Pope Francis told reporters he is well aware that God is a God of surprises, but he had not been prepared for what a surprise his first visit to Africa would be.
Obviously tired, but equally content, Pope Francis told reporters he prayed in a mosque in Bangui, Central African Republic, and rode around a Muslim neighborhood with the imam seated with him in the popemobile. Both were spontaneous initiatives of the Pope Nov. 30, his last day in Africa.
Returning to Rome from Bangui later that day, the Pope spent more than 60 minutes with reporters in the back of his plane, responding to their questions.“The crowds, the joy, the ability to celebrate even with an empty stomach” were impressions the Pope said he would take home with him after his six-day trip to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. After two years of civil war, the Pope told reporters, the people of the Central African Republic want “peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.”
“For years they lived as brothers and sisters,” the Pope said, and local Catholic, Muslim and evangelical Christian leaders are doing their best to help their people return to that situation of peace, coexistence and mutual respect.
Leaders of every religion must teach values, and that is what is happening in Central African Republic, Pope Francis said. “One of the most rare values today is that of brotherhood,” a value essential for peace, he said. “Fundamentalism is a disease that is found in all religions. We Catholics have some,” he said. “I can say this because it is my Church.”
“Religious fundamentalism isn’t religion, it’s idolatry,” he told the press. Ideas and false certainties take the place of faith, love of God and love of others. “You cannot cancel a whole religion because there is a group or many groups of fundamentalists at certain moments of history,” the Pope said.
As the Pope ended his trip, global representatives were beginning the U.N. climate conference in Paris to discuss the possibility of forging a binding international agreement to reduce climate change.
Pope Francis said he was not sure what would happen at the conference, “but I can say this, it’s now or never.” Too little has been done over the past 10-15 years, he said, and “every year the situation gets worse.”
“We are on the verge of suicide, to put it strongly,” he said.
Given his visits to Uganda and Kenya, where new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths continue, Pope Francis was asked if he thought the Church “should change its teaching” about the use of condoms.
Pope Francis responded that an ongoing question for Catholic moral theology is whether condoms in that case are an instrument to prevent death or a contraceptive — in which case they would violate Church teaching on openness to life.
But, he said, the question is too narrow. People are dying because of a lack of clean water and adequate food. Once the world takes serious steps to solve those problems, then it would be “legitimate to ask whether it is licit” to use condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Pope Francis said that at various moments of his trip, he visited the very poor, people who lack everything and have suffered tremendously. He said he knew that a small percentage of people — “maybe 17 percent” — of the world’s population controls the vast majority of the world’s wealth — “and I think, ‘How can these people not be aware?’ It’s such suffering.” To say the world’s economy has put profits and not people at the center and to denounce “the idolatry of the god money,” he said, “is not communism. It’s the truth.”
The Pope also was asked about the Vatican trial underway in connection with the leak and publication of confidential documents related to Vatican finances.
“I haven’t lost any sleep” over the leaks and the arrest of a monsignor, his assistant, a woman who served on a former Vatican commission and the two authors who wrote books allegedly based on the material, Pope Francis said. However, he said, he had hoped the trial would be over before the opening December 8 of the Year of Mercy, but he does not think that will be possible because the defendants’ lawyers need adequate time to defend their clients properly.
As for future trips, Pope Francis was not full of surprises. He said he plans to go to Mexico and visit cities where St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI never went. The trip is expected in late February. Francis said he has to go to Mexico City, “but if it wasn’t for Our Lady I wouldn’t.” So he will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, then go to Chiapas, Morelia and, “almost for sure, on the way back to Rome, I will spend a day or part of a day in Ciudad Juarez,” on the Mexican-U.S. border.
Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the Papal plane
In Kenya, you met poor families and listened to their stories of exclusion from fundamental human rights such as access to drinking water. What did you feel when you listened to their stories and what needs to be done to end such injustices?
I have spoken about this problem on a number of occasions. I do not recall the statistics precisely, but I seem to recall reading that 80% of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 17% of the population. I don’t know if that’s true. It is an economic system that places money at the center, the god money. I remember a non-Catholic ambassador once speaking in French and saying, “Nous sommes tombeé dans l’idolatrie del’argent.” What did I feel in Kangemi? I felt pain, great pain! Yesterday I went to a children’s hospital, the only one in Bangui and in the whole country. In the intensive care unit there’s no oxygen; there were children that were malnourished. Idolatry is when a man or a woman loses his or her ID card, in other words their identity as God’s children and prefers to seek a tailor-made God. The bottom line is this: if humanity does not change, poverty, tragedies, wars and injustice will continue. Children will go on dying of hunger. What does that percentage of people that holds 80% of the world’s wealth in their hands think of this? This is not communism, it is the truth. And seeing the truth is not easy.
I would like to know what the most memorable part of the trip was, whether you will return to Africa, and where your next visit will be.
If this goes well, I think the next visit will be to Mexico; the dates have not been set in stone yet. Will I return to Africa? I don’t know. I’m old and traveling is tiring! The most memorable part of this trip were the crowds, all that joy, that celebratory spirit, the will to celebrate even on an empty stomach. For me, Africa was a surprise. God always surprises us, but Africa surprises us too. I remember many moments, but above all, I remember the crowds… They felt “visited,” they are so incredibly welcoming and I saw this in all three nations. Though each country has its own unique identity: Kenya is a bit more modern and developed. Uganda’s identity is shaped by its martyrs: the Ugandan people – both Catholics and Anglicans – venerate the martyrs. The Central African Republic is hungry for peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. Until four years ago, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims lived together as brothers and sisters. Yesterday I went to the Evangelicals who are working so hard, and then they came to Mass. Today I went to the mosque. I prayed there. The Imam got into the Popemobile to go for a short ride among the refugees. There is one small group that is very violent. I believe they are Christians, or they claim to be Christians, but it’s not ISIS, it’s something else. Now elections are going to take place; they have chosen an interim president, a woman, and they seek peace, no hate.
Today, a great deal is being said about the Vatileaks case. Without going into the trial that is underway, I would like to ask you: how important is the free and secular press in uprooting corruption?
A free, secular and religious, but professional press. The professionalism of the press can be secular or religious: the important thing is for it to be professional and for news not to be manipulated. For me it is important because condemning injustice and corruption is a great job. A professional press needs to say it all, but without succumbing to the most common sins: misinformation, in other words only telling half of the story and leaving the other half out; slander, when the unprofessional press dishonors people; defamation, which involves ruining a person’s reputation. These are the three defects that erode the professionalism of the press. We need professionalism. And regarding corruption: looking carefully at the facts and telling things as they are: there is corruption here because of this, this and that. And if a real journalist makes a mistake, he or she apologizes.
Religious fundamentalism is threatening the whole planet; we saw this with the Paris attacks. In the face of this danger, do you think religious leaders should intervene more in the political sphere?
If intervening in the political sphere means doing politics, then no. They should be priests, pastors, imams, rabbis. Their political intervention is indirect; they preach values, real values, and one of the greatest values of all is fraternity between us. We are all God’s children, we all have the same Father. I don’t like the word tolerance; we need to live peacefully alongside one another, develop friendships. Fundamentalism is a disease that exists in all religions. In the Catholic Church we have some – many – who believe they possess the absolute truth and they go on sullying others through slander and defamation, and this is wrong. I say this because it is my Church. Religious fundamentalism must be combatted. It is not religious: God is lacking, it is idolatry. What religious leaders need to do is convince people who have these tendencies. Fundamentalism that ends in tragedy or commits crimes is a bad thing, but it exists in all religions.
How did Msgr. Lucio Vallejo Balda and Francesca Chaouqui come to be members of the COSEA commission? Do you believe you made a mistake?
A mistake was made. Vallejo joined because of the role he had and did have up until now: he was secretary of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. How did she get in: I am not sure, but I think I am right in saying that it was he who said she was someone who was well acquainted with the world of business relations. They worked and when the work was complete, COSEA’s members kept some positions in the Vatican. Mrs. Chaouqui did not stay in the Vatican: some say she was angry about this. The judges will tell us what her real intentions were, how they did it. It did not come as a surprise to me, I didn’t lose any sleep over it because they showed everyone the work begun with the commission of nine cardinals, to root out corruption and the things that are wrong. There’s one thing I want to say, not about Vallejo and Chaouqui. Thirteen days before John Paul II’s death, during the Via Crucis, then-Cardinal Ratzinger talked about the filth in the Church. He denounced the first one. Then John Paul II died and Ratzinger, who was the dean for the pro eligendo Pontefice Mass, talked about the same thing. We elected him because of his openness about things. It is since that time that there has been corruption in the air in the Vatican. Regarding the trial: I have not read the charges in full. I would have liked the whole thing to have been over and done with before the Jubilee, but I don’t think that’s possible because I want all the defense lawyers to have time to do their job and the freedom of defense.
What needs to be done so that incidents of this kind never occur again?
I thank God that Lucretia Borgia is no longer around! But the cardinals, the commissions and I need to continue the clean-up process.
AIDS is a serious problem in Africa; the epidemic continues. We know that prevention is the key and that condoms are not the only means of stopping the epidemic, but it is an important part of the solution. Is it not perhaps time for the Church to change its position with regard to the use of condoms in order to prevent infections?
The question seems biased to me. Yes, it is one of the methods. The morality of the Church faces a bit of a predicament here. The fifth or the sixth commandment: defend life or a sexual relationship that is open to life. But this is not the problem. There is a greater problem than this: this question makes me think of the question they once asked Jesus: tell me Master, is it acceptable to heal on a Saturday? Healing is obligatory! Malnutrition, exploitation, slave labor, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems. We’re not talking about which plaster we should use for which wound. The great injustice is social injustice, the great injustice is malnutrition. I don’t like making such casuistic reflections when there are people dying because of a lack of water and hunger. Think about arms trafficking. When these problems cease to exist, then I think we can ask ourselves the question: is it acceptable to heal on a Saturday? Why are arms still being manufactured? Wars are the leading cause of death. Forget about whether it is acceptable or not to heal on a Saturday. Make justice and when everyone is healed, when there is no injustice in this world, then we can talk about Saturday.
What is the Vatican’s position with regard to the current crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey? Have you considered going to Armenia for the 101st anniversary of the Armenian massacre?
Last year I promised the three patriarchs I would go. The promise remains. Regarding wars: these grow out of ambition. I am not talking about those which are fought out of just defense against an unjust aggressor. Wars are an industry. Throughout history, we have seen on a number of occasions how a country whose finances are not doing too well, decides to go to war and straighten out its finances. War is a business. Terrorists, do they manufacture weapons? Who gives them weapons? There is a whole network of interests, behind which you find money and power. We have been going through a world war fought piecemeal, and each time the pieces are less like pieces; they are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know what the Vatican thinks. What do I think? I think wars are sinful. They destroy humanity; they are a cause of exploitation and human trafficking. They need to stop. Twice, both in New York and Kenya, I said to the United Nations: your work should not be that of a declamatory nominalism. Here in Africa, I saw how the Blue Helmets work, but it is not enough. Wars are not a thing of God, God is the God of peace, he created a beautiful world. In the Bible, we read about a brother killing a brother: the first world war. And it pains me deeply to say this.
COP21, the climate change conference kicks off in Paris today. We hope it will be the start of a solution. Are you certain that progress will be made?
I am not certain, but what I can say is that it is either now or never. I think the first conference took place in Tokyo…little was achieved. Every year the problems get worse. At a university meeting on what kind of a world we want to leave behind for our children, one person said: Are you sure there will be any children of this generation still around? We are on the verge of suicide, to use a strong word, and I am certain that people in Paris are aware of this and want to do something about it. The other day I read that in Greenland, glaciers are losing mass at a rate of billions of tons. In the Pacific, there is a country that is buying another country to move to because in 20 years it will cease to exist. I trust these people will do something. I hope this will be the case and I pray it will.
You have shown many gestures of friendship and respect towards Muslims. What do Islam and Mohammed’s teachings tell today’s world?
Dialogue is possible; they have many values and these values are constructive. I am also friends with a Muslim, a world leader. We are able to talk. He has his values, I have mine; he prays and so do I. Many values: prayer, fasting. You cannot wipe out a religion just because there are some or a number of groups of fundamentalists at one moment in history. It is true, there have always been wars between faiths, and we too need to ask for forgiveness: Catherine de’ Medici was no saint, and that war that lasted 30 years, St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre… We also need to ask for forgiveness. But they have values, and dialogue is possible. Today I went to the mosque; the Imam wanted to come with me. A Pope and an Imam both got into the Popemobile. Think of all the wars we Christians have waged. It wasn’t the Muslims who were responsible for the Sack of Rome.
We know you are going to visit Mexico. Do you think you might visit Colombia or Peru?
Traveling at my age is not good, it takes its toll. I am going to Mexico and the first thing I will do is to visit Our Lady, the Mother of America. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have gone to Mexico [City] based on the criterion of the visit: to visit three or four cities a Pope has never been to. I will also visit Chiapas, then Morelia, and on the way back to Rome, there will almost certainly be a stop in Ciudad Juarez. Regarding other Latin American countries: in 2017 I was invited to Aparecida, another Patroness of America, but Portuguese-speaking. And after this I could visit another country, but I don’t know, nothing has been planned yet.
This was your first visit, and everyone was concerned about your safety. What would you say to a world that thinks Africa is nothing but a victim of war and destruction?
Africa is a victim. Africa has always been exploited by other powers. African slaves were sold in America. There are powers that simply want to take Africa’s great riches — it is perhaps the world’s richest continent — but they do not think about helping countries to grow so that everyone can work. Africa is a martyr of exploitation. Those who claim that all adversities and wars come out of Africa have no idea of the harm certain forms of development are doing to humanity. That is why I love Africa, because it has been a victim of other powers.