuries from the first Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea. How is this process progressing? And finally, and sorry for the slightly long question, but it’s in the spirit of your journey. As others have expressed recently, in the EU [...] replace the word “Christmas” with “Holidays.” While some people don’t realize that Christianity is not an ideology but a life experience that aims to carry humans from mortal time to eternity. So I exist, because my fellow human can also exist. [...] Thank you, Your Eminence.

Pope Francis: Yes, thank you. I apologized, I apologized in front of Chrysostomos, my brother Chrysostomos [Note: he meant Ieronymos]. I apologized for all the divisions that there are among Christians, but above all those that we provoked: the Catholics. I also wanted to apologize, because during the war for independence — Chrysostomos pointed this out to me — some Catholics sided with European governments to prevent Greek independence. On the other hand, on the islands, the Catholics of the islands supported independence, they even went to war, some gave their lives for their country. But the center, let’s say, at that moment was siding with Europe. I don’t know which government was there [...] but the accusation was that. And I also ask pardon for the scandal of division, at least for that for which we are to blame. The spirit of self-sufficiency — we keep our mouths shut when we hear that we must apologize — it always makes me think that God never tires of forgiving, never, never. It is we who tire of asking forgiveness. And when we do not ask God for forgiveness, we will hardly ask our brothers and sisters. It is more difficult to ask forgiveness from a brother than from God, because we know that he says: “Yes, go forth, you are forgiven.” Instead, with brothers, there is shame and humiliation. But in today’s world, we need the attitude of humiliation and apologizing. So many things are happening in the world, so many lives lost, so many wars, so many... How come we don’t apologize?

Returning to this, I wanted to apologize for the divisions, at least for those that we caused. For the others, it is a responsibility to ask forgiveness, but I apologize for ours, and also for that episode in the war where some Catholics sided with the European government, and those on the islands went to war to defend. I don’t know if that’s enough. And one last apology — this one came from my heart — an apology for the scandal of the migrant drama, for the scandal of so many lives drowned at sea, and so on.

Bruni: The second question was on the synodal aspect, and he writes: The Church is synthesis, in human terms, we are clergy and laity, while for God we are one flock.

Pope Francis: On the synodal aspect: Yes, we are one flock, it is true. This division, clergy and laity, is a functional division, not qualifying. But there is unity, a single flock and the dynamics among the differences inside the Church is synodality, that is, listening to one another and going together, “synodos”: making the way together. And this is the sense of synodality that our Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic Churches have preserved. Instead, the Latin Catholic Church had forgotten the synod, it was St. Paul VI who restored the synodal journey 54, 56 years ago, and we are journeying to have the habit of synodality, of walking together.

Bruni: And the last question, instead, was about Christmas, and he says: Is it possible that we don't understand that Christianity is not an ideology but a life experience? Do they want to cancel Christmas?

Pope Francis: You are referring to the European Union document without “Christmas.” This is an anachronism. This is what many dictatorships have tried to do in history: think of Napoleon, think of the Nazi and communist dictatorship, it is a way of diluted laicity, distilled water. This is one thing that didn’t work out throughout history. But this makes me think of something that, speaking of the European Union, I believe is necessary: the European Union must take in hand the ideals of the founding fathers, which were ideals of unity, of greatness. Be attentive not to make way for ideological colonization. This could divide countries and [make] the European Union fall. The European Union must respect each country as it is structured inside, the variety of countries, and not want to standardize. They don’t want to, I think they won’t do it, it isn’t the intention. But be careful because sometimes they come and throw projects like this one there and they don’t know what to do. Each country has its own peculiarity, but each country is open to the others. The European Union: super unitatem sua, solidarity of the brothers in a community of brothers that respects the singularity of each country, and be careful not to be a vehicle for ideological colonization. This is why that thing about Christmas is an anachronism. 

Bruni: Thank you, Holiness. The second question, or the third question given these, comes from Iliana Magra of Kathiremenì, a Greek newspaper.

Iliana Magra, I Kathiremeni: Good morning, Holy Father. Thank you for your visit to Greece. During your speech at the Presidential Palace in Athens, you spoke about the retreat of democracy around the world and in particular in Europe. Could you elaborate a bit on that and tell us which countries you were referring to? And one more thing: what would you say to far-right leaders and voters around Europe who profess to be devout Christians while at the same time promoting undemocratic values and policies?

Pope Francis: Democracy is a treasure, a treasure of civilization, and it must be treasured, it must be guarded. And not only guarded by a superior entity, but guarded by the countries themselves, [one must] guard the democracy of others.

I see two dangers to democracy today: one is that of populism, which is here and there, and is beginning to show its teeth. I am thinking of a great populism of the last century, Nazism, which was a populism that by defending national values, so it said, succeeded in annihilating democratic life, indeed to the death of people, annihilating, becoming a bloody dictatorship.

Today I will say, because you asked about right-wing governments, let us be careful that governments, I am saying right-wing or left-wing, let us be careful that governments do not slip down this road of populism, of so-called political “populisms,” which have nothing to do with popularisms, which are the free expression of peoples, who show themselves with their identity, their folklore, their values, their art... Populism is one thing, popularism another. On the other hand, democracy is weakened, [it] enters a path where it slowly [weakens] when national values are sacrificed, are watered down towards, let’s say an ugly word, but I can’t find another one, towards an “empire,” a kind of supranational government. This is something that should make us think.

Neither should we fall into populism, where the people — we say the people, but it is not the people, but a dictatorship of “us and not the others” — think of Nazism, nor fall into watering down our identities in an international government. On this, there is a novel written in 1903 (you will say “how old-fashioned this pope is in literature!”) written by Benson, an English writer, “Lord of the World,” who dreams of a future in which an international government with economic and political measures governs all the other countries, and when you have this kind of government, he explains, you lose freedom and you try to achieve equality among all; this happens when there is a superpower that dictates economic, cultural and social behavior to the other countries.

Democracy is weakened by the danger of populism, which is not popularism (that is the good one),  and by the danger of these references to international economic and cultural powers... this is what comes to mind, but I am not a political scientist, I speak by saying what I think.

Bruni: The third question comes to us from Manuel Schwarz of DPA, the German news agency.

Manuel Schwarz, Deutsche Presse-Agentur: Holy Father, first of all thank you for letting us go with you on this important journey. Migration is a central theme not only in the Mediterranean, but also in other parts of Europe, especially in Eastern Europe these days with so many “barbed wires” as you called them. And also with the Belarusian crisis. What do you expect from the countries in this area? Poland, for example, and also Russia. And what do you expect from other important countries in Europe? For example, in Germany, where there will now be a new government after the Angela Merkel era.

Pope Francis: On those people who prevent immigration or close the borders — now it is fashionable to build walls, to make barbed wires, “concertinas” [curled barbed wire] — the Spanish know what this means — it is usual to do these things to prevent access. The first thing I would say if I had a leader in front of me is: “Think about the time that you were a migrant and they wouldn’t let you go, that you wanted to escape your land, and now you’re the one building walls.”

This works because those who build walls lose the sense of their own history, their own story, of when they were slaves of another country. Not everyone has this experience, but at least a large part of those who build walls have this experience of having been slaves. 

You may say to me: but governments have the duty to govern and if such a wave of migrants comes, you cannot govern. I will say this. Every government must clearly say: ”I can receive many.” Because the leaders know how much they are able to receive. It is their right, this is true. But migrants must be welcomed, accompanied, promoted, and integrated. If a government cannot do this, it must enter into dialogue with others and let others take care, each one. And this is important. The European Union, because the European Union is able to make harmony between all governments for the distribution of migrants. Think about Cyprus. Think about Greece. Think about Lampedusa. Think about Sicily. Immigrants are coming and there is no harmony among all the countries of the European Union to send this one here, that one there, this one here … This basic harmony is missing.

And then, the last word I said was ”integrated,” right? They should be welcomed, accompanied, promoted, and integrated. Why integrated? Because if you do not integrate the migrant, this migrant will have a ghetto citizenship. An example that I am not sure if I have said it on the plane before is the example that strikes me the most, the Zaventem tragedy. The boys who caused the catastrophe at the airport were Belgian, but the sons of ghettoized migrants. If you don’t integrate the migrant — with education, with work, with the care of the migrant — you risk having a guerrilla fighter or someone who will do these things to you. It is not easy to welcome migrants, it is not easy to solve the problem of migrants, but if we do not solve the problem of migrants we risk making a shipwreck of civilization. Today in Europe things are not only shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, no, our civilization.

This is why the representatives of European governments need to come to an agreement. For me, a model of reception and integration in its time was Sweden, which welcomed all the Latin American migrants of the military dictatorships — Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans, Brazilians — and integrated them. Today I was in a school here in Athens, and I looked over at the translator and said: “But here there is — I used a household word — there is a fruit salad of cultures. They are all mixed together.” And he said to me: “This is the future of Greece.”

Integration is growing. It is important. It is not: “I do not receive because …” No.

And then another drama I would like to point out. When the migrant, before coming, falls into the hands of the trafficker, they take all the money they have and bring them on the boat. When they are sent back, they are caught by these traffickers. In the Dicastery for Migrants, there are videos showing what happens in those places where the migrants who are from those territories are sent to. So you cannot just welcome them and leave them, except that we have to welcome them, promote them, integrate them. So if I send back the migrant, I have to accompany him and integrate him in his country, not leave him on the Libyan coast. This is cruelty. If you want to know more about this, ask the dicastery for migrants that has these videos. And there is a film — you know of it, for sure —  by Open Arms, which is a bit romanticized, but it shows the reality of those who drown there. It is a horrific thing, this. But we risk civilization.

Cecile Chambraud, Le Monde: [Speaking in Spanish] Holy Father, on Thursday, when we arrived in Nicosia we learned that you had accepted the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris, Archbishop Aupetit. Can you tell us why? And why in such a hurry?

Second question: Following the report of an independent commission on sexual abuse, the French bishops’ conference has recognized that the Church had an institutional responsibility for what thousands of victims have suffered. They also spoke of the systemic dimension of this violence. What do you think of these statements of the French bishops? What meaning could they have for the universal Church? And, last question, will you receive the members of this independent commission?

Pope Francis: I’ll start with the latter, then we will come back to the former.

When doing these studies we have to be careful in the interpretations that we do over long periods of time. When you do it over such a long time, there is a risk of confusing the way you perceive the problem of a time period 70 years before. I just want to say this as a principle: A historical situation should be interpreted with the hermeneutics of the time, not ours. For example, slavery. We say: it is a brutality. The abuses of 100 years ago or 70 years ago are a brutality. But the way they were living it is not the same as today, there was another hermeneutic. For example, in the case of abuse in the Church, the cover-up is the way that is used unfortunately in families, even today, in a large number of families, and in neighborhoods, try to cover it up. We say, no, this covering up is not the way to go. But always interpret with the hermetic of the time and not with ours.

For example, the famous Indianapolis study collapsed due to lack of a straightforward interpretation: some things were true, others not. They were mixing time periods. At this stage, segmenting helps. As to the report, I have not read it. I have listened to the comment of the French bishops. I don’t know how to respond really. The bishops will come to me this month and I will ask them to explain to me what is wrong.

The first question on the [Archbishop] Aupetit case: I wonder what he did that was so serious that he had to resign? What did he do? Somebody answer me ...

Chambraud: I don’t know.

Pope Francis: If we don’t know the accusation, we cannot condemn. … What was the accusation, who knows? It’s bad isn’t it?

Chambraud: A problem of governance or something else. We do not know.

Pope Francis: Before answering I will say: do the investigation, eh, do the investigation … because there is a danger of saying: he was condemned. Who condemned him?  Public opinion, gossip. But what did he do? We don’t know, something … If you know why, say so, otherwise I cannot answer and you will not know why. Because it was his failure, a fault against the sixth commandment — but not total — of small caresses and massages that he gave to the secretary, so stands the accusation. This is sin, but it is not of the most serious sins, because the sins of the flesh are not the most serious. The gravest sins are those that are more angelic: pride, hatred. These are graver. So [Archbishop] Aupetit is a sinner, as am I — I don’t know if you are aware ... but probably — as was Peter, the bishop on whom Jesus Christ founded the Church.

Why did the community of that time accept a sinful bishop, and with sins of such an angelic nature as denying Christ! But it was a normal Church, it was accustomed to everyone always being sinful, it was a humble Church. You can see that our Church is not used to having a sinful bishop. We pretend to say my bishop is a saint. … not this red hat … we are all sinners. But when the gossip grows, grows, grows, and takes away the reputation of the person. He will not be able to lead because he has lost the reputation, not because of his sin, which is sin — like Peter’s, like mine like yours — but because of the gossip of the people responsible for reporting things, a man who has lost his reputation so publicly cannot govern. And this is an injustice and that is why I accepted [Archbishop] Aupetit’s resignation, not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy. This is what I want to say.

Bruni: Thank you, Your Holiness, and maybe we have time for another question.

Pope Francis: Oh, we’re fasting!

Bruni: [The next question] is on the part of Vera Shcherbakova of TASS.

Pope Francis: The successor of Alexey Bukalov ... He was good. 

Vera Shcherbakova, TASS Russian News Agency: Yes, I miss him a lot. I say it often. Thank you very much, Holy Father, for your attitude towards our [...] which is a heritage [...] of our agency. But I wanted to ask the following: On this trip, you have seen the heads of Orthodox Churches. You said some beautiful words about communion and reunification. So when will your next meeting with Patriarch Kirill be? What are the common projects with the Russian Church and what difficulties do you maybe observe in this process of drawing closer?

Pope Francis: A good question. A meeting with Patriarch Kirill is not far on the horizon. I think next week [Patriarch] Hilarion is coming to me to arrange a possible meeting. Because the patriarch has to travel — I don’t know where, maybe in Finland, but I’m not sure — I’m always willing to go to Moscow to talk to a brother, there are no protocols. Brother to brother before protocols. And me with an Orthodox brother, his name is Kirill, his name is Chrysostomos, his name is Ieronymous, I am a brother, we are brothers, we say things face to face. Let’s not dance [...]. No, let’s say things face-to-face. But as brothers. Is it nice to see brothers arguing? It is beautiful, because they belong to the same mother, Mother Church, but they are a bit divided. Some because of legacy, some because of a history that is divided, but we must go together, try to work, and walk in unity and for unity.

I am grateful to Ieronymos, to Chrysostomos, to all the patriarchs who have this desire to walk together. In unity ... the great Orthodox theologian Zizioulas — he is studying eschatology — once said jokingly that “we will find unity in the Eschaton” [the end of the world]. [...] It’s a saying, but it does not mean that we have to stand still ... waiting for the theologians to come to an agreement. This is a phrase, a manner of speaking.

They say that Athenagoras said to Paul VI, “we put all the theologians on one island and we go [...] to another part.” It’s a joke. But, theologians continue to study, because this is good for us, leads us to understand better, and find unity. But in the meantime, let’s move on together. But how? Yes, praying together, doing charity together. I know, for example, I am thinking of Sweden, of [their] Caritas, [where] Lutherans and Catholics [work] together, they work together. Work together and pray together. This we can do. The rest should be done by the theologians, because we do not understand how to do it. Unity begins today on this path.

Bruni: Thank you, Holy Father.

Pope Francis: Thank you, thank you.

Bruni: Thank you for the time you wanted to dedicate also to our questions. I think that we are, more or less, in time for lunch.

Pope Francis: Thank you very much, and have a good lunch. [...]

Bruni: Some journalists wanted to give you a copy of the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon. Because they were sorry that you didn’t get to see it up close [hands Pope Francis a small model of the Parthenon].

Pope Francis: Yes, even if there was a danger I would go [to Athens] without seeing it. Yesterday night I said, no, I want to see it. They brought me to see it [from the car] and I saw it illuminated, from far away. I didn’t touch it, but I said thank you for this courtesy.