Vatican journalists look back on an extraordinary year in the history of the Catholic Church, the year of the “two Popes”.
Last year in Rome we were all discussing an extraordinary event: the resignation of Benedict XVI. We were trying to understand why this had happened and how it would affect the future of the Church in order to inform our readers. Then came the exciting moments of the Conclave with conjectures on the “papabili,” and then the unexpected election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. A year has passed since those extraordinary days. Today I am with a group of Vatican experts in a cafe in Piazza Leonina, from which one can see the Papal Palace, left by Benedict XVI and never occupied by Pope Francis. This is the place triggering off reflections on those dramatic yet hopeful moments in the history of the Church. I am discussing with two long-time Vaticanists: Swiss Italian Giuseppe Rusconi, correspondent for the paper Corriere del Ticino, and creator of www.rossoporpora.org, a website with a considerable following, and Luis Badilla Morales, from Chile, a journalist for Vatican Radio and editor of the prestigious website ilsismografo.blogspot.it (the seismograph).
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: On February 11, 2013, Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign during the Consistory of the Cardinals. What was in your opinion the meaning of such a dramatic decision not only for the Church, but for the Pope too?
Giuseppe Rusconi: I felt a strong emotion on hearing the news from some colleagues in the foreign press office; I felt a lump in my throat. Yet, pretty soon I realized that the reasons adduced by Benedict XVI were more than plausible. Joseph Ratzinger had become convinced that he would soon lack the physical and mental energy to guide the Church; he would never have accepted such a thing as it would have seriously endangered the navigation of Peter’s boat in a raging sea, the raging sea of the relativist and nihilist attack on one of the remaining strongholds of human rights. On the other hand, Benedict XVI had already prefigured the possibility of his resignation in several of his speeches and writings.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: Somebody has compared the Pope Emeritus to Moses praying in the mountain while the Israelites were fighting their enemies. Yet this may as well mean that Benedict XVI did not think himself up to the task of guiding the Church under attack (according to British philosopher Roger Scruton the Church was “besieged” during the last years of Joseph Ratzinger’s pontificate).
Luis Badilla Morales: When I saw the newscast on the Pope’s resignation, I thought that my colleagues of RAI News had gone mad. But when I realized that the news was true, albeit surprising, I felt a great love and tenderness for Benedict XVI. I did not imagine that at his age he would have the courage to make such a decision. My third reflection, or rather what I had a strong perception of, was this: we are being confronted with an unprecedented break in the Church’s history. All subsequent discussions as to whether Pope Francis’ pontificate is an element of continuity or a break with the past are nonsense, since his election was a break in itself, preceded by another break, Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. There were two important elements in his declaratio (declaration): one referring to his health conditions and the other to the task facing the new Pope, who would have to guide the Church in a world going through “rapid change.” He did not say, “I’m old and tired so I’m going to resign.” He looked at the Church, at the challenges confronting it, and realized that he had better hand over to a successor. This gesture was an epoch-making break with the past.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: With you I am with people who followed Joseph Ratzinger’s pontificate very closely, unlike the general public, who did not read his texts and looked at him through the lens of the mainstream media, often somewhat harsh with Benedict XVI. Don’t you miss his speeches characterized by surprising clarity, great intellectual depth and accessible to everyone, logical as they were?
Giuseppe Rusconi: In my opinion Benedict XVI was very good at using different “tunes” depending on the place and the audience. He is German, hence, like all Europeans to some extent, a child of the Enlightenment: therefore, one plus one is two, there are no ifs or buts. Though being defined the theologian Pope, he made himself understood by everyone thanks to his ability to use logical reasoning. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not a European culturally; he is not a child of the Enlightenment; thus his messages are quite different from those of his predecessor.
Luis Badilla Morales: Giuseppe is right. Francis comes from Latin America, which has certain practical implications. I know very well what I’m talking about, being a Latin American myself. But first of all I would like to point out that the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio does justice to the Latin American Church, about which all kinds of things have been written, not always in positive terms. Liberation theology has often been dealt with reductively and incorrectly: true liberation theology inspires Bergoglio’s pastoral action.
Pope Francis is a man who has learned a lot from life, having lived very intensely, both personally and in his close relation of brotherly love to many people, especially people on whose lives suffering had left its mark, those referred to as losers. From Jorge Bergoglio’s life we can understand a lot about Pope Francis’ teachings. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda entitled his memoirs I confess that I have lived; this title could apply to Pope Francis. He can understand people just because he has lived intensely. He knows what everyday life is like. It is as though he were on the lookout all the time; his life is therefore not a mere question of age or origin.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: One cannot say the Joseph Ratzinger has not had an intense life.
Luis Badilla Morales: No, but his life has been different. Ratzinger is a European, which accounts for what he has said and done. In order to understand Jorge Bergoglio we must bear in mind that he comes from Latin America. As he says in his colorful language “everybody has their own way to get off a horse.” In other words, the same problems can be faced and dealt with in different ways.
Giuseppe Rusconi: Joseph Ratzinger knew how to address believers and non-believers alike: he did so starting from natural reason, a faculty of all human beings. Lots of non-believers have declared they were conquered by Benedict XVI’s intellectual rigor. Pope Francis’ concern is first of all speaking to people’s hearts, appealing to their emotions, no matter if they are believers or non-believers; after that he addresses believers.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: Don’t you think that Joseph Ratzinger appealed to non-believers thanks to his intellectual rigor whilst Jorge Bergoglio uses his emotional appeal?
Luis Badilla Morales: When talking of Benedict XVI and Francis, we must bear in mind that they are both priests and pastors, but with a different approach to pastoral action. Joseph Ratzinger’s approach was, in my opinion, very European, being influenced by the Enlightenment, as Giuseppe pointed out. A friend of mine told me that Benedict XVI did his teaching with a library in mind, that is, thinking about the books he would leave as a legacy and which others would find on the shelves of good libraries. Pope Francis’ approach is very different. This marks a break: I’m not afraid of such a word. Of course there is doctrinal continuity, but his ways and approach are different. This is visible in the importance of physical contact that he attaches to his pastoral action. Pope Francis needs to touch children, to embrace the sick, to caress, to give hope and comfort. Many of the pilgrims listening to his speeches in St. Peter’s Square do not understand Italian, but all the same they feel involved in this religious affective osmosis. This is, in my opinion, one of the most surprising aspects of his pontificate.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: …but we are talking of emotions, that is something outside the scope of rationality.
Luis Badilla Morales: I don’t think that reason is opposed to emotion. They are just different ways of facing reality. We are all a mixture of reason and emotion.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: Somebody has defined Benedict XVI a misunderstood prophet. Do you agree that this great Pope was misunderstood, even by many Catholics?
Giuseppe Rusconi: I wouldn’t say that he was not understood, rather that he met with hostility. As a Pope he had to operate in a cultural context strongly hostile to his teachings. He was negatively reacted to and opposed just because he was perfectly understood.
Luis Badilla Morales: Also, as a journalist I would say that Benedict XVI had a hostile media, which many people find impossible to understand. He found himself in historically unfavorable circumstances, in that he became Pope when the Cold War, the East-West confrontation had come to an end. The Cold War, on the other hand, favored, as it were, John Paul II; in that context, in fact, Karol Wojtyła and his teachings were perceived as allies against communism, Soviet communism in particular. He was rarely criticized and criticisms were toned down. Benedict XVI, on the contrary, being no longer regarded as an ally, was the target of harsh, gratuitous criticism, often amplified with cruelty; evidence of this is supplied by the violent accusations which some, not many indeed, are leveling at John Paul II on the eve of his canonization and which he was spared in the past. On the other hand, just read what was written on the first anniversary Benedict XVI’s resignation. It all looks quite different and Joseph Ratzinger is shown in quite a different light.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: What was the role of the media in this context?
Luis Badilla Morales: Along with journalists the media played a key role: they were mean and incorrect with Benedict XVI, above all the most influential international press. Yet his main concern was to make himself clear, no matter if he met with approval or disapproval.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: A lot has already been said about the election of Pope Francis. Was the archbishop of Buenos Aires chosen because he was a non-European, a Latin American with a large number of prelates behind him, or just because he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, with his ideas, his charisma and his life?
Giuseppe Rusconi: I think he was chosen because he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, for what he had been through, what he had said and written, even during the pre-conclave congregations.
Luis Badilla Morales: I agree with my colleague, but I would like to do justice to Benedict XVI too. Soon after his resignation, the conclave was to be held in a few days, as many inside and outside the Curia demanded. At this point there was an intervention by the Holy Father which many have forgotten: it was necessary to wait for the cardinals to arrive, they needed time to discuss among themselves. Had he not intervened, there would be a different Pope now. Also, the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the result of episcopates and cardinals of the rest of the world getting tired of an “Italianized” Church and Vatican. Throughout my 30-year career as a journalist I have interviewed hundreds of bishops and cardinals, mostly from the Americas, and in 90% of cases we ended up talking about the Vatican, stressing the fact that for too many centuries the Vatican and the Catholic Church had been synonymous with “Italianness.” Many had grown tired of and annoyed with this.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: As you said, the Pope’s agenda is, in a way, conditioned by the work of the pre-conclave congregations. Which of the suggestions put forward before the Conclave has Pope Francis implemented in one year’s time?
Giuseppe Rusconi: I dare say that the Holy Father is not so much implementing decisions as giving impulse, through a series of concrete gestures, which might prove decisive for the change prefigured.
Luis Badilla Morales: I have a feeling that the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate has been a long uninterrupted catechesis which began on March 13, 2013. Among the many visible changes there are two which deserve particular mention. The first is the Pope’s governing through a sort of reformed Curia for quite a while. I’m referring to the Council of Eight and the two commissions of reference on the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR) as well as on administrative and organizational problems. The second is the appointment of monsignor Parolin as Secretary of the Pope, even though he has kept the title of Secretary of State. All this tells us that a deep change is already underway. Now we must wait and see how these changes are codified in the new Constitution which will replace Pastor Bonus.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: With reference to structural change we must keep in mind that the Pope is also contrasting two elements which can pose a threat to the most solid structure: bureaucratic centralism and ecclesiastical careerism…
Giuseppe Rusconi: I dare say that a certain kind of careerism is inherent in the organization of the Church and difficult to do away with altogether. As for bureaucratic centralism, I think that the power of the bureaucracy should be contrasted, but it would be a mistake to do away with centralism.
Luis Badilla Morales: Jorge Mario Bergoglio is neither a too strict nor fanatical adversary of the bureaucracy and centralism. As archbishop of Buenos Aires he showed remarkable administrative skills relying on the assistance of the Church bureaucracy, but knew and often repeated that “the biggest danger occurs when the demands of the bureaucracy (including personnel selection, i.e. careers) overshadow the centrality of the Gospel Message.”
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: With reference to Curial reform, Monsignor Gänswein, who has attended on Pope Francis from the start, declared in an interview with a Bavarian TV station that the Holy Father is more interested in changing the faithful than the organization of the Church. Structures are important, but what is in theory the best structure will not work if run by the wrong people…
Giuseppe Rusconi: But a change in the hearts of the faithful requires an organization too. The Holy Father’s concern is turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, but structures are indispensable to enhance this process.
Luis Badilla Morales: The Pope makes a point of stressing that the Church belongs to the faithful and that therefore it relies on each single Christian. That is why most of the homilies delivered at St. Martha’s House are focused on how to be a good Christian, how to spread the Christian message through testimony. This seems to be his obsession, hence the impression that he is always reproaching or criticizing somebody. His basic assumption is that, unless Christians make themselves credible to others, all the rest, including the Pope, the Curia, bishops’ conferences and theology, become useless and unconvincing.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: Two phenomena have occurred since the election of Pope Francis: people’s enthusiasm (crowds attending ceremonies, audiences and the Pope’s Angelus) and the change in mainstream attitude to the Pope. So let me ask you: what do people like about Jorge Bergoglio, who is often accused of populism?
Giuseppe Rusconi: The world we live in is highly disoriented for various reasons: the economic crisis, unemployment, the crisis of the family, the loss of values. Man has lost many of his reference points and in a disoriented society people cling on to somebody close to them. Pope Francis is seen as someone close to people so that they return his feeling.
Luis Badilla Morales: One of the “secrets” of Pope Francis’ appeal is his being perceived as close at hand. Nobody would dare approach someone they feel to be unattainable. The possibility for people to touch and talk to him results in quite a different relation from the one established with an unattainable, hieratic leading personality. Another element which brings him close to people is his language. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he once wrote: “One does not love words, concepts or ideas, one loves people.” Jorge Bergoglio uses words, concepts and ideas to express his love for people, and they understand him. I can quote a practical example, my sister. She had never come to see other Popes in St. Peter’s Square. “The Pope is better seen on television,” she would say. Yet she came to see the Pope during the general audience, being convinced that she could touch him. And so it was: the Holy Father touched, kissed and blessed her.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: Many Catholics show enthusiasm for Pope Francis, but others are worried. Many of my American friends involved in the pro-life movement have contacted me. In recent months they have been attacked by the media with the Pope’s words; the same is happening in other countries. Why are the Holy Father’s words so easily manipulated?
Giuseppe Rusconi: We live in a media-dominated society. It is the media that filter the Pope’s words, but translating often implies betraying. When I talk to people in the cafe, I see the results of this manipulation: they ask me if marriage is still indissoluble, or if Mass attendance is still compulsory. The message conveyed by the media, which often draws on sentences taken out of the context of the Pope’s speeches, is that everyone can be saved without effort, that God’s mercy covers everything: thus rules, precepts, become secondary, it is the heart that matters. This manipulation disconcerts many believers.
Luis Badilla Morales: There is a problem though: some practicing Catholics often suffer from the “eldest son” complex, they feel abandoned by the Pope, who seeks the lost sheep; they did not realize the critical situation the Church has been through over the last years. It was as though they lived in Limbo, which prevented them from understanding the reasons for Benedict XVI’s resignation and Francis’ gestures.
Włodzimierz Rędzioch: But I see another problem: the Pope’s speeches and gestures are often wrongly explained and interpreted, not only by the media, but also by his closest collaborators. The most glaring case was the interviews given by Cardinal Maradiaga in Germany. In one of these the Honduran cardinal, Pope Francis’ right-hand man, with reference to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who became cardinal on February 22, declared: “He is German, I must say that, he is first of all a German professor, he sees things in black-and-white terms.” In other words, Cardinal Maradiaga accused the “guardian of the faith” of having a German mentality, inviting him to be more flexible. Aren’t these declarations and manipulations disconcerting?
Luis Badilla Morales: All public figure are liable to instrumental use, the Pope is not an exception. The problem with the Church is that too many people speak on behalf of the Pope. There are too many spokesmen for the Holy Father in addition to Father Federico Lombardi. Many priests, bishops, even some cardinals have the bad habit of speaking on behalf of the Pope. This is not prudent and should come to an end.
Giuseppe Rusconi: In everything we do, and this involves us as frontline journalists, we should apply the rule caritas in veritate, i.e., Charity, but in Truth.